Criminal justice, policing, and mass incarceration have gained significant political attention recently, and the problems of these systems have drawn increasingly frequent calls for reform from the right and left. Historians have turned their attention to illuminating the roots of these institutions. While many historians have focused on the 20th century, others have examined the emergence of urban professional police departments in the 19th century. Adam Malka
, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma, takes these questions to the antebellum period to illuminate how these new police forces emerged in an age of liberal ideals and emancipation. In The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation
(University of North Carolina Press, 2018), Malka examines the development of the Baltimore police department in the years leading up to and following the Civil War. Malka highlights several unexpected features of this development. He shows the continuity and connections between antebellum vigilante justice and the professional police force. Further, he shows the emerging image of black criminality in the post-Civil War era was not opposed to the liberal ideals that came with the war, but rather was integral to them.
In this episode of the podcast, Malka discusses the insights of the book. He explains why Baltimore is a particularly apt city for studying the rise of professional policing and how those new law enforcement institutions built on and worked in tandem with the vigilante policing that came before. He also discusses how ideas of property shaped policing, the ideals of liberalism, and the image of black criminality. We also discuss the challenges of researching this topic and, finally, conclude by considering how this more nuanced history might inform our understanding of current controversies surrounding policing.
Christine Lamberson is an Associate Professor of History at Angelo State University. Her research and teaching focuses on 20th century U.S. political and cultural history. She’s currently working on a book manuscript about the role of violence in shaping U.S. political culture in the 1960s and 1970s. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.