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date: 28 June 2022

Police and Crime in the American City, 1800–2020locked

Police and Crime in the American City, 1800–2020locked

  • Simon BaltoSimon BaltoUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison, History
  •  and Max Felker-KantorMax Felker-KantorBall State University, History

Summary

The relationship between policing and crime in American history has been tenuous at best. In fact, policing and crime are imperfectly correlated. Crime is understood as a socially constructed category that varies over time and space. Crime in the American city was produced by the actions of police officers on the street and the laws passed by policymakers that made particular behaviors, often ones associated with minoritized people, into something called “crime.” Police create a statistical narrative about crime through the behaviors and activities they choose to target as “crime.” As a result, policing the American city has functionally reinforced the nation’s dominant racial and gender hierarchies as much as (or more so) than it has served to ensure public safety or reduce crime. Policing and the production of crime in the American city has been broadly shaped by three interrelated historical processes: racism, xenophobia, and capitalism. As part of these processes, policing took many forms across space and time. From origins in the slave patrols in the South, settler colonial campaigns of elimination in the West, and efforts to put down striking workers in the urban North, the police evolved into the modern, professional forces familiar to many Americans in the early 21st century. The police, quite simply, operated to uphold a status quo based on unequal and hierarchical racial, ethnic, and economic orders.

Tracing the history of policing and crime from the colonial era to the present demonstrates the ways that policing has evolved through a dialectic of crisis and reform. Moments of protest and unrest routinely exposed the ways policing was corrupt, violent, and brutal, and did little to reduce crime in American cities. In turn, calls for reform produced “new” forms of policing (what was often referred to as professionalization in the early and mid-20th century and community policing in the 21st). But these reforms did not address the fundamental role or power of police in society. Rather, these reforms often expanded it, producing new crises, new protests, and still more “reforms,” in a seemingly endless feedback loop. From the vantage point of the 21st century, this evolution demonstrates the inability of reform or professionalization to address the fundamental role of police in American society. In short, it is a history that demands a rethinking of the relationship between policing and crime, the social function of the police, and how to achieve public safety in American cities.

Subjects

  • Legal History
  • Urban History
  • Latino History
  • African American History
  • Southern History
  • Western History

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