The History of Policing in America

Students learn about the history of policing in African American communities and connect it to the controversy over how police treated insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

To the Teacher:

Many Americans were shocked by the events that transpired on January 6, 2021, in our nation’s Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Students are asking questions about the police response to protesters and insurrectionists. They likely see contrasts between how the group of Trump supporters were treated on January 6, and how those protesting structural racism and police killings of African Americans were treated during the summer and fall of 2020.

In this lesson, students learn about the history of policing in America and how African American communities have been policed since the inception of the first “slave” patrols that took root in southern communities. They are invited to connect this history to the controversy over how police treated the mostly white insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6.

Primary and Secondary Source Materials

Bloody Sunday
 A state trooper swings a club at John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, during a civil rights voting march in Selma, Alabama in 1965. 



Before Teaching the Lesson

This lesson explores a topic that many may have strong opinions and feelings about. Before beginning the lesson, consider how students may react and how to ensure a supportive climate for the discussion. Let them know that during tomorrow’s discussion, they’ll likely encounter multiple viewpoints and perspectives. Invite everyone in the classroom to share respectfully from their experiences and perspectives. Also invite everyone to listen respectfully. You may want to review these guidelines for discussing upsetting issues.

As an introduction to the lesson on the day before you teach it, ask students if any of them have law enforcement members in their immediate or extended families. Acknowledge those students and their family members, then introduce them to tomorrow’s lesson.  Read aloud the title of the article you’re assigning them: "They Scare Me - From Slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to Today: Terrorizing Policing in Black America." Tell them that tomorrow’s class discussion will center on the history and culture of policing in general. Note that it is not a discussion about every individual who has ever served in law enforcement.

Provide students with this pdf of the research paper written by Teresa Ann Willis © 2017.

Have students read and annotate the paper the night before you teach the lesson. At the end of the paper there are discussion prompts and questions for students to answer. They are:

  • Record one lingering question you have after reading the paper.
  • What new information have you learned about the history of policing in America?
  • Have your thoughts about policing changed after learning about the history of policing? How?

Have students write their answers in a separate document. Either collect these responses before class, or have students email them to you in advance. 

Before the lesson, quickly review a few of the students' questions and answers so you have a heads up as to where the discussion might go.

It’s important to be able to give students context for the Kerner Commission Report, which you'll be discussing in class. Before the lesson, please read the Smithsonian article, “The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened.”

Whole Class Discussion and Inquiry

Begin by allowing students to discuss what they learned about the history of policing in America and how African American communities have been policed.

These excerpts from the Kerner Commission Report on civil unrest may be useful to guide the discussion. They will highlight for students that our federal government has known since 1968 that racism pervaded policing and, if left unchecked, would result in a perilous future for all Americans.

Students will likely want to discuss what took place on January 6, 2021. To aid with that discussion, play this CNN video clip of commentator Van Jones discussing what happened at the Capitol, including the police response and how it compares to the way police have responded to Black Lives Matter protests.



A discussion about the history of policing in American and in African American communities is one that will linger. For some students, the discussion may raise more questions than it answers. That’s a good thing. Encourage further exploration and study and use this lesson as a springboard for further inquiry, study, and class discussions.