The Function of Police in Modern Society: Peace or Control?

The ongoing debate and protest around police brutality and how best to hold law enforcement accountable generally have one underlying assumption: the police’s role is to serve and protect the population. Police reform advocates are demanding reviewing police practices and increasing accountability through body cameras or civilian review boards with teeth.

But our next guest says we need to stop kidding ourselves, the police were created to control the working class and poor. And since the creation of the modern police force in the U.S. in the 19th century, police have been used to protect the interests of the elite.

As for what people should do, I don’t have an answer for that question. It’s very difficult. I think people should do whatever they can, whatever they can find to do. I’m not living in that situation, so I certainly wouldn’t presume to give people advice on the question of people sometimes siding with workers, sometimes siding with strikers.

And on the one hand, police are workers. They’re hired to do a job. And that creates all kinds of problems for the police themselves, the same kinds of problems that other workers can face. They can face very difficult working conditions, etc. But the nature of their job kind counterposes them to the population every single day. And I think many police officers start a few people through a very negative, almost cynical lens. I don’t think most police officers don the uniform thinking, what I’m going to go do is brutalize people. No. But what you’re forced to do every day kind of counterposes you to the population. And I think in that context it’s too much to expect very many police officers to side with the population. It would take a real act of bravery for a police officer to do so, and they would face some real repercussions, although it’s happened before. The Afro-American Patrolmen’s League in Chicago is an example of that, when you had a big mass movement and the man named Renault Robinson challenged a lot of what was going on with police brutality in Chicago. I know this story in Baltimore less. But it’s possible. But I don’t think we can accept to be the rule, expect it to be the rule.

Sam Mitrani is an Associate Professor of history at the College of DuPage. He is the author of The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850-1894 published in 2014 by the University of Illinois Press. He has written on the labor movement and the origins of the state in the late nineteenth century. He is also politically involved, most recently as the campaign manager for Ed Hershey’s Working Class Fight campaign for alderman in Chicago’s 25th Ward.