Policing Empires: Militarization, Race, and the Imperial Boomerang in Britain and the US

Author: Julian Go
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2023.  392 pages.
Reviewer: Jonathon Booth | April 2024

In 1980, British-Jamaican dub-poet Linton Kwesi Johnson attacked the London Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group (“SPG”). “Everywhere you go you hear people say, / That the Special Patrol them are murderers (murderers),” Johnson reported.[1] Although the poem was inspired by the SPG’s killing of anti-Nazi demonstrator Blair Peach, Johnson was likely already familiar with the SPG. As Julian Go demonstrates in the final chapter of his Policing Empires Militarization, Race, and the Imperial Boomerang in Britain and the US (2023), starting in the 1960s, the SPG employed tactics brought home from colonial counterinsurgency campaigns to police Britain’s Black neighborhoods, such as Brixton where Johnson lived.[2]

In this wide-ranging, smoothly written, and thoroughly researched history, Go sets out to explain why the “civil police” of the United States and United Kingdom have become increasingly militarized over the last two centuries. Go argues that the SPG is only the most recent instantiation of two-century process in which American and British imperialism returned home in the form of militarized police.

Go’s argument proceeds in two parts. First, he argues that the militarized tactics and strategies employed by domestic police – pin-mapping, snatch squads, mobile strike squads, tear gas, fingerprinting, and more – were “developed and perfected” in American and British colonies to repress colonial subjects. (xv.) In Go’s telling, imperial locales were “novel spaces requiring new forms of statecraft and intervention, new practical grammars of coercion and violence” particularly because they contained racialized populations.[3] (12, 14.)

 Second, he argues that imperial tactics were initially used against racialized populations on the home front. (135.) Go convincingly demonstrates that police forces in both countries were frequently led by imperial veterans who acted as “imperial importers” (19), domesticating colonial tactics that they believed would be useful to suppress both crime and political dissent, which they associated with racialized people. White majorities accepted the use of such tactics against racialized communities even as they rejected the use of these same tactics in white communities.[4] (159–62, 196–97.) In short, Go argues that “racialization has been a primary driver of police militarization” in large part because the police see racialized citizens “as colonial subjects.”[5] (20.)

To support this argument, Go traces two centuries of police development and examines imperial policing and warfare in more than a dozen colonies. The book ventures from well-known sites of imperial intervention such as the Philippines and Ireland to less-studied locations such as Nicaragua and Shanghai. While Go’s discussion of policing in England focuses largely on London (and Manchester), the American material spans the country, from Los Angeles to Vermont.

Throughout the book, Go hews closely to his two-part argument, producing a plethora of concrete examples of militarized policing practices that were developed in the colonies and then used at home. Not only does he show that specific tactics, fingerprinting for example, were first tested in colonies and later brought to the metropole. (162–71.) He also shows that police officials self-consciously embraced the use of colonial tactics against racialized populations at home. In short, they believed militarized tactics were required to suppress crime and “subversive” political activity among racialized people – at home and abroad.

Go’s story begins, as most histories of policing do, with Robert Peel and the establishment of the London Metropolitan Police (the Met) in 1829. Go demonstrates that the men, including Peel, who were responsible for establishing the new police had served in imperial posts in Ireland and brought Irish policing tactics back to London. (54). To prove the second part of his argument, Go argues that, once the Met had been established, one of its central goals was to police racialized “low Irish” immigrants who were blamed for increasing crime in London. (48, 59.) Using surviving arrest and prosecution statistics, Go shows that the Met disproportionately arrested Irish Londoners. (64.)

The pattern of this first chapter sets the pattern for the rest of the book, which ranges from the 1840s to the 1980s. Throughout, each chapter identifies policing practices that were developed in the colonies and traces how they were brought home and used against racialized populations.

In Part II, Go jumps ahead to the late-nineteenth century period of imperial expansion and demonstrates a significant contrast between police militarization in the US and UK. A significant portion of the American material focuses on August Vollmer, police chief of Berkeley, California. Vollmer is best known as a modernizer who professionalized policing in the twentieth century, but he was also a key figure in police militarization. Before being hired as Berkeley police chief, Vollmer had he served in the United States Army occupying the Philippines. Upon his return home, Vollmer employed many of the counterinsurgency techniques he had learned in the Philippines to combat criminals – especially non-white criminals – at home. (118–19.) Newspapers recognized the connection, with one writing that in Berkeley, Vollmer “put into effect some of the methods he’d used in chasing elusive river pirates on the Pasig [in the Philippines] and bushwackers in the steaming wild jungles.” (118.)

In contrast, in Britain during this period there was no similar increase in police militarization, even though the British police were also staffed with numerous veterans of imperial wars and counterinsurgencies. (143.) In Go’s telling, this occurred because Met Police Chief and imperial veteran Charles Warren overreached. Warren’s attempted militarization led to “Bloody Sunday” during which the Met attacked English leftists rallying in Trafalgar Square, leading to hundreds of injuries and three deaths. (158.) The British public felt that Warren’s actions against white Englishmen showed that the Met had become tyrannical and forced him to resign. (161.) In contrast, Go demonstrates that fingerprinting, a colonial technique imported by the former inspector general of police in Bengal, was adopted without controversy in Britain because it was it was “aimed at … racialized populations.” (162–67, 171). Local conditions, therefore, provide limits to police militarization.

In Part III, Go moves forward to the era of decolonization and adds significantly to the literature. In this part, Go examines the impact of “tactical imperialism,” which inspired the creation of SWAT teams that were deployed primarily in Black neighborhoods. (198.) In an anecdote that brilliantly illustrates his thesis, Go reports that the first significant action taken by the LAPD’s SWAT team was a raid on Los Angeles’s Black Panther Party headquarters.[6] (180.)

Go’s book ends where this review began: demonstrating the colonial origins of the SPG’s counterinsurgency tactics, such as tear gas and snatch squads, against both leftist activists and Black communities in Britain. (228.) Go concludes that in the twenty-first century, distinctions between policing the colony and the metropole have largely collapsed and racialized communities face the brunt of a fully militarized police – often armed with surplus military equipment from recent imperial interventions the Middle East. (251, 261.)

Overall, Go succeeds marvelously in proving his thesis. He demonstrates beyond doubt that there have been close links between imperial governance and militarized domestic policing and that these tactics arose in response to perceptions of racial difference. The book is less clear, however, on how factors other than race shaped police militarization. Admittedly these complex questions are somewhat beyond the scope of Go’s thesis, but they do raise questions about the relative importance of domestic racial hierarchy to police militarization.

Many of these issues converge on the question of who makes decisions about policing. One gets the impression from Policing Empires that police chiefs could import colonial tactics with little political oversight. Although parts of the first two chapters demonstrate the importance of political leadership in the formation of police forces, mayors and other political leaders are largely absent from the remainder of the book. (46–59; 84–89; 94–101.) Similarly, Go says very little about the local and national laws and regulations that govern policing, nor about how police forces were funded and equipped. Although Go acknowledges that there are political limits to police militarization, there is little discussion of how policing has been subject to democratic contestation or the place of policing in the broader political – and economic – system.

In fact, Go explicitly rejects traditions of policing scholarship that focus on economic influences, writing that they make “it hard to see race’s possibly autonomous impact on policing” and that they improperly “address race by reducing it to socioeconomic class.” (10–11, 255.) Similarly, he argues, “the primary targets of policing have always been not just workers but more precisely nonwhite workers.” (11.) Yet, even if, as Go demonstrates, race has a degree of “autonomous”[7] impact on policing, we are left wondering how the importance of race compares with that of other factors. Tellingly, although Go repeatedly acknowledges that repressing organized labor and progressive political movements was a key goal of police forces, this insight does not affect his central argument. (39, 76, 108–09, 124, 128–29, 151, 183, 189, 216–17, 225, 247.)

Go’s argument that the Manchester police was formed primarily to police Irish residents shows the limitations of this approach. Manchester has long been known as the cradle of the industrial revolution, where a landless proletariat worked for wages transforming slave-grown cotton into textiles and enriching Britain’s capitalists, including Robert Peel’s father.[8] Manchester’s cotton industry grew so quickly that the world’s first inter-city railway was built to transport cotton from the docks of Liverpool to the factories of Manchester. One year before the railway opened in 1830, Manchester’s Watch Committee begged Prime Minister Robert Peel to set up a police force in Manchester and, when Peel declined, began to turn their watch into a modern constabulary.[9] It is unclear exactly how large Manchester’s Irish population was in 1830, but Irish Mancunians certainly made up under fifteen percent of the total.[10] Looking at Manchester’s internal politics, and the politicians who created police regulations before the new force was created by Parliament in 1839, helps to clarify what factors, other than anti-Irish sentiment, were at play.

In a recent dissertation, Ian Beattie argues that Manchester’s cotton capitalists sought to use police to govern city’s rapidly growing working class – English and Irish alike. Beattie’s discussion of William Neild is exemplary and demonstrates how both politics and economics affected the development of policing. Neild was an utterly average Manchester politician: he was a liberal who had achieved wealth by inheriting a calico printing company.[11] Men like Neild, with strong interests in the burgeoning cotton manufacturing sector, formed the core of Manchester’s governing class and moved to modernize urban governance, pushing aside the conservative Tory establishment.[12] Neild also was a central figure in the development of policing in Manchester in the 1820s and 1830s, chairing city’s Watch Committee and caring so much about the quality of policing that he followed the watchmen as they walked their beats.[13] As Manchester’s majority-English working class population grew, Neild and his compatriots felt that the coercive authority of the police had to increase – they believed that an effective police force was their trump card in the game of class domination.[14] Indeed, Charles Shaw, a former military officer appointed police chief of Manchester in 1839 to suppress Chartism (80), wrote that, before his appointment, “The manufacturers were the heads of the police, and directed the constables in their duty.”[15]

Clearly the interests of Manchester’s politician-manufacturers had something to do with the development of policing in the city. But this narrative complements, rather than refutes, Go’s contention that Manchester’s Irish got the worst of it. Indeed, Shaw described Manchester as a “home colony,” attracting both capitalists and workers from elsewhere in the British Isles, which he believed required “modified colonial government.”[16] Clearly, British elites such as Shaw reached instinctively for racialized colonial comparisons, even when describing the policing of the English working class.

Policing Empires is an important contribution to the rapidly growing field of police history. Moving forward, it is vital that scholars analyze race, class, and politics together to develop a complete picture of the goals and impact of policing. At the same time, it is necessary to recognize, as Go demonstrates, that the goals and methods of police has changed drastically over time. Policing’s role in contemporary Los Angeles is different from its role London in 1829 – and for that matter from Los Angeles in 1965. Similarly, the views of the economic and political elite are not static nor necessarily united. Different segments of the elite have different material interests and are always pulled between wanting police to protect those interests and wanting avoiding paying taxes to fund the police.[17] This mosaic of concerns defines the field of policing history, and it is up to scholars to portray policing it in all of its complexity.

Jonathon Booth is an Incoming Associate Professor of Law at the University of Colorado Law School.


[1] Linton Kwesi Johnson, Reggae Fi Peach, Bass Culture (1980), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrDfELIu8Lw.

[2] Unfortunately Go does not discuss the Met’s Special Demonstration Squad, which has recently come under scrutiny. See Undercover Policing Inquiry, Tranche 1: Special Demonstration Squad officers and managers and those affected by deployments (1968–1982) (2023), https://www.ucpi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/Undercover-Policing-Inquiry-Tranche-1-Interim-Report.pdf; Rob Evans, Fourth officer allegedly fathered child after meeting woman undercover, Guardian, Apr. 22, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/apr/22/fourth-officer-allegedly-fathered-child-after-meeting-woman-undercover.

[3] Go draws the concept of the imperial boomerang from Aimé Césaire, Hannah Ardent, and Michel Foucault. (17–18.)

[4] Importantly, Go includes the Irish as a racialized community in the nineteenth-century United States and Britain.

[5] Although he references it only in passing (20), Go’s argument strongly supports the 1960s radical critique of “internal colonialism” put forward by Black Panthers and others. See Sam Klug, The Internal Colony: Race and the American Politics of Global Decolonization (forthcoming, University of Chicago Press)

[6] See also Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story 211 (1992) (“Before the raid on our office, no one had heard of SWAT. People had seemed incredulous when we told them about those dark blue trucks containing heavy artillery and military materials and specially trained men that had sat outside the Central Avenue office in November, a month before. Now it was clear that the LAPD had spent several hundred thousand dollars to actually create a military force to do one thing: eliminate the Black Panther Party in their domain.”)

[7] The degree to which the construction of race is tied to broader political and economic changes is beyond the scope of this review. But see Stuart Hall, Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance, in Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism (ed. UNESCO, 1980); Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Race in the Twenty-First Century (2000).

[8] See Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History 56–60 (2014); S.D. Chapman, Peel, Sir Robert, 1st Baronet, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://www.oxforddnb.com/display/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-21763.

[9] Ian Beattie, Taming Modernity: The Rise of the Modern State in Early Industrial Manchester 387 (2022) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, McGill University), https://escholarship.mcgill.ca/concern/theses/vh53x1825.

[10] Mervyn Busteed provides an able discussion of various population estimates and states that the 1841 census gives the Irish-born population of Manchester as 30,304 or 12.5%. Mervyn Busteed, The Irish in Manchester c.1750-1921: Resistance, Adaptation and Identity 14–15 (2016).

[11] Beattie, Taming Modernity at 390.

[12] Id at 391.

[13] Id. at 392.

[14] Id. at 394–95.

[15] Charles Shaw, Manufacturing districts: replies of Sir Charles Shaw to Lord Ashley, M.P., regarding the education and moral and physical condition of the labouring classes 12 (1843). Notably Shaw says next to nothing about the Irish in his fifty-page pamphlet.

[16] Beattie, Taming Modernity at 397; Shaw, Replies at 44.

[17] This austerity mindset becomes even more significant after police formed unions capable of creating what the “policeman’s welfare state.” Aaron T. Bekemeyer, The Labor of Law and Order: How Police Unions Transformed Policing and Politics in the United States, 1939–1985 173 (2021) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University), https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/37370101.

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