Last Sunday, law enforcement officials from across the country converged on Pittsburgh, Penn. to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the largest police union in the nation.
During the week-long celebration, the 325,000-member Fraternal Order of Police, which is based in Nashville, Tenn., will take time to revisit the mission and vision of the organization, refresh legislative priorities and pause to honor their founding fathers.
A lot like the labor movements around in 1915, police officers sought to organize for fairer wages, better hours, and better working conditions. But they were painfully aware that the semantics tied to their fight for better welfare—their unionizing, if you will—were foul and offensive acts to initiate in the face of the existing power structure.
Like London and Paris before them, the first paid American police departments as we know them were formed, NOT in the interest of public safety, but in the interest of protecting and serving the economic order and absolute power of the ruling class.
In Paris, King Louis XIV raised the first centralized police department in the world to stamp out mass resistance. The Fronde civil wars of the mid-17th century were enough, he felt, to warrant mass surveillance. He was determined that “no institution or social class would escape the supervision of the crown and its ministers.”
In 1798 London, the first cops were commissioned by the West India Company, which financed more than 80 percent of the force’s salaries. This private interest wanted to protect the merchandise they shipped through the Port of London.
It stands to reason then, that the most formal policing outfit in early America was the slave patrol. In the U.S., where chattel slavery was live and in full effect, enslaved people who escaped and, worse, enslaved people who dared to organize and clap back at empire posed a severe threat to the entire financial structure of the first American colonies.
The prospect of revolt was so great that South Carolina moved to institutionalize their slave patrols in the early 1700s, even creating a reward system for every enslaved person returned to their owner or, if the owner could not be determined, turned in to the state. This system of policing was far more coordinated than any night watch or kinship model in the northern colonies.
But let’s be clear: northern night watch folk were no angels. When they weren’t called on to out a fire or move roadkill, they too were obligated to round up a stray Black or Indigenous person. And much like their sons and grandsons in 1915, they couldn’t afford to make it spit, much less rain or drizzle.
By 1915, these growing forces were little more than overworked, underpaid wards of the state with the power of force on their side. Their wages may have denoted their working class status, but their mission and raison d’être simply affirmed their peculiar status as a local apparatus of empire.
Knowing this, it’s no wonder the early police unions, as they are colloquially known, resisted the title. Those persnickety little evolutionary details would not bode well for the fate of their demands if they called themselves unions.
So they became a frat instead.
And on this, the 100th anniversary of the FOP, your favorite neighborhood police organization is bigger, badder and more compromised than ever.
OccasionalNWF is chronicling all the reasons why it’s time to ponder police culture, and–alas!–do something to dismantle the order.
Count the ways with us over at ponderthepolice.tumblr.com.