A Conversation with the Teacher of the “Most Biased College Course in America”

Branden Adams is a Stanford History Ph.D. candidate studying U.S. History. His “Sources and Methods” course, HISTORY 73S – History of the Police in the United States: Slave Patrols to Ferguson, was named the “Most Biased College Course in America” by the conservative group Campus Reform, and criticized by Fox News based on its four-sentence Explore Courses description.

How did police come to have the power to use violence? Themes: growth of professional policing, creation of private police forces and vigilantism, and public portrayals of police–by Hollywood and the press. The historical relationship between race and the administration of policing is a central question. Students will hone the methodology necessary to examine primary sources such as police memoirs, court records, police files, detective novels, music videos and photographs.

Below is a lightly-edited transcript of my interview with Adams, which offers a more holistic picture of the course.


Sarah Sadlier: Why did you decide to teach this class? What is the principal purpose of the course?

Branden Adams: At Stanford, History graduate students have the opportunity to design a course, called a “Sources and Methods” class. It has a certain set of learning goals, such as reading primary sources carefully and writing history based on these documents.

I wanted to teach a course in which students could find some relevance to their daily lives. For me, this was the history of the police. I didn’t come into this subject as a total novice because I had written about Pinkerton private police forces in the late nineteenth century. So, I had read extensively about both the topic and the secondary source literature on private policing more generally.

SS: What other types of materials does your class look at? Do you prioritize primary sources over secondary sources? Do you have more sources by those affected by the police or by the police themselves?

BA: The course skews heavily towards primary sources, and that is part of the goal of the “Sources and Methods” requirement. I would say, on the whole, we do read a lot more primary sources by police. That can lead to a situation where it could seem like we are trying to suppress voices against the police, but I think that we spend a lot of time trying to read police sources critically and in context, trying to understand what sorts of assumptions they are making about the way criminals act and the society they are trying to create through their actions. Sometimes, it is difficult to think through these perspectives of other people, but it is important as a historian to take seriously the ideas of the elite, people who actually changed things. We do also spend some time looking at non-elite sources, such as hip-hop music from the nineties, and try to situate that in response to new police tactics that were developed in the eighties, ideas of people like James Q. Wilson. Even when we do get into voices against the police, we always situate them historically, in response to specific police tactics.

SS: Why go back to the slave patrols? Why use this as a starting point?

BA: It creates a narrative in the class that frames the course around police violence against black people, which is especially relevant to the contemporary situation. It allows the students to ask a lot of questions about what has changed, what seems to be the same, and what it means to look at something that seems very similar across a long period of time, which is highly contingent on context. However, violence in the form of slave patrols is not the same as the violence of contemporary police, who are ostensibly at least trying to reduce crime in black communities.

SS: In 1866, Mark Twain asked in his satire of police brutality, “What have the Police been doing?” Is the current debate about police violence comparable to any others in history, or is this the most national attention that it has received?

BA: In the early twentieth century, people were concerned about police brutality for a completely different reason than today. At the turn of the century, most of the police force was Irish Americans, so there was a class and ethnic component to the criticism of the police force. Reformers were trying to root out corruption in cities, and police were often part of the political machine, so reformers saw the police and being a prime target.

Police corruption takes different forms now. In the late nineteenth century, it was about extracting extortion money from criminals. For instance, there were robust relationships between brothel madams and the police that created a community of interest between the two. Today, police corruption takes the form of either cooking the books on crime statistics or, as we saw in the case of the Illinois police officer very recently, embezzling department funds.

SS: Should politicians and historians alike study the history of the police? If so, why? How does learning this literature help us understand the use violence in the modern police force?

BA: Studying the history of the police allows you to see that the current situation arises out of a certain set of circumstances. For example, most of the reason why the police in Ferguson were engaged in the kind of behavior that they were was because revenue had been cut at the state level for municipalities. There were limits placed on the amount of property taxes that they could gather. The police department in Ferguson was then forced to figure out some way to raise revenue for itself. Honestly, they chose probably the worst way imaginable: they extracted fees and fines from some of the poorest people in the country, leading to the situation described in the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson police department.

In the late nineteenth century, a lot of law enforcement — especially in the West and in the territories — was conducted on the basis of a fee system. In this system, the government empowered U.S. marshals to extract fees from the population in the form of court fees, which led to a situation where U.S. marshals would arrest people for quite dubious offenses because they were paid out of the court fees. That is only slightly different from Ferguson, because in Ferguson, the police are still paid indirectly from the fees and fines collected by the justice system. Around the turn of the century, there was a growth in professional policing, and it hinged a lot around the idea of giving the police a salary so that their living did not come from their ability to arrest people.

Suppressing crime and arresting people are two different things, and they don’t always overlap. It was only in the twentieth century that people started to realize this. If you incentivize the police to arrest people, you get one outcome; if you incentivize the police to suppress crime, then, with varying success, the police system actually works in some places.

Sarah Sadlier, a senior studying history, American studies, Iberian and Latin American cultures, and political science, is the interviews editor of Stanford Political Journal.