Histories of Police, Policing, and Police Unions in the United States

By Matt Guariglia and Charlotte Rosen

Police and policing have been an integral theoretical component of liberal capitalist society since its inception—and a near constant in the everyday lives of citizen-subjects since at least the mid-nineteenth century. The Black Lives Matter movement—and the reactionary “Blue Lives Matter” response from U.S. law enforcement—have also recently brought police power to the front of contemporary debates about racism and human rights in the 21st century U.S. and beyond. And yet, for decades in the United States, historians tended to avoid writing histories that considered the blue-clad purveyors of state authority and racial violence. In Europe, scholars in the twentieth century steeped in scholarship on the social question and political authority were able to build a thriving field that U.S. scholars are only beginning to catch up with. Since at least 2010, scholars analyzing a failed war on drugs, racialized mass incarceration and economic inequality, mass deportations, half a century of U.S. foreign occupations and the development of counter-insurgency measures, and a renewed social movement taking aim at police brutality consolidated in a growing historiographical field. The thematic, chronological, and discursive parameters of this field are still in flux and explored throughout the list below. What exactly is the carceral state? When did it begin? If the “carceral” specifically refers to incarceration, where do we envision policing fitting within this field? What role does the state play in the carceral state? Are any of these disputed terms even useful? Are police unions a part of the labor movement, and should they be? How does our understanding of policing change when viewed alongside studies of other forms of state-sanctioned surveillance and unfreedom (such as enslavement), or alongside histories of capitalism, settler-colonialism, imperialism, gender and sexuality?

This list developed out of a twitter thread started by historian Brent Cebul — thanks to all who responded to the thread and to Brent for taking the first stab at compiling this list. We hope that this list can serve as a starting place and a scholarly foundation for people hoping to contribute to the field and attempt to answer the above questions.

Chicago police at convention, 1912, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Ben Brucato, “Fabricating the color line in a white democracy: from slave catchers to petty sovereigns,” Theoria (2014)

Jennifer Fronc, New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era (2009)

Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (2001)

Marilynn Johnson, Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York (2003)

Adam Malka, The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation (2018)

 Jennifer Manion, Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (2016)

 Sam Mitrani, The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850-1894 (2013)

 Khalil Muhammed, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (2010)

 Amy Louise Wood and Natalie Ring, eds. Crime and Punishment in the Jim Crow South (2019)


Christopher Agee, The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950–1972 (2014)

Christopher Agee, “Crisis and Redemption: The History of American Police Reform since WWII,” Journal of Urban History (2017)

Simon Balto, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power (2019)

Alex Elkins, “Battle of the Corner: Urban Policing and Rioting in the United States, 1943-1971” (PhD Dissertation, 2015)

Max Felker-Kantor, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (2018)

Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (2016)

Peter Pihos, Black Power through Law: The Afro-American Patrolmen’s League and the Struggle for Justice (forthcoming)

Josh Segal, “‘All of the Mysticism of Police Expertise’: Legalizing Stop-and-Frisk in New York, 1961-1968,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review (2008)

Beryl Satter, “Cops, Gangs, and Revolutionaries in 1960s Chicago: What Black Police Can Tell Us about Power,” Journal of Urban History (2016)

Carl Suddler, Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in New York (2019)

Clarence Taylor, Fight the Power: African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York City (2018)

Rapid Response and Community Policing_Are They Really in Conflict cover
“Rapid Response and Community Policing Are They Really in Conflict,” cover, Webster Commission Records, University of Southern California Digital Library


 Colin Gordon, Citizen Brown: Race, Democracy, and Inequality in the St. Louis Suburbs (2019)

James Foreman, Locking Up Our Own (2017)

Stuart Hall et. al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (1978)

Donna Murch, “Crack in Los Angeles: Crisis, Militarization, and Black Response to the Late Twentieth-Century War on Drugs,” Journal of American History (2015)

Matthew Lassiter, The Suburban Crisis (forthcoming)

Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (1999)

Fritz Umback, The Last Neighborhood Cops: The Rise and Fall of Community Policing in New York Public Housing (2011)

Training Materials, Unsual Occurences in General and Civil Disorders 1992_6_16 pg 62
Training Manual for Unusual Occurrences in General and Civil Disorders, 1992, Webster Commission Records, University of Southern California Digital Collections


Risa Goluboff, Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s (2016)

 Jonathan Finn, Capturing the Criminal Image: From Mug Shot to Surveillance Society (2009)

Lisa McGirr, The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (2015)

Marc Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power (2000)

Micol Seigal, Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police (2018)

 Sarah Seo, Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom (2019)

Alex Vitale, The End of Policing (2017)

 Kristian Williams, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (2015)

Police in Labor Day Parade, New York, 1909, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


 Megan Adams, “Public Servants, Public Employees, Public Enemies: Organizing the Chicago Police, 1952-1984” (PhD dissertation, 2012)

 Aaron Bekemeyer, PhD dissertation on police union movement

Dennis Deslippe, “‘Do Whites Have Rights?’: White Detroit Policemen and ‘Reverse Discrimination’ Protests in the 1970s,” Journal of American History (2004)

Sydney Herring, Policing a Class Society: The Experience of American Cities, 1865-1915 (1983)

 Tim Lombardo, Blue Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics (2018)

Mary A. Shanley, New York City detective – “pickpockets’ captor fears that she might look tough,” 1937, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Tera Eva Agyepong, The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender, and Delinquency in Chicago’s Juvenile Justice System, 1899-1945 (2018)

 Elvia R. A. Arrioloa, “Faeries, Marimachas, Queens, and Lezzies: The Construction of Homosexuality Before the 1969 Stonewall Riots,” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law (1995)

Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (2009)

George Chauncy, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994)

Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (2016)

 Anne Gray Fischer, “‘Land of the White Hunter’: Legal Liberalism and the Racial Politics of Morals Enforcement in Midcentury Los Angeles,” Journal of American History (2019)

Anne Gray Fischer, “‘The Place is Gone!’: Policing Black Women to Redevelop Downtown Boston,” Journal of Social History (2019)

Kali Gross, Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910 (2006)

Cheryl Hicks, Talk With You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935 (2010)

Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie and Kay Whitlock. “The Ghosts of Stonewall: Policing Gender, Policing Sex,” Truthout July 8, 2015.

Moon-Ho Jung “Policing Gay LA: Mapping Racial Divides in the Homophile Era, 1950-1967” in The Rising Tide of Color: Race, State Violence, and Radical Movements across the Pacific (2014)

 Mary Odom, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (1995)

 Jessica Pliley, Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI (2014)

Andrea Ritchie, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color (2017).

 Steven Schlossman and Stephanie Wallach, “The Crime of Precocious Sexuality: Female Juvenile Delinquency in the Progressive Era,” Harvard Educational Review (1978)

Timothy Stewart-Winter, “Queer Law and Order: Sex, Criminality, and Policing in the Late Twentieth Century United States,” Journal of American History (2015)

Insular police on a San Juan street. Puerto Rico, Edwin Rosskam, 1938, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


 Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton, eds. Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (2016)

Matthew Guariglia, “The American Problem: Race, Empire, and Policing in New York City, 1840-1930” (PhD Dissertation, 2019)

Jeremy Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation-Building in the American Century (2012)

Marisol Lebrón, Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence and Resistance in Puerto Rico (2019)

Stuart Schrader, Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing (2019)

Katherine Unterman, Uncle Sam’s Policemen: The Pursuit of Fugitives Across Borders (2015)


Adam Goodman, The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (2020)

 Erika Lee, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (2003)

Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (2018)

Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (2010)

 Monica Muñoz Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (2018)

Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004)


66842479_10215536549541940_8123537809790205952_nMatthew Guariglia is a historian of policing, race, and U.S. state power. His dissertation was recently named the Immigration and Ethnic History Society’s Outstanding Dissertation for 2020 and is currently being revised as an academic monograph. He is a visiting research scholar in the department of history at UC-Berkeley and a policy analyst researching surveillance at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

charlotte-rosen-168x210Charlotte Rosen is History PhD student at Northwestern University who specializes in post-1960s United States political history and the history of the United States carceral state. Her dissertation, entitled “Carceral Crisis: The Challenge of Prison Overcrowding and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1970-2000,” examines the history of prisons, punishment, and prisoner resistance in late-twentieth century Pennsylvania, with a focus on the politics of prison overcrowding and Black protest to the emergent carceral regime in the 1980s and 1990s. 

4 thoughts on “Histories of Police, Policing, and Police Unions in the United States

  1. Some useful resources here, I am surprised that there is no obvious reference to Native Americans and the police. This is one as a start: A 2017 article called “Whose Lives Matter: The Media’s Failure to Cover Police Use of Lethal Force Against Native Americans” by Jean Reith Schroedel and Roger J. Chin, in Race and Justice, 2020, Vol. 10(2) 150-175


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