American Police : Throughline Black Americans being victimized and killed by the police is an epidemic. A truth many Americans are acknowledging since the murder of George Floyd, as protests have occurred in all fifty states calling for justice on his behalf. But this tension between African American communities and the police has existed for centuries. This week, the origins of American policing and how those origins put violent control of Black Americans at the heart of the system.

American Police

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Before we start the show, we want to give you a heads up that there are descriptions of graphic violence and other heavy content in this episode.



A few years ago when we were developing what would become THROUGHLINE, one of the first topics we wanted to learn more about was the history of policing. This was a year after Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police. We were searching for answers. We wanted to know how policing in America started and how the relationship between police and the black community had evolved to be one so bloody and tragic. Our research led us to making an episode on the history of mass incarceration, and we never got back to policing.

ABDELFATAH: Yet here we are asking the same questions after another high-profile case of a black person killed by the police. It's an incredibly disturbing repetition, one that's been occurring for a very, very long time. And so we reached out to a historian who we were introduced to by our colleague Gene Demby from NPR's podcast Code Switch. His voice helped us tell the story of mass incarceration, so you might recognize it.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: My name's Khalil Gibran Muhammad. I'm a historian. I teach at the Harvard Kennedy School.

ABDELFATAH: And he's the author of the book...

MUHAMMAD: The Condemnation Of Blackness: Race, Crime, And The Making Of Modern Urban America.

ABDELFATAH: In his book, Khalil lays out a historical argument for how black people have been criminalized over the last 400 years in the U.S. And he does that by telling parallel narratives about the history of policing in the north and the South. These stories are very different but share some striking similarities. Most importantly, they share one key feature - the use of brutal force to control black Americans.

ARABLOUEI: But before we dive into that history, it's important to note why Khalil decided to dedicate his career to studying the history of the criminal justice system in America.


ARABLOUEI: It started when he was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in the early 1990s. Khalil was part of a protest led by the Black Student Union where he and other students tried to confiscate the entire run of the school newspaper. They objected to its conservative bent. The paper was free, so they weren't technically committing any crime, yet a campus police officer confronted them while they were taking the newspapers.

MUHAMMAD: He says, stop, drop the papers. And I said, but they're free papers. Stop, drop the papers. I said, but I'm not doing anything wrong. These are, you know, free papers. What - essentially, I'm not going to stop because I'm not committing a crime.

ABDELFATAH: Khalil pleaded with the police officer to just let them go on with their protest. The police officer did not agree. Then...

MUHAMMAD: He attempts to handcuff me.

ARABLOUEI: A crowd of onlookers starts to form as the police officer tries to restrain him.

MUHAMMAD: In any case, the officer pulled out a baton, hit me in the back of the leg, and then my hands dropped. I was arrested, put into the back of a police car, taken to the station and handcuffed to a bar inside of a holding cell.

ARABLOUEI: After a few hours, student activists went to the police precinct and demanded his release. Soon, the police realized they'd made a mistake, and according to Khalil, their posture towards them immediately changed.

MUHAMMAD: So things went from being treated like I was a black man from West Philadelphia from the hood who didn't belong on campus who was stealing university property to now being treated very gently as a student who they needed to make sure was OK.

ABDELFATAH: The officer who'd arrested Khalil was put on administrative leave by the university, but he quickly appealed. There was an arbitration hearing, and Khalil was asked to testify. By the time of the hearing, it was the summer after he'd graduated. He was working as an accountant for a big fancy accounting firm, yet he was warned by the lawyer for the university that the police attorney would try to provoke him in order to display that he was belligerent and that the arrest was justified. Khalil went to the arbitration meeting with his lawyer, the officer who arrested him, the arbitrator and the police lawyer.

MUHAMMAD: So it opens up with a few legal formalities, and at some point soon after the meeting starts, the police lawyer becomes irate because as I answer each of the questions by the arbitrator, I'm presenting myself as a very respectable person, very clean and articulate, to borrow a Joe Bidenism (ph). And he essentially loses it at some point, and he says, you should have a record.


MUHAMMAD: I immediately knew what was going on. He knew in that moment that he was losing the argument because, at the end of the day, I was a student involved in a student protest. The newspapers were free. I wasn't a criminal. I had a right to belong on that campus. And when he yelled that across the table, it struck me that that's how this works. If there was something in my past that could explain or show that I was a bad kid, that I had a record, that I'd been in trouble before, then he could win the argument.

I carried that with me, still do, but it taught me something about the way that being able to characterize someone to essentialize who they are because of some prior encounter with law enforcement, no matter their guilt or innocence, was a fundamental ingredient to the process of punishment in this country.


ARABLOUEI: This was a big moment for Khalil. And within weeks of that arbitration hearing...

MUHAMMAD: I was pretty sure that my days were numbered in public accounting and that I was going to be going to graduate school to study criminal justice.

ARABLOUEI: Khalil went on to become a historian focused on finding answers for why he and so many other black men and women ended up being systematically mistreated, abused and subjected to violence by police. When we come back, Khalil Gibran Muhammad tells us the story of how the police formed and evolved in America.


ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


JARED MOHAMMAD: Hi, oh, (laughter) (unintelligible) you guys. I just wanted to say I actually took my government and politics comparative, and it went really well. So thank you guys for knowledge. My name's Jared Mohammad (ph). I'm from South Orange (ph), N.J., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. Have a good one (laughter).

ABDELFATAH: Policing has been part of this country for a long time, even before the United States of America was officially established as an independent nation. In the mid-1600s, there was the Boston Watch, essentially a neighborhood watch group. There were also informal militias that formed to help enforce order in counties and cities throughout the colonies.

ARABLOUEI: But some of the first police forces in America were created to control enslaved black people. They would come to be known as slave patrols. By law, almost all white men had to serve in these patrols.

MUHAMMAD: Essentially men between the ages of 21 and 45 were targeted. They could be at every level of society from particularly in the South from large slave-owning plantation owners to men who were of the middling sort, farmers without enslaved populations, brick masons, other kinds. They generally served for a period of time up to a year. These were men who often moved between serving a stint on a slave patrol versus a local militia because it was the same population that they drew upon.

ARABLOUEI: In places like Virginia and South Carolina, these patrols enforced what were called slave codes, laws which controlled almost every aspect of the lives of enslaved people.

MUHAMMAD: Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the way slave patrols functioned is that they were explicit in their design to empower the entire white population, not just with police power but with the duty to police the comings and goings and movements of black people...


MUHAMMAD: ...Which meant essentially as black people who were very mobile, particularly in slave colonies in the South because they were conducting the affairs of their owners, but they had to have passes when they were in places they didn't belong. But this was all hands on deck. Everybody was meant to contribute. They were - the members who were formal in the slave patrol were paid 25 cents an hour in some cases and were fined if people shirked their duty. If they chose not to show up for duty, they could be fined anywhere from $5 to $10 in some of the slave colonies.

ABDELFATAH: Their duties were written into law like the slave patrol statute from Louisiana in 1835. It declares that slave patrols are to...

MUHAMMAD: Arrest any slave or slaves whether with or without a permit who may be caught in the woods or forest with any fire or torch which slave or slaves thus arrested shall be subjected to corporal punishment not exceeding 30 stripes. So you can hear in that early legislation, part of the concern is an uprising, is arson, it is the fear that slaves will burn things down and the responsibility not of what we would later expect due process or what white property owners were entitled to in the Bill of Rights but, in fact, immediate corporal punishment. So the tying together early on, the surveillance, the deputization essentially of all white men to be police officers or, in this case, slave patrollers and then to dispense corporal punishment on the scene are all baked in from the very beginning.

ARABLOUEI: Punishments were swift, indiscriminate and harsh. Solomon Northup, whose story was told in the film "12 Years A Slave," lived as a free person in New York state before being abducted and sold into slavery in the South.

MUHAMMAD: He writes in his memoir this about slave patrols - he says, patrollers whose business it is to seize and whip any slave they may find wandering from the plantation ride on horseback headed by a captain armed and accompanied by dogs. They have the right, either by law or by general consent, to inflict discretionary chastisements upon a black man caught beyond the boundaries of his master's estate without a pass, even to shoot him if he attempts to escape. He then says that one slave had fled before one of these companies thinking he could reach his cabin before they could overtake him. But one of their dogs, a great ravenous hound, gripped him by the leg and held him fast. The patrollers whipped him severely.

ABDELFATAH: That's pretty horrifying. And as you're describing this sort of slave patrol system, it just - what's so striking about it is that it was - it seems to have really effectively mobilized, as you said, not just land-owning, you know, whites who own slaves but people who didn't themselves own slaves. It gave them both the men and presumably also, you know, the women in these societies, the white women in these societies, like, a sense of superiority almost over this whole class of people that they were now in charge of patrolling.

MUHAMMAD: Absolutely. Yeah. So it was - I mean, we - if we think about a profoundly unequal society, the United States was born as one of the most inegalitarian societies in the world. And the notion of inequality was not an abstraction for colonials and most certainly even in the new nation period after the Constitution was ratified despite its lofty language about all men being created equal. So the fact of chattel slavery by the time of the founding of the United States had already for 200 years served as a form of social insurance against the insurrection and dissent and potential political rebellion of the majority of landless white men who didn't have slaves and lived precarious lives so that they would serve in this capacity alongside major plantation owners was a kind of way to build community around the notion of protecting the white community from the enslaved black population.


ARABLOUEI: The slave patrols would continue in Southern states all the way up until the Confederacy surrendered and ended their rebellion in 1865. But that didn't mean the violent surveillance of newly freed black citizens would end. In fact, within months of the end of the Civil War, Southern states began passing laws that would later be called black codes.

ABDELFATAH: These laws essentially allowed white people to continue to control many aspects of black people's lives. And the way it accomplished this was to take advantage of a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed in 1865 to officially end slavery in America.

MUHAMMAD: One of the really powerful expressions of how important policing and punishment were in the conception of the end of slavery was that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery except as punishment for crime. So in some ways, the genius of the former Confederate states was to say, oh, well, if all we need to do is make them criminals and they can be put back in slavery, well, then that's what we'll do. And that's exactly what the black codes set out to do. The black codes, for all intents and purposes, criminalized every form of African American freedom and mobility, political power, economic power, except the one thing it didn't criminalize was the right to work for a white man on a white man's terms.

ABDELFATAH: So when it comes to the police force specifically, and by police, I'm referring to sort of these slave patrols, what happens to them and how do they then morph into something new for this new context in which emancipation is the new reality?

MUHAMMAD: Yeah. So this system of essentially tracking black people's movements to control them needed a similar kind of armed and/or empowered law enforcement constituency. So on one hand, you do have the growth of a formal bureaucratic nuts-and-bolts police system that emerges by the late 1860s, 1870s. You know, prisons are being remodeled or expanded and built. Prison farms are beginning to open. I say all that to say because the South had a very anemic infrastructure when it came to criminal justice by a very stark contrast to northern states. And one of the things that it doesn't really have is it doesn't have a formal professional police force like - certainly like big cities from Boston to New York, Philadelphia, the old colonial cities, now essentially industrial, thriving, modern places by the 1870s and 1880s. And so what does the South do? Well, Southern leaders empower vigilante groups to do a lot of the day-to-day surveillance and policing of black people, and out of that, particularly in 1866, the Ku Klux Klan is born in Pulaski, Tenn.


MUHAMMAD: The Klan is so popular and dominant, it represents the same constituency - men of military age between their 20s and 40s, in some cases even older for the Klan. A lot of historians have pointed out that the Klan represented the same kind of hybrid constituency broad cross-section of the community that represented property owners, small business owners, some political elites, either directly involved or most certainly aware of and complicit in their attacks. And these folks took about the business of terrorizing, policing, surveilling and controlling black people. U.S. attorney generals are writing back to Washington, D.C., and basically saying, like, there really is no such thing as constitutional justice down here. These are, quote-unquote, "Klan courts." The Klan totally dominates the machinery of justice in the South.


ARABLOUEI: The brutality unleashed by terrorists in the Ku Klux Klan was so bad that the federal government was forced to occupy former Confederate states with troops in order to crush the KKK and guarantee the safety of black citizens. Congress even passed the 14th and 15th Amendments to ensure equal rights and voting for black citizens. And even though these measures created a generation of relative peace and prosperity for black citizens, it would quickly change again as Southern states adjusted by creating the Jim Crow laws.

ABDELFATAH: By the early 20th century, the KKK would emerge again to enforce control over black citizens in the South. And this pushed millions of black citizens to flee to northern cities as part of what would become known as the Great Migration. And even though cities like Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Baltimore represented hope for a life free of terror, what very few of these migrants could have known was that from the mid-1800s, growing northern cities were developing their own police forces. And some would argue what black people would experience at the hands of police in northern progressive cities would rival the terror they experienced in the South.


JASMINE EISNER: Hi, this is Jasmine Eisner (ph) from Chicago, Ill. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE. Thanks, guys. Love your show.


ARABLOUEI: The story of policing in the northern United States actually begins across the ocean in London. In 1829, British Parliament passed something called the Metropolitan Police Act, a bill that effectively created the first modern police force to oversee life within London city limits.

ABDELFATAH: What made it different from previous types of law enforcement, patrols, local militias, neighborhood watch groups, three main things - their emphasis on crime prevention and control of communities, their strategy to maintain strong visibility in everyday life by patrolling the streets and their militaristic structure with things like uniforms, rank designations and a code of command and discipline.

ARABLOUEI: And before long, these ideas about policing began to migrate to cities across the northern U.S.

MUHAMMAD: And part of the context for early modern policing by the late 1840s was that the immigrant population of Europeans, particularly the Irish, were generating in their own way a similar kind of social anxiety, xenophobic, nativist, racist reaction to what African Americans certainly were used to in the South with slave patrols and what antebellum black folks had been used to who were free in northern cities in terms of being surveilled and controlled. The populations that made up early police officers were unlike the slave patrols made up of lower class men, often men who were first-generation Americans. There was a early emphasis on people whose status was just a tiny notch better than the folks who they were focused on policing. And so the Anglo-Saxons are policing the Irish or the Germans are policing the Irish. The Irish are policing the Poles. Black people are there. They're getting policed by everyone, but their numbers are fewer. And so this dynamic that's playing out is that police officers are a critical feature of establishing a racial hierarchy, even among white people.


MUHAMMAD: What also played out in early policing was political control because police officers were often strong-arm enforcers of not only underground activities, they were very proximate to various forms of very blatant corruption. But they also were people who got people to the polls. They were the foot soldiers of political machines like Tammany Hall in New York, which was a Democratic machine that had dominated New York politics for more than a century and by the mid-19th century just extended its reach into the local New York police agency. So basically they're not too far different from a gang. The fact that they were policing communities often had absolutely nothing to do with criminal activity and a whole lot to do with policing racial groups, policing political enemies, policing corruption, all those things. And there's no way to separate the goodness of policing from the messiness of the context in which it's born.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. It's such an interesting parallel that you draw between, you know, when the slave patrols were created to sort of control a certain group of people and then, you know, in the north around the same time, this same ethos was being applied - right? - like, creating a force, a group, that can oversee another group that they perceive as, you know, troublesome or whatever. Is that a fair parallel, or is it too simplistic?

MUHAMMAD: No. It's a really - it's exactly the parallel that needs to be made. If we look at this from the moon or from 30,000 feet, what we see is that the function of police are to control essential workers in the early centuries of this country. The people at the bottom of the economic hierarchy were meant to be policed in ways that wasn't entirely about kicking them out of the country. That certainly wasn't true. Those immigrants were here precisely because they were expected to build the infrastructure of these modern cities just like enslaved people were expected to drive the economy through cotton production and sugar production and tobacco production. So what police were doing were ensuring that these out-groups had minimal freedom beyond what was required for them to do their jobs. Police officers were built to police the poor no matter who they were.


MUHAMMAD: One of the ways in which this is - plays out even more is that the first police brutality commission in the United States happens in 1894, and it's the first major investigation of police violence. They issue 300 subpoenas, call in 600 witnesses, produce 10,000 pages of testimony. And what they find is essentially that these officers are beating up people in the same way that they're dispensing corporal punishment in the South for when some despised immigrant walks into the wrong neighborhood or doesn't do the bidding of some political captain who thinks that the Irish ought to be supporting this candidate and it establishes the evidence, unmistakable evidence, of systemic corruption and violence. And they use the term third degree to describe what we would call today police violence. In the end, they charge 45 counts of assault in the second degree. It's a pretty remarkable moment in early policing. So you think about that. We are only a generation and a half, you know, at most two generations into the founding of policing, and we have unmistakable evidence of a fatal flaw in the way that police is functioning in society.

The other thing that's happened during this time period is many of those European immigrants are organizing as labor activists and are challenging the inequality of the Gilded Age and are really pressing political leaders to establish basic occupational protections against dangerous workplaces. And even with everything that's going on between these various groups, there is this groundswell of labor activism. A lot of people looking back from today look back to that period and say today rivals the era of robber barons. There are strikers challenging companies. There are still workers, coal miners, other industrial workers. And police began to establish what are essentially called Red Squads to infiltrate labor organizations, which are also considered anarchist and socialist, that by and large are trying through various expressions of civil liberties and protests and demonstrations to challenge political leaders.

ARABLOUEI: Wow. So they're essentially enforcing the desires of industry against these kind of workers pushing for more rights.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, yeah.

ARABLOUEI: In this context when black citizens from the South begin escaping in the sort of late 19th century, early 20th century, begin escaping their situation in the South, there's sort of horrible violence there. And they get to cities like Chicago and New York and Philadelphia and Boston. What are they met with there? I'm sure they go there with some hope - right? - that they may get a more fair shake at life. What are they actually met with and what role does the police play in that?

MUHAMMAD: Well, black people are less than 5% of the populations of these big cities until the second and third decade of the 20th century, until the Great Migration period, which begins during World War I in the 1910s. And so you begin to see populations doubling from 2% to 4% to 8%. Police officers receive African American migrants in the same way that their white neighbors and community peers did, which is with contempt and hostility.


MUHAMMAD: Now, to some degree, African Americans recreate segregated black communities out of the restrictions of their mobility that are enforced by segregation laws. They can't buy homes in any community they want to live in. They are subjected to various forms of violence to keep them out of certain communities. And in all those instances, the enforcement of residential segregation is done by, first, white citizens and with the assistance and support of police. When a white person throws a Molotov cocktail into a new black homeowner on a street that had previously been all Irish or all Polish or all German, the police come and they arrest the black family and defend the white mob. And this happens time and time, over and over again. They are policing the racial norms of white supremacy from the very beginning in the north.


MUHAMMAD: When the war is over, now you have the problem of returning veterans, the new presence of African American migrants in these cities and an economy that hasn't quite figured out how to accommodate the pressures of all these competing groups, especially when for decades there already was labor unrest. And while there is more social mixture in the early days of the Great Migration, there are moments of shared collective interests around organizing and labor activism. When things get tough, when whites feel threatened by the competition of African American migrants, they tended to fight and demonstrate violence against African Americans. And African Americans had no access to police protection.

And so there was incredible tension in this moment, and that tension would culminate in a series of more than two dozen race riots across the country. A race riot then essentially looked like an attack by whites on innocent black people, black people then appealing to police for help, police either refusing to help or disarming black people who were then arming themselves for self-defense or being attacked by the police themselves. And so these conflagrations, these race riots as they were called then, spread across many, many northern cities, first in East St. Louis, which had the first major riot in 1917, and then Philadelphia had one. And then the big one happened in Chicago in 1919. A young man, a teenager, was swimming in Lake Michigan at a beach that was segregated. He crossed the aqueous color line - if you can imagine the absurdity of that - and white beachgoers stoned the child to death.


MUHAMMAD: When black beachgoers pointed out to an officer what was happening and to arrest the assailants, the officer refused to act. And in the commotion with the outrage that black people were expressing, white beachgoers then took offense and went back into their communities and armed themselves to attack the black community for daring to demand justice for one of their own. And this led to several days of white violence and black self-defense. A few dozen people died. More than 500 were injured, the vast majority African Americans. And the overwhelming numbers of people who were arrested by the police were in fact African Americans who, by every accounting, were overwhelmingly the victims of the entire episode.

ABDELFATAH: It's just - I mean, it's pretty horrifying to think about. And I'm just imagining it must have been shocking for these black folks who are coming up to the north and facing a police force that was as brutal, in a lot of ways, as the one they had faced in the South.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah. It was shocking. I mean, it was shocking in the way that they had to square the actual reality of not facing the kind of daily indignities of Southern white supremacy and the fact that they did have jobs that paid more and they talk about this. They tell researchers that - they make the subtle nuanced distinction between life in the South and life in the big city north. It's not quite what they had hoped, but it's better. It's clearly better for them. What they didn't anticipate is that they would be subjected to the willful constitutional violations of law enforcement.

And it becomes such a striking contradiction between their ostensible rights in the north compared to what they'd escaped in the South that they began to write about it. They began to go to school to study it. There's even an attorney general, a black attorney general in Illinois who's so disgusted with the racism that he sees amongst white police officers that he writes that the entire machinery of justice is in the hands of the white man because he can't square that the law allows for one thing, that is, basic civil rights on the books in a state like Illinois at that time and the racism and discrimination that he witnesses among his peers and within that system itself.

The leading black academic of the period, W.E.B. Du Bois, is writing for the NAACP magazine. He has essentially a police blotter, not a crime blotter, a police blotter, which systematically details all the examples of police brutality directed against African Americans everywhere in the country. The National Urban League, the other civil rights organization of the period, begins to do systematic survey research where they look up close at municipalities around the country to try to unpack who's getting arrested and for what reasons. And they overwhelmingly see that police officers are doing essentially stop-and-frisk policing in the 1920s. They're arresting people on charges that are not actually crimes. They're being charged with things like suspicious character.

And in a 1924 study by one of the National Urban League researchers, a black woman named Anna Thompson, she noted that Philadelphia's population at that time was only 7.4% but black people made up 25% of the arrests. She said they were overwhelmingly innocent of any real charges except suspicious character. She called them needless arrests. She gave examples of people being arrested on the stoops of their own homes. And other researchers looked at this all over the country and began to come to the same conclusion, that these big cities had a systemic massive policing problem.

And it wasn't just black folks who were noticing this as well. A Southern white man who was part of an interracial commission published a report in 1925 where he said, quote, "this high-handed arrest of colored people is extremely galling to the law-abiding citizen. It cannot be excused on any ground other than ignorance and inefficiency of police officers who engage in these practices and the indifference of the citizens who permit such officers to remain on the job."

This was a national problem, but it was most especially acute because most people understood that the South was a different place. It was a form of American homegrown fascism when it came to the black experience. But in the north, the freedom-loving north, the place that had sent its sons and daughters out to fight on behalf of the end of slavery, to fight the Confederacy, and this is what the evidence showed by the time of the 1920s and '30s and led to a lot of organizing around police violence as the key issue for making real civil rights and equality in northern cities.


ARABLOUEI: When we come back, black citizens become public enemy No. 1 in the north, and an era of lawlessness pushes policing to the next level.


JOANNE ECK: Hi, this is Joanne Eck (ph) from Conway, Ark. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Fabulous farce - World War I is over and so are America's days of legal alcoholic drink. Convinced that self-sacrifice and sobriety will bring prosperity and peace as it won victory in war, Americans praised passing of the dry law.

ABDELFATAH: Prohibition is a strange time in American history. From 1920 to 1933, the sale and distribution of alcohol was technically off limits. But almost immediately, this ban resulted in an underground world of illegal alcohol smuggling, you know, speakeasies, bootleggers, mobsters like Al Capone. And basically it was chaos.

ARABLOUEI: Especially for the police who were no match for the mob.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In Boston, as in every other city, government agents fight hopelessly against illegal liquor.

ARABLOUEI: In fact, a lot of the time, the police just teamed up with the mobsters. It was corruption on another level. And this created unexpected opportunities for a lot of immigrants who, up to this point, had been targeted by the police.

MUHAMMAD: Now you've got first-generation Americans of Irish, Italian stock, second-generation German, you know, essentially everybody who's young and underemployed or are part of a working class or low income, a poor white immigrant slum is now getting in the bootlegging game. And police officers are on the take. In the same household, one person's a police officer, another person's a bootlegger, another one's a numbers runner. I mean, it's just all mixed up. Judges are corrupt. The scale of corruption is so great that for the first time we begin to see federal action at the local level.

But one of the unintended consequences of prohibition was this massive display of lawlessness that, by and large, didn't have much to do with black people, even though in the South they blame the problem of alcohol and drugs on black people. But, nationally, what this showed was this entire generation of young white men who were willing to flout the law, to have gun battles in the middle of the street, and they couldn't tamp it down because the police were in cahoots, were on the take, were the enforcers. And, of course, there were good police officers who did their best, but, by and large, the system was so fundamentally flawed and corrupt that it was failing.


ABDELFATAH: At this point, a man named August Vollmer, who was the police chief of Berkeley, Calif., decided to tackle these failings head on, determined to make policing more professional. He created the first centralized police record system. He was the first police chief to create a motorized force, the first to use the lie detector. And he pushed for higher education for police officers, believing that to be the key to raising their social status.

MUHAMMAD: Out of that came the first professionalization movement on a national scale. State by state, state legislators passed laws empowering crime commissions that would systematically study what were the loopholes in the law that would not allow them to prosecute people they call modern gangsters and modern bandits. They passed a series of felony enhancement laws. They gave police more power. They begin to equip them with various instruments, like automobiles, for example. It was kind of interesting to look back at that period and see how, you know, if a criminal had a car, then they were even more nefarious because most police officers in the 1920s didn't have automobiles. But one of the things that happens is that this movement towards professionalization collapses all of these previously meaningful distinctions of immigrant populations into a uniform white population that, ultimately, prohibition gives way to a period of rehabilitation and compassion because the basic lesson of prohibition, of alcohol prohibition, was that you couldn't police your way out of the problem. And you couldn't lock up everybody. So who gets left holding the bag? Black migrants.

One way that we know this is that the federal government picks up where the states leave off and by 1931 put together - the attorney general, a man named George Wickersham, puts together the first national commission to look at every aspect of the criminal justice system. It's a massive study. And they recommend a number of things, but one of the things that they try to take on is this problem of police violence and police torture. They have a special report on it that looks at the, quote-unquote, "third degree." And black folks read the report. These northern civil rights activists read the report and they say, wait a minute. Somebody literally told a lie about what they called the decrease in police brutality when it came to African Americans.


MUHAMMAD: So African Americans complained bitterly about the omission of the violence directed towards their own community. In one case, they wrote, for example, what about local cases of the beating of a sickly elderly black woman, the torture of a man choked, hung upside down, his joints twisted and told that Negroes should be treated like dogs and the dragnet arrests of Negroes on the steps of their own homes, beaten and in some cases sent home without a magistrates hearing? There are 500 more cases even worse than these.

So in some ways, what prohibition and then this period of criminal justice reform that started with the states and then led to the federal government did was it did fundamentally professionalize police. It ended the era of white ethnic moral crime panics and essentially consolidated all of those previous groups into one white race, established the Uniform Crime Reports, which are the leading source of quarterly and annual data on arrest statistics collected by all police agencies in the country, and wrote essentially white ethnic criminality out of the crime statistics. They left the story of racism directed towards black people out of this period, therefore left - the whole notion of professionalization was bereft of any focus on anti-racism. In other words, they fixed it as much as they could for everybody else while leaving black people out of that story.

ABDELFATAH: Wow. You know, the way I'm imagining it is, like, almost this two-pronged thing, right? There's the professionalization in terms of actually logistically and technologically being able to establish these sort of police forces as we know them today. But then there's that second prong of, like, getting community buy in or just, like, making it a part of the social fabric to have a police force - again, in the way we think of it today - that I imagine coming out of the prohibition era was not as intuitive a thing or as assumed a thing as we might think now.

MUHAMMAD: Well, when prohibition is repealed, which happened shortly after the Wickersham commission - this is one of the recommendations - we are also seeing a radical shift in how white people are defined as economic victims, as class victims of the excesses of capitalism that is borne out by the New Deal. And what that means essentially is that policing professionalizes in a way to establish more protections for the white working class that is now made up of first and second-generation formerly foreign-born whites. This is a time when civil service requirements come on the books, so taking tests to become a police officer, going to a police academy. These are prideful things. And so, you know, people whose ancestors, you know, had the last name O'Shea (ph) or Blatten (ph) or the Italian American with the last name Giuliani (ph), like, these kinds of folks now are becoming sort of part of a real America. These are the hardworking backbone guardians of the peace in this country. And so what professionalization is consolidating is not just a more bureaucratic form of policing that is much less controlled by political machines and is one degree removed from, you know, a different kind of gang violence where police officers just have badges and gangs don't.

This is a consolidation also of a form of whiteness for previous stigmatized groups. And so what it means to leave black folks out of that is that now this consolidated whiteness can not only turn its attention to protecting itself from black people but can also use the stigma of criminality in the same way that white Southerners had used the stigma of criminality to justify that discrimination, to justify that segregation, to say we're not racist, they're just criminals. And that becomes a kind of univocal sense of identity that was more fragmented. I mean, it was there before, but it was more fragmented before professionalization.

And the thing about police that just is so blatant is that they are the most visible representation of the state in most people's lives, especially for black people. So, for example, in 1935, one of the leading sociologists, black sociologists of the period, a man named Kelly Miller, publishes in 1935 a really poignant statement about what police officers represent to the black community. He says too often the policeman's club is the only instrument of the law with which the Negro comes into contact. This engenders in him a distrust and resentful attitude toward all public authorities and law officers. None can doubt that such a kindly attitude would go far to convince the Negro of the value to himself and advantage of law obedience and good citizenship. He's saying, look, police officers are directly responsible for telling black people how much their lives don't matter in this society.

And the irony about police professionalization that is occurring by the 1930s and will carry us through to the end of the 20th century and to the 21st century is that part of police science begins to draw on crime statistics and sociological research about the innate or cultural tendencies of black people to criminality, which then begins a process where professionalization and academic research legitimate racist notions of black people as a race of criminals. Part of this professionalization is to say those are the only real criminals we have to worry about. And you can hear echoes of that all the way up until the last couple of years in some things that former police chief Bill Bratton has said publicly.

ARABLOUEI: That's a - yeah. I mean, that's one of the things I really found fascinating in your book, kind of how science and culture have deeply reinforced these notions of identifying black citizens with criminality - right? - this kind of evolution of this process. Given how deep that is and given what happened with George Floyd, the response from people in the government and from local police departments, et cetera, what kind of hope or what kind of - maybe that's not the right word - vision for the future are you left with for turning the tide of that? Like what is your feeling about how do we get out of this as a society given this kind of deep history?

MUHAMMAD: Yeah. So I have two responses. One is the voice of someone who I think watched this pattern unfold over many decades in a similar way that we have the benefit of history to reflect on. So Kenneth Clark was a social psychologist whose famous doll studies contributed directly, the research, to showing that segregation had contributed to a sense of inferiority by African American children who prefer white dolls to dolls that look like themselves. And so this research, which was conducted in the 1940s, contributed directly to the evidence presented in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, which in 1954 ultimately overturned legal segregation.

Because Kenneth Clark was such a well-respected social scientist, when he was called before the Kerner Commission, which looked at a series of uprisings that occurred over the course of the mid-1960s - so when Kenneth Clark was called to testify, this is what he said. He said, I read the report of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of 1935, the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of 1943, the report of the McCone Commission of the Watts riot of 1965. I must again in candor say to you members of the commission, it is a kind of "Alice In Wonderland" with the same moving picture reshown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations and the same inaction.

So going back to that first blue ribbon commission report based on Chicago, which articulated the fundamental problem of police racism in America, which was an extension of white citizens racism, Kenneth Clark looking back over four decades said we're having the same conversation.


MUHAMMAD: That gives me clarity not to have the same aspirational faith that simply pointing out the problem today is sufficient to fixing it because the problem has been known for a century. The evidence has been presented for a century. The recommendations for change for holding police officers accountable, for charging them with criminal offenses when they behave criminally, for establishing citizen review boards that have an independent investigative power, all of it, just like the dozens of consent decrees and pattern and practice Department of Justice investigations like the one done on Ferguson in 2015 or the one done in Chicago in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting in 2017, it's a century of the same story playing out over and over again. So when you ask me the question, what do I think about this moment, what's possible in this moment, it seems to me that's what's possible is recognizing that police officers and police agencies are incapable of fixing themselves. They've never been able to do it, and they've never particularly been compelled to do it. The incentives have never quite added up to be strong enough.

And so the question that has to be asked in the wake of George Floyd and I think this question is being asked and answered by more white people than I've seen in my lifetime is, do white people in America still want the police to protect their interests over the rights and dignity and lives of black and in too many cases brown, Indigenous and Asian populations in this country? When I think about Amy Cooper referring to the police as her protection, her personal protection agency, she doesn't have to be conscious to know that she's telling us something that we need to hear beyond the outrage of calling the police on an African American birdwatcher and weaponizing the potential of what might as well have been a 19th-century cry, a fake, false cry for rape, which led to too many black men being lynched and entire communities being burned down to the ground in acts of absolute domestic terrorism. She's telling us something about the political marketplace in this country that has rewarded white fear and protection of white spaces even when it itself is criminal.

This isn't just about Donald Trump and white supremacists. The line that connects from the history we've talked about here today that connects to the biggest crime bill passed in U.S. history in the 1990s under a Democratic president to a progressive self-identified liberal New Yorker walking her cocker spaniel in Central Park, those lessons have to be taken fully into account and white people are going to have to define a different political marketplace that rewards a different kind of country.


MUHAMMAD: Do they want the police doing the same thing that slave patrols did in the colonial period, in the antebellum period, in the postbellum period - these are the sheriff's auctions and Klans and Bull Connors - or in the Great Migration era, as has been attested to going back to Chicago all the way up to the present? Because if they want a different outcome, they're going to have to demand a different outcome and one that looks a lot more like the kind of policing they want for themselves as opposed to the one they've been putting on other people.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you for just breaking that down for us and just kind of sitting in this space with us in this moment because I think it's really challenging.

ARABLOUEI: Thank you so much, Khalil.

MUHAMMAD: You're very welcome, both of you. And keep doing such great work on that podcast.

ARABLOUEI: Awe, thank you. That means so much coming from you. Khalil, you're in New York, right? You're based in New York, right?


ARABLOUEI: Yeah. OK. Well, hopefully, when this lockdown is all over, we can all get together for lunch one day or something.

MUHAMMAD: I would love that. Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: We can always do the socially - social distanced, like, park hang out. You know, that's a new trendy thing.




ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me and...






ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann, Kia Miakka Natisse and a special shout-out to Sandhya Dirks from KQED.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

ARABLOUEI: If you have thoughts on the episode or have an idea, please write us at or hit us up on Twitter - @throughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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