How American Policing Became So Violent

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The horrific recent murders of Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Laquan McDonald, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and many other African American citizens have brought increased public awareness to police violence in America. Today, police officers in the United States kill suspects at 100 times the rate of their English counterparts and employ deadly force more than 30 times more frequently than German law enforcers. Among affluent, industrial nations, the U.S. stands alone in police violence. Although neither police brutality nor racialized police murders is a new phenomenon, police brutality and police homicide have increased dramatically during the last 100 years in the United States.

Why are American police so violent? And how do we make sense of the horrific increase of these killings?

At the start of the 20th century, American police officers were often brutal and sometimes murderous. As law enforcers embraced more professional practices and became better trained, they also killed suspects, especially African American suspects, at skyrocketing rates. A century ago, American patrolmen, detectives, and sheriffs supported and protected violent vigilantes more often than they committed violent acts, particularly toward people of color. But this changed abruptly after World War I, when American police violence—ranging from sadistic interrogation methods to the preemptive use of lethal forces against unarmed suspects—soared. Police violence became normalized as the preservation of law and order, gained support from many white citizens, and became shielded and defended by the courts. During the early 20thcentury, American society largely rejected lynching and mob violence but began to accept and embrace the even more frequent use of deadly violence by police officers. A warrior mentality emerged among many law enforcers, who perceived aggressive, even deadly actions against certain groups as an essential component of preserving social order. In the process, many Americans, including prosecutors, jurors, and judges, recast police violence as necessary public safety, operating fully within the “rule of law.”

In Bluecoated Terror, I explore these trends in the Jim Crow urban South, where police violence and the targeting of African American suspects first spiked and became institutionalized as professional, legitimate law enforcement. In New Orleans, Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta, and other cities in the region, rates of police killings surged during the late 1920s and have remained stratospheric. By the 1930s, cops committed the lion’s share of white-on-black homicides in these urban centers. By the middle of the 20th century, this pattern had spread across the nation. Racial disparities in the use of lethal force, the fatal shooting of unarmed suspects, and sadistic arrest and interrogation practices have largely remained unchanged since this era. Slave patrols and lynch mobs of the 19th century attacked, mauled, and murdered African Americans with the support and complicity of law enforcers. But police racial terrorism, of the sort that claimed the lives of Tyre Nichols and George Floyd, can be traced back to the early decades of the 20th century. During the last 100 years, police violence has increased in frequency and gained tenacious popular and legal support, largely supplanting the murderous “popular justice” and white mobs of earlier eras.

Bluecoated Terror uses police files, autopsy reports, court records, civil right organization investigations, newspapers, and other sources to understand why American cops embraced brutal methods and how these practices affected the victims of racialized law-and-order policing. The book helps us understand why violent policing became widely accepted and institutionalized, and why American courts have systematically protected and defended aggressive, deadly law enforcement as the bulwark of social order and a backbone for white supremacy.

Jeffrey Adler is a professor of History and Criminology and Distinguished Teaching Scholar at the University of Florida, where his research and teaching focus on the history of American violence, law, and race relations. He is the author of Bluecoated Terror: Jim Crow New Orleans and the Roots of Modern Police Brutality.