How American Policing Started With Carolina Slave Catchers - OZY | A Modern Media Company
The first publicly funded police force in America was a slave patrol.


Because you probably didn’t learn this in school.

By Joshua Eferighe

As African slaves arrived at the British colony of Carolina in the 17th century, keeping them in line was seen as an essential community function. The local government at first gave white citizens the right to apprehend, “chastise” and send home a slave who had left their master’s property without permission, according to The Police Control of the Slave in South Carolina, by Howell Meadoes Henry. Then the government mandated that other citizens capture such wayward slaves or else risk being fined. Neither law was terribly effective.

So, in 1704, government leaders in Charleston decided to create the Colonies’ first slave patrol — the forefathers to today’s police forces.

“The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement,” write K.B. Turner, David Giacopassi and Margaret Vandiver in “Ignoring the Past: Coverage of Slavery and Slave Patrols in Criminal Justice Texts,” published in 2006, in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education.

Even if few students learn it in school, this history is more relevant than ever as protests against police brutality sweep the United States following the killing of George Floyd. “Without an understanding of the historical context of slavery, and ongoing challenges over racism in our nation, people are unable to understand, at even the most basic level, the long history of suffering, which often can breed a lack of compassion and understanding of those brutal times,” the National Police Foundation tells OZY in a statement.

The power and majesty of a group of men on horseback, at night, could terrify slaves into submission.

Sally E. Hadden, writing in Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas

That suffering often came at the hands of slave patrols. The Carolina government — before the Colonies were divvied into North and South — launched the practice only in limited circumstances. In times of public emergency when the militia was drawn to the coast, militia officers would select a group of slave patrollers to ride around the colony. The stated aim of the law was “to prevent such insurrections and mischiefs.”

The idea took off, and within a few years the other Colonies had formal slave patrols that instituted a reign of terror for more than 150 years, through the end of the Civil War.

Called patrollers, “paddyrollers” or “patterolls,” their responsibilities included an informal “night watch” system where they would take turns keeping a lookout and chasing down slaves on horseback. They were not shy about deploying violence. “A mounted man presents an awesome figure, and the power and majesty of a group of men on horseback, at night, could terrify slaves into submission,” writes historian Sally E. Hadden in Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas.

The goal from the start was to maintain dominance and control through violence and terror. Today’s circumstances and society are vastly different, but for Black Americans, the mistrust and fear remain.  

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