he Oxford English Dictionary, authority on all things etymological, offers us these genealogical details for police:

Etymology: < Middle French, French police public order, administration, government (late 14th cent. …), good order, good administration (early 15th cent.), administration, legislation (of a town) (1426), control exercised over the courts (1477), public order assured by the state (mid 15th cent.), collection of legislative or administrative measures governing and facilitating social life (1451), conduct, practice, manner of acting (15th cent.), organization or body for public order (1584), set of rules of a state (1606), order and regulations established in a society, assembly, or other body (1636), administration watching over the upholding of rules which guarantee public security (1651) < post-classical Latin politia (see policy n.); French police arises from variants of post-classical Latin politia …  

As supplement, here are the related entries from the Online Etymological Dictionary:

"police (n.)

1530s, 'the regulation and control of a community,' at first essentially the same word as policy (n.1); from Middle French police (late 15c.), from Latin politia 'civil administration,' from Greek polis 'city' (see polis).

police (v.)

'to keep order in,' 1580s, from Middle French policer, from police (see police (n.)). Meaning 'to keep order by means of police' is from 1837. Related: Policed; policing."

Etymology does not determine the use of a word, of course.  Yet thinking etymologically can be a way to trace the evolution of a concept.  “Police” as word and concept yields a good harvest to such an approach.  Its origins are very distant from its current use, and some steps along the way show us how its meaning has changed in a way that helps us see—and see around—its tangled denominates.  Specifically, the etymology of the term police exhumes the disavowed relationship to the state and its violence, otherwise the object of a pro-active amnesia.

Police in English was borrowed from the French policer, from police, with roots in the Latin, politia, or “civil adminstration.”  Politia, for its part, derives from the Greek politeia, “state, administration, government, citizenship,” related to polites, “citizen,” and polis “city, state.”  In early usage, police was indistinguishable from policy:  it meant, simply, that which the state did.  Whatever the state did.  This genealogy reveals the tight but underrecognized relationship between police and state.  Today, the uniformed men and women we call police are still doing the most basic function of the state:  the monopolization of legitimate violence.  I intend here to invoke the Weberian definition of the state, but also to remind readers that even pre-Weberian conceptualizations of the state saw the monopoly on violence as the state’s most pressing task.

How is it that the police still carry out the state’s most quintessential work of violence?  Today it has to do with the ways they help keep the economic order of a vicious neoliberal racial capitalism.  As part of the criminal justice system that hangs over Black, brown, working, poor, and other marginalized communities, police are crucial in the spatial containments of this historical moment’s particular poverty.  Police help to keep poor people poor by prohibiting the means of survival—selling loose cigarettes, to invoke one famous case—enforcing that prohibition up to the ultimate sanction of death.  Police undergird a criminal justice system which enforces spatial containment by refusing to prosecute private citizens who heighten, to fatal levels, the risks of, say, a Black man going for a run or to buy a packet of Skittles across neighborhood lines.  Fears instilled by constant examples of people harassed, arrested or murdered for crossing neighborhood boundaries go a long way towards keeping people idle and impoverished or preventing them from moving to areas with better conditions elsewhere.  These fears, added to the requirements of public housing and private rental markets, confine people to neighborhoods where environmental damage sickens their bodies and grocery stores fail to deliver healthy food.  In this historical moment’s version of the policing of vagrancy, a long-favored tactic of racial capitalism, police are a key link in the system that requires degrading, difficult wage labor in order to earn the most meager income or qualify for the tiniest scraps of public assistance.  They stop, frisk, harass, arrest and kill people congregating in or moving through public space; they inflict the consequences of failure to secure degrading employment which can include being disqualified from an addiction recovery program, being moved from probation or parole back into jail or prison, or even losing custody of one’s children.  Finally, and most directly, police use the tools of arrest and incarceration to remove parents and workers from poor communities, exacerbating the hardships people suffer there.

In remembering the relationship of police to the task of disseminating state violence, we have allowed ourselves to become confused by the facts that police are complex, individual people with differences of personality, training, location, and that the state is a snarled assemblage of people and institutions.  Those two complex systems—state and police—don’t map easily onto each other; they are apples and oranges in terms of scale, extent, function, bureaucratic structure, and every other organizational axis.  It is hard to see that police is indeed, still, the mechanism through which the state exercises its most quintessential work of violence.  That is the core of the state; it will necessarily be channeled by the instrument that carries out its functions.[1]

Once we see police in that light, all our illusions—about their potential beneficence, the efficacy of reforming their practice by improving their training or resources, the possibilities for them to serve as community liaisons or mediators—evaporate.

Back to our dictionary beginnings:  the roots of police in politia, civil administration, reveal that while police was originally a noun, it was not the noun we think.  The late-fourteenth and fifteenth century concept of “public order, administration, government” cited above from the Oxford English Dictionary corresponds to the usage Foucault finds in the work of political theorists at that time, who applied it to any social body that had “public authority” exercised upon it.  The term evolved by coming to function as a verb, as the action of keeping public order, doing the work of administration, of government.  This too, the dictionaries above relate, comes from the French, policer, “to keep order in,” as of the 1580s.  Foucault traces it in the 1611 work of a French political theorist, first expression of the usage common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when police comes to mean the mechanisms of state power and order: “the set of means by which the state’s forces can be increased while preserving the state in good order.”  Police was, at that point, whatever made it possible for the state to increase its forces.

Then with urbanization and the growth of markets, and the site where urbanization and markets meet—the market town—the term shifts again to address problems of the market:  exchange, circulation, commerce.  The “circulation of men and goods in relation to each other.”  Here Foucault charts a crucial conflation between police and the market.  “Police and commerce, police and urban development, and police and the development of all the activities of the market in the broad sense, constitute an essential unity in the seventeenth century and until the beginning of the eighteenth century.”  This intimacy between police and commerce lasts in the form of the police’s unremitting promotion of racial capitalism up to the present.

The common meaning of police in our day, its invocation of those noble men and women in blue, doesn’t appear until the early nineteenth century.  In 1810 (as, again, the Oxford English and the Online Etymological Dictionaries confirm), the term is used to denote a “body of officers entrusted with the duty of enforcing laws, detecting crime, etc.,” and by 1837, the noun form has folded itself onto the verb, circularly, tautologically, so that police means “to keep order by means of police.”

The turn to the nineteenth century is the moment when the first police corps were created in Europe, first the Marine Police, organized in 1798 to protect property coming through the Port of London, and then in 1829 the British Metropolitan Police, created by Sir Robert Peel and building on his experience keeping order in colonial outposts.  While there were many bodies we might consider proto-police such as constabularies, militias, urban armed forces suppressing anti-colonial dissent, and slave patrols in the US, Peel’s were the first forces actually called police.  Rather than a new term for a new phenomenon, this is an instance of a reworked word coming to settle on a much older formation.  And sticking.  As if it were new.  And we lost sight of the older things it might have named as well as what it had meant before.

When uniformed urban police forces claiming Peel’s mantle took root, their translation of state violence to the human scale took on the function noted above.  Their personhood obscured the relationship to the state.  They were actual people, and non-elites at that.  Many were ethnic minorities with loyalties and interests that diverged from those of city elders and founding fathers.  Their core relationship to the state in the abstract disappeared behind the useful smokescreen of their very colorful concreteness.  This reification is what etymology helps us recover.  Rather than keeping order through raw violence, police in this evolved meaning developed an ideological edge.  The concept has been more than useful to the forces of capital, via state violence, by obscuring that founding relationship.

A great array of factors converge to obscure the tight relationship between police and state.  Some of these function by proclaiming limits on the concepts, borders both ideological and territorial—abstract and conventionally geographic—requiring the insights of geographers on the spatial elements of power.  There are borders maintaining the notions of military and civilian realms, private and public spheres, and local vs. national or international scales.  Such borders do not actually contain either police or state; police regularly cross whatever lines might separate civilian from military spheres, just as they doggedly protect private interests or work for market employers and travel abroad or operate at all levels of government up to the federal scale.  But they do a pretty good job of directing common sense about police away from the man behind the curtain.

Two of these myths are carefully tended:  the notions that police are civilian, one, and two, that they are public.  These borders are prescriptive and normative; people believe that police should be public and civilian.  Charges of police militarization or privatization can be serious political challenges.  Notably, such challenges recognize that in many cases they actually are private and/or military, but they see this merely as an aberration, albeit a dangerous one.  Less controversial is the myth about police geography (small scale and domestic location), often taken for granted, as in the virtually unquestioned notion that police are fundamentally local.  When they do travel, they ruffle few feathers (it doesn’t tend to register in mass media or other arenas of public concern) but nor do they trouble the notion of policing’s minor scale and geographic ambit.  These three borders, together, comprise the idea of police as legitimate wielders of power.  Police authority is justified when these three borders are assumed to hold, and allowed to function invisibly.

These borders are conceptual, not absolute.  Police actually cross them regularly in practice, denying those crossings vehemently in all sorts of ways.  The borders of policing are like national borders, which exert tremendous force even as all sorts of crossings and mixtures show them to be far more fluid than traditional political definitions assume.  To look squarely at our ideas about the borders of policing can reveal how the popular notion of police achieves coherence and legitimacy—and lends the same to the idea of the state—by contrasting itself to concepts defined as outside it.

Thinking about borders not only allows a much sharper undertanding of police, but since police are the translation of state violence into human form, a better grasp of the nature of the state as well.  Tracking police back to the source of their power illuminates that power’s disregard of borders that don’t contain it either—even as it starkly contains the people who live or would live in its land with much more concrete kinds of borders.  For the state, too, is discursively bounded by this same trio of distinctions:  public/private, military/civilian, and territoriality at the national scale[2].  A democratic state is separate from the market, or so the story goes; it uses military action only beyond its borders, treating its citizens to gentler civilian strictures; and it acts independently from other states and primarily within its own territory and in relation to its populace so that the sovereign corresponds to a bounded imagined community—a nation-state in which there is coherence between state and nation.

As with the borders of the idea of police, the state is constrained by these borders only conceptually.  The fiction of territoriality is belied by the foreign operation of state agents in collaborative arrangements of multiple states and market bodies intermixed so deeply that no national affiliation can be discerned.  Such entities abound; some of them are the characters in my 2018 Violence Work, the book in which I first offered this framework and in which I elaborate upon it at length.

Police, then, was a noun before it was a verb, but it wasn’t the noun we think it was.  Instead, it was that abstract term for governance in general.  Then it became the verb meaning to administer that order.  Only after that did it become the noun we know too well today.  So when we theorize “police,” it helps to keep etymology and evolution in mind.  It reminds us of the tight familiarity of police and state that make terms such as “police state” evidently redundant.  It shows us how police have become agents of their own legitimation.  Perhaps that understanding may help us untangle those fatal knots.

[1] I have elaborated on this at great length in Violence Work and hope readers of this short reflection will allow me the indulgence of this shorthand reference to a complex theoretical landscape.

[2] The state has other limiting lines, as does “police”; one common one is civil society. The state/civil society dichotomy is a related but different framework.


Foucault, Michel.  Security, Territory, Population:  Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78, ed. Michel Senellart; trans. Graham Burchell (London:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
Oxford English Dictionary, The.  Oxford University Press, 2019; accessed here.
Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online.  Oxford University Press. Accessed July 02, 2019 here.
Online Etymology Dictionary, The.  Web, 2017; accessed here.
Seigel, Micol.  Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police (Durham:  Duke University Press, 2019).

Micol Seigel is Professor of American Studies and History at Indiana University, Bloomington.  She teaches and studies policing, prisons, and race in the Americas; her book on the nature of police work and the assumptions that underlie its legitimacy in a democracy, Violence Work:  State Power and the Limits of Police, was published in 2018 by Duke University Press.