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The Colonial Origins of the UChicago Police

Modern policing has its origin in colonial violence. The University of Chicago has long played a part in cultivating, promoting, spreading, and normalizing the tools of such state violence.

The following article is adapted from a panel discussion hosted by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Chicago in February 2023, entitled “Counter-Terrorism and Empire: State Violence and the Right to Resist.” This panel was the culminating event of SJP UChicago’s #IsraeliMilitaryOffOurCampus campaign, a quarter-long student movement in the winter of 2023 aimed at exposing the University of Chicago’s ties to the propagandistic “Israel Institute and opposing its decision to host “counter-terrorism” courses taught by Israeli military personnel, notably Brigadier General Meir Elran.

The discourse of “counter-terrorism” has risen to prominence in recent decades, providing political justification for such acts as the US invasion of Iraq and the ongoing Israeli colonization of Palestine. By exploring counter-terrorism’s origins, imperial applications, and entanglement with other systems of gendered and racialized violence, this discussion raises important questions about anticolonial struggle, discourses of state violence, and the role of academic institutions in normalizing and perpetuating them. Special focus is placed on how these global forces come to manifest at University of Chicago and with the university’s police department. The panel can be viewed here

The story I want to tell has to do with the Philippines in the early twentieth century. But it will also have to do with policing across the United States and here on campus, and ultimately with the University of Chicago.

In 1898, the United States declared sovereignty over the Philippine Islands, places which President McKinley and most Americans had no idea even existed. But as a result of the Spanish-American war in 1898 the US did come to learn about the Philippines. It sent its troops there to fight the Spanish, and upon defeating Spain, it seized the Philippines and its millions of inhabitants as its new colonial territory.

The problem for the Americans was that the Filipinos, who had been subjected to Spanish rule for 300 years, were not happy about the Americans coming and subjecting them to more colonial rule. They had in fact already declared their independence from Spain, and so they established an independent Philippines: The Philippine Republic. They took up arms against the United States, leading to the so-called Philippine-American war which lasted officially from 1899 to 1902 but continued in various forms afterwards.

This was a formative war for the United States: it was the first overseas guerilla war the US fought, one that prefigured what would happen later in Vietnam. But unlike in Vietnam, the Americans essentially won, crushing most of the rebel resistance. The war ultimately cost some 400,000 Filipino lives.

The war involved brutal acts of violence on the part of American soldiers, including the use of barbaric torture to extract information from Filipino rebels, and a horrific massacre on the island of Sumar in 1902. Led by US General Jacob H. Smith, US forces attacked villages in Sumar, killing civilians and even children. General Smith had ordered his troops: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.” This campaign lasted four and a half months, and an estimated 15,000 Filipinos were killed.

Importantly, this violence was justified to the US military and to the American public on the grounds that Filipinos were criminals and terrorists. And here we get to the discursive logic behind counterterrorist discourse. In American discourse, the two terms  “criminal” and “terrorist” were more or less the same. Supposedly, Filipinos were criminals because the very act of taking arms against the United States to call for independence—according to the Americans’ new laws, about which Filipinos had no say— was a crime. Filipino resistance fighters were called terrorists because they were presumably forcing average Filipinos upon pain of violence to join their cause. They were called terrorists simply because they took up arms and were fighting against colonialism and for freedom. General Jacob Smith in fact justified the massacre at Sumar on the grounds that earlier that year Filipino troops had killed fifty US soldiers. Rather than classifying this as an act of wartime defense, or as an act of legitimate rebellion against an occupying oppressor, the Americans called the attack a massacre by Filipino terrorists. It was a crime and an act of terror.

State violence in the Philippines—from massacres to torture—returned to the US through individuals like August Vollmer.

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The logic of counterterrorism was this: the Filipino insurgents were not freedom fighters, but irrational violent terrorists who respond only to force. And if they respond only to force, state violence against them is justified.

What does this have to do with policing?

The state violence in the Philippines, and state violence everywhere, from massacres to torture, to all of the US army’s counterinsurgency operations, did not stay put. As with so many cases of imperialism, some of them came back to the United States through a number of individuals, one of whom was a man named August Vollmer. Vollmer was the chief of police at Berkeley starting in 1905, and today, Vollmer is memorialized by historians and police officers alike for being the “father of modern policing.” Ask any police officer—ask any University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) officer: “do you know August Vollmer?” They’ll say, “yes, he’s the father of modern policing!”

Vollmer is responsible for innovating all kinds of new tactics and policing strategies in the early twentieth century, all of which spread around the country to make modern policing what it is today. For example, prior to this period, police forces were not mobile or mounted. You just had a few cops walking around on their beats on foot. But Vollmer came up with the idea of putting police forces into mobile squads that would patrol on bike, motorcycles, and ultimately squad cars: moving all over the city, concentrating force and raiding houses like early SWAT teams. In a sense, he invented the early SWAT teams and inspired other police departments in the US to create their own mounted forces.

Vollmer also invented a police tactic known as pin-mapping. This involves taking a map and putting a pin wherever you found a crime  to show hot-spots of criminal activity. It allows police to then mobilize their forces and concentrate them there.

Now, today this is called spot mapping or “predictive policing.” Every department uses this in some form. They use more complicated algorithms, but essentially these are all Vollmer’s tactics of finding out where crime is and where it happened, and then mobilizing police forces there and saturating those communities with police forces.

Pin-mapping and “predictive policing” are racist tools of state power.

This tactic is essentially how racist policing is justified; police are sent only to those areas of high crime, but those areas that they think are high crime or that show up on a map are only areas of racial minorities. Not because racialized minorities commit more crimes, but because of historical biases in data collection and racist assumptions about criminality. Pin-mapping is a racist tool of state power.

Vollmer popularized this too, along with many other police tactics. Now, the question you might ask is, where did Vollmer’s innovations come from? And a large part of the answer comes from the fact that Vollmer, before he became police chief, had been part of America’s colonial empire and in fact had served in the Philippine-American war.

Vollmer  had been part of America’s colonial counter-insurgency regime, squashing  so-called terrorists. In fact, he had been hand-picked to join a new elite colonial counterinsurgency unit charged with penetrating the interior to conquer and capture rebel leaders, not unlike the sort of units that killed so many civilians in Sumar. Only after this did Vollmer return to Berkeley and become chief of police. And he brought with him some of those very colonial counterinsurgency techniques—those so-called counterterrorist techniques—that he had been exposed to and used in the Philippines.

His idea of mounting police forces, for instance, came partly from the American army’s new counterinsurgency units that penetrated the Philippine archipelago. In other words, the early police mobile units that Vollmer created and popularized—these early SWAT forces—were modeled upon America’s “counterterrorist” regime in the Philippines. The same goes for his pin-mapping techniques: the US army had innovated pin-mapping techniques specifically as a new tool to track the movements of Filipino insurgents in order to locate their camps in the vast terrain of central Luzon and embark upon their search-and-destroy missions. It was through pin-mapping that the US army was able to send troops to Sumar and conduct a brutal and murderous campaign against civilians that was justified as counterterrorism. Vollmer saw this as a tactic that could also be applied to policing—he called it the art of making war on the map.

Using techniques of so-called “counterterrorist” state violence in the colonies and applying them to “criminals” in the US followed only naturally.

After all, Vollmer himself stated repeatedly that he thought of criminals as racially inferior, as he and other US imperialists classified Filipinos and justified their colonial rule on racial grounds. They said the same thing about criminals, who were after all, seen as terrorists, just as terrorists were thought of as criminals.

Thus, using techniques of so-called “counterterrorist” state violence in the colonies and applying them to “criminals” in the US followed only naturally. It’s fitting that Asha Bandele and Patrisse Cullors, leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, titled their memoirs When They Call You a Terrorist.

These examples of pin-mapping and mounted units are just two examples of how so-called counterterrorist tactics in America’s colonies returned home. For example, in the 1910s and 1920s, some police around the country were soon discovered to be using modes of torture to extract confessions, largely from Black Americans. They used a technique called the “water cure.” This was an early variant of “waterboarding” that we know was used in Iraq.  Police tried to extract confessions from suspects by holding them down and pouring water down their throats. But this too was an effect of empire.

The American military first learned about it during their colonial counterinsurgency campaigns in the Philippines. This was the chosen mode of torture used by the US army  during the Philippine-American war. It was also reportedly being used by US forces in the 1910s during the US occupation of Haiti.

Racist policing in the US in the early twentieth century through today has its origins in America’s colonial occupation of the Philippines. Policing is a colonial invention. It is an invention of so-called “counter-terrorist” state violence. The state violence of military engagements overseas, of counterinsurgency operations, and “counter-terrorist” tactics, do not stay put, they do not only live in the site of their origins, they move around. And in this case, they came back to the imperial metropole to fundamentally shape state violence at home with disastrous effects.

Policing is a colonial invention.

Presumed criminals here in the US become treated like presumed terrorists, ostensibly warranting violence by the same set of counterinsurgency tools, tactics and techniques used in the colonies.

The circulation of state terror has continued ever since. It has taken many different forms, has been used by US empire, the British empire, along with other colonial states, a list which today includes Israel.

Consider a training program that has been going on between US police and Israeli military and police ever since 2001. Since then, officials and officers from US police forces around the United States have been sent to Israel to learn and observe counterinsurgency and so-called counter-terrorist techniques from the Israeli military and the Israeli national police. A delegation of officers from towns in Massachusetts in 2017, for example, toured the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the border with Syria, and Israel’s municipal police academy, to learn about intelligence gathering and surveillance, and other tactics like roadblocks and weapons for crowd control, which they have been trying to bring back for policing in the United States.

US police also learned various other Israeli police tactics, with one US county sheriff who attended going on record to say, in reference to how Israeli forces used force during arrests, “We’d be in jail if we did something like that here.”

US police officials from all around the country, in fact, have participated in this program, with numbers of police officials going on these training missions exceeding the thousands. Attendees include police officers from the Chicago Police Department, as well as  a man named Chief Timothy Fitch. In 2011, Fitch was sent to Israel for training. He returned home by 2014 to serve as St. Louis County police chief, thus overseeing the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, which is part of St. Louis County.

We see this pattern repeats with earlier in the century, when folks like August Vollmer went overseas, learned tactics and techniques of state violence there, and brought them home for police to use on domestic populations. Again, state terror overseas, created in the name of countering terror, created to mete out violence against presumed terrorists and so-called criminals, this state terror does not stay put. It is not something that just happens far away, it circulates everywhere, and comes home.

Finally, what does this have to do with the University of Chicago?

Let me return to August Vollmer, for Vollmer did not stay put either. After his stint at Berkeley, and then after serving as chief of police in Los Angeles, he traveled around the country and was hired by various police departments to advise them in adopting the new techniques that he had brought back from the Philippines. He even advised the Chicago Police Department. While in Chicago, he held a conference at what is today Windermere House in Hyde Park. This conference brought together police officials from around the US so they could share policing practices, and all the new policing tactics that Vollmer had brought back from the imperial frontiers. Vollmer’s efforts were so popular in town that in 1929 he received a telegram from a man offering him a new job based upon his work.

At the University of Chicago, August Vollmer became the very first professor of police administration in any American university.

That man was named Robert Maynard Hutchins. Hutchins had just been appointed president of the University of Chicago, and he hired August Vollmer to create a police training program here at the University of Chicago. Hutchins appointed Vollmer to be professor of police administration at the University of Chicago, making August Vollmer the very first professor of police administration in any American university, and making the University of Chicago the first university to have a professor of police administration. His office was located in room 317 of the social science research building, two doors down from my current office.

Now Vollmer ended up teaching a number of courses here for a few years, but he did not stay—he moved back to California in the 1930s. And while the University of Chicago today does not have an official police administration program anymore, it does have its own police force, which is one of the largest private police forces in the country. And of course it uses many of the tactics and forms that Vollmer himself innovated. The University of Chicago also has the Crime Lab, which works with the Chicago Police Department, and which hired as its director a former Los Angeles police officer named Sean Malinowski. Malinowsky is widely known for leading the LAPD in adopting so-called predictive policing. This is a form of policing rooted in Vollmer’s pin-mapping techniques, and which has, by all accounts, been a primary method of racist policing, a tool by which police justify their over-policing and harassment of Black and Latinx communities.

All of this to say that not only is it the case that state violence circulates globally and lands at home, but also that there are parts of the University of Chicago that have long played a part in cultivating, promoting, spreading, and normalizing the intellectual tools of such state violence. This state violence  goes under the moral cover of the label “counterterrorism” or “counter- crime,” but  is ultimately just another form of violence against humanity.

All of this is why I would insist that the struggle against police violence here in the United States cannot be separate from the struggle against colonialism overseas. This is also why the struggle against police violence here at the University of Chicago should not be separate from the struggle against colonialism, and vice-versa. And neither should it be separated from Indigenous struggles in the US, Canada, and Australia, or elsewhere. Empire and its violence is global, connects us all, and so resistors to empire and its violence must also be global and connected.

Julian Go - Professor Julian Go is a sociologist at the University of Chicago, focusing on US empire and postcolonial/decolonial thought. His forthcoming book Policing Empires: Militarization and Race in Britain and America, 1829-Present details imperialism's impact on police militarization in the US and Britain.

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