Early American Policing (1600-1860)

Police departments as we know them— organized, salaried bureaucracies, most of whose members wear uniforms—began in the United States in the generation before 1860. From the outset, the police department has been a multipurpose agency of municipal government, not just a component of the criminal justice system. New York police officers in the 1850s spent more time on stray horses and lost children than they did on burglaries, just as their counterparts a century later labored to keep traffic moving and initiated the paperwork on fender benders. Understanding the origins of American policing, therefore, requires attention to the general context of urban government, as well as official responses to crime and disorder.

The earliest inhabitants of colonial cities in the seventeenth century still had at least one foot in the Middle Ages. Their world-view was dominated by scarcity. Government’s most important task was to regulate economic life so that strangers did not usurp work rightfully belonging to residents, or wandering poor gain the right to local relief, or greedy men take undue advantage of consumers. Public officials did not think of government as a provider of services financed through the collection of taxes. Government did encourage private interests to undertake necessary projects, like streets and wharves, for which the public purse was inadequate. In New York City one mechanism to achieve such goals was to transfer public land to private ownership in return for specific commitments to the construction of public facilities.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a new worldview came to prevail, at least among the elite, one characterized by the prospect of growth and perhaps even of abundance rather than scarcity. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, gave a convincing theoretical statement about how the pursuit of individual interests could lead to general economic growth if the market were free of government-granted monopolies or private combinations in restraint of trade. In this intellectual climate, government would be more a promoter of growth than a regulator of scarcity by helping provide what modern economists know as social overhead capital and what the nineteenth century called improvements. Thus government now paid for new wharves and streets, built canals, and promoted the development of railways. Tax-supported schools, at least in theory, produced a disciplined and literate labor force; gas lamps made night a little less gloomy and fearful; and publicly equipped, although not yet paid, fire companies provided some protection against this major urban hazard. By 1860 twelve of the sixteen largest cities had public water systems to aid in firefighting and to give residents something to drink other than alcohol or possibly fouled well water.

Urban Growth and the Need for Police

Between 1820 and 1860 American cities attracted unprecedented numbers of migrants from rural America, Ireland, and Germany. Growth was the reality as well as a theoretical possibility. Whereas only one of twenty Americans lived in an urban settlement in 1790, the ratio was one in five in 1860. New York and Brooklyn together accounted for more than a million people, Philadelphia more than one-half million, while Chicago, incorporated only in 1833, had more than one hundred thousand residents in 1860. By the early 1870s the city of Chicago was spending in a day what had sufficed for an entire year in the late 1840s.

When municipal governments examined growth and its consequences, they were both exhilarated and fearful. Historian Edward Pessen has demonstrated that the business elite exercised disproportionate influence on urban government throughout the so-called age of the common man. When city councils became less patrician and more plebeian in the late 1840s and 1850s, they also lost many of their former functions. Independent boards and commissions replaced council committees as the overseers of public services while the mayor, almost invariably a leading business or professional man, became a more powerful figure. Councils, usually elected by wards, more often reacted to external initiatives than proposed measures of their own, at least for anything that went beyond the neighborhood level. Most members of the elite liked growth; their businesses and real estate holdings appreciated in value with more people and higher levels of economic activity. They did not like some of the negative consequences, such as larger numbers of strangers, immigrants of alien tongue, customs, and religion who did not always recognize the cultural superiority and natural goodness of old-stock American Protestants. Some members of the elite were also troubled by the visible increase in the number of poor and dependent people who neither benefited from the city’s growth nor seemed able to cope with its complexity.

Establishing a police department was one response to these concerns. When New York created its modern department in 1845, the city made the police responsible for a wide range of services, from inspecting hacks and stages to lighting the gas lamps in the evening. Over time many of these functions were transferred to other agencies, but the point remains that the police were never thought of exclusively as a crime-fighting and order-maintaining group.

The police did have important responsibilities in keeping the peace and dealing with criminals. In the colonial period order maintenance and crime fighting were more individual and communal responsibilities than the purview of a bureaucratic agency. The colonists brought with them such traditional English institutions as elected constables and the night watch. In theory constables had extensive legal responsibilities and powers, although rarely did their prestige and authority match their legal position. The watch, often made up of reluctant citizens, kept a lookout for fire as well as crime and disorder. In the case of crime the aggrieved party bore the burden of initiating the processes of apprehension and prosecution. By the early nineteenth century, New York had more than one hundred persons with police powers, either as elected constables or appointed mayor’s marshals. These officers spent much of their time in the service of civil processes, although they were available for hire by victims of theft. They made a specialty of returning stolen property in exchange for a portion of the recovery. Early nineteenth-century police officers were thus fee-for-service professionals rather than salaried bureaucrats.

Riots, often with specific political targets and goals, were recognized features of pre-industrial urban life. Rioters rarely took life, although they often destroyed considerable property. The most famous riots were those associated with the American Revolution, such as the protests over the Stamp Act of 1765, the Boston Massacre of 1770, and the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The decades before the revolutionary agitation also experienced periodic urban disorders. The most savage reprisals were directed at slaves thought to be plotting against whites, such as in New York City in 1712 and 1741. In most instances rioters seemed content to disperse once they made their point, whether it was antipopery or a protest against body snatching by doctors and medical students. But by the 1820s, middle- and upper-class urbanites no longer seemed willing to accept levels of unseemly behavior in public places previously thought unavoidable.

From the early eighteenth century onward, urbanites like Benjamin Franklin organized voluntary societies to achieve desirable social goals. The pace of this activity accelerated in the generation after 1815, especially under the auspices of religious groups that wished to spread the good news of salvation through the publication and distribution of bibles and tracts, to reach children in Sunday schools, to uplift the poor, and to reform juvenile delinquents and fallen women. Whenever families failed in their tasks of nurturing and disciplining their members, other institutions had to step in to remedy the deficiencies. A case in point is New York’s House of Refuge, founded by the privately established Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents in 1825, which received state support for this purpose.

The English Example

In these activities American institution builders looked to England for both general inspiration and specific models to emulate. The American elite considered the Atlantic to be a highway as well as a barrier (indeed in the early nineteenth century it was cheaper to cross the Atlantic than to move any distance at all on land), so that topics, ideas, and people moved freely between London, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

One of these ideas was that government in some instances would have to assume direct responsibility for social well-being. In 1829 Sir Robert Peel put through Parliament a bill for the creation of the London Metropolitan Police, a salaried bureaucracy responsible for the maintenance of order and the prevention and detection of crime. The London Metropolitan Police served as a direct model for police departments subsequently established in American cities.

Peel’s bill was preceded by a half-century of debate and discussion, parliamentary inquiries, and the creation of numerous voluntary societies to reform public morals. During these decades London also relied on fee-for-service police officers while the watch was organized and paid for on a parish-by-parish basis with consequent wide variations in numbers and effectiveness. Civil authorities were virtually helpless to deal with such outbreaks as the Gordon Riots of 1780, while senior army officers objected to being called upon to suppress riots because of the possible impact on morale and discipline. As evangelical religious ideas became more popular in England, there was greater concern for the state of public morality. Prostitution and drunkenness came to be thought of as social problems to a greater extent than they had been in earlier decades. This is not to say that rates of disorder, crime, or behavior contrary to evangelical notions of propriety were necessarily rising, but that influential figures were less tolerant, accepting, or stoic about such matters. The French Revolution and its aftermath seems to have convinced the upper classes that they needed to exercise firmer control over the lower. To some extent, the more orderly people became, the higher the level of expectations among the propertied and respectable.

The London Metropolitan Police Bill thus represented the convergence of three streams of social concern. The first was for a public agency other than the army that could be mobilized to deal with civil disorder. Policemen would be uniformed, subject to quasi-military discipline, and sufficiently removed from civilians to act as a riot-repressing force, but there would not be the potential morale problems associated with the use of the army or the possible class bias of the militia. If the militia were recruited from the same groups as rioters, it might join in. If, like England’s mounted yeomanry, the militia came from landowners, urban workers and farm laborers would hardly accept it as legitimate. The police would be recruited from the people, but not locally, so that their loyalties would be more to their organization and their superiors than to the people they policed.

The second stream of concern was crime. Pre-Peel police officers, such as the famous Bow Street Runners, might deal efficiently with property crimes after victims hired them. Unfortunately, they also found consorting and conspiring with criminals to be in their interests. The line between cops and robbers was a fuzzy one at best and easily crossed. Moreover, even the best officers acted only after the crime had occurred and when there was sufficient monetary incentive. Peel’s police were to be preventive, a word used frequently and loosely. Ideally the very presence of such a force would lead criminals to accept honest toil as a way of life and would keep young people from ever straying from that path.

Finally, the police could deal with the ”police” of the city in its generic sense. When early nineteenth-century figures referred to the ”police” of the city, they had a broad conception in mind, akin to the later judicial notion of police power, the ability to legislate for the public welfare. Policing involved keeping city streets clean as well as the good order and discipline of its residents. The presence of a police officer might deter residents from airmailing their garbage into the streets and keep streetwalkers from plying their trade. We can subsume these activities under the heading of ”preventing unseemly behavior in public places.” In the absence of salaried bureaucrats entrusted with keeping the peace and imposing a moral code, what could sober people do about drunks except step over them or avoid where they congregated? The establishment of the police meant an active group patrolling the streets on the lookout for breaches of the moral code as well as common-law crimes, thus extending the authority of the state into the daily lives of the people.

The London police were not universally accepted in their first years. The slang term crushers gives some sense of the response of the lower class. The leaders of the force worked hard to get citizens to acknowledge the moral authority of the police. The first commissioners, recruited from outside London where possible, dismissed many of their early appointees for drunkenness and tried to maintain tight administrative control. The lines of authority ran to a cabinet minister, the home secretary, not to locally elected officials.

The Rise of American Urban Police Departments

The existence of the London police stimulated American urban leaders to think about establishing similar institutions, especially since their own cities were experiencing rapid growth and social change. New York City’s population had grown almost four times between 1790 and 1820; between 1820 and 1860 the growth was more than sevenfold. Before the mid-1820s, city officials considered their problems of crime and disorder to be manageable, but by the mid-1830s they worried about endemic street violence. Indeed, 1834 was long remembered in the city’s history as the year of riots. When the great fire struck a year later, authorities could neither fight the fire effectively nor control looting without calling out the militia. Sensational murder cases went undetected and largely uninvesti-gated unless someone put up substantial reward money. Periodic economic panics and crises meant thousands of unemployed men and women on the margins of subsistence would fall below it without some form of assistance. Boston and Philadelphia also experienced conflict among religious, ethnic, and class rivals, while cities with substantial slave populations were concerned above all else with controlling their blacks.

After a decade of debate and the forging of a consensus that New York City needed a police force, the state legislature adopted legislation in 1844 creating the police department and setting forth its powers and structure in detail. The law required municipal approval before it became effective. This approval was granted in 1845. Increasingly, both legal theorists and municipal officials took the position that any extension of municipal powers required direct action by the state legislature. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, state legislatures sometimes exercised their prerogative to intervene in urban police departments in a heavy-handed fashion.

The New York Police Department, established in 1845, was a salaried bureaucracy, but it differed in significant ways from the London police, even though its first set of rules and regulations was largely copied from London’s. The New York police were not uniformed, although members did carry a star-shaped badge for identification. Originally the term of office was one year, raised to two in 1846 and four in 1849. The alderman of the particular ward had the most to say about who should serve as police officers. If an alderman was voted out of office, most of the police officers he appointed lost their jobs. The force was decentralized in that each ward constituted a patrol district with little central supervision.

A new state law in 1853 made major changes in the organization and administration of the police. It established a board of police commissioners, consisting of the mayor, the city judge, and the recorder (a judicial official), thus reducing the aldermen’s role in appointments and administration. Police officers now could be removed only for cause, thus making police work a career. The practice of naming people to senior positions without prior police experience died out, and the standard became entry at the bottom and promotion from within. The new commissioners put the police into uniform, an innovation resisted without success by some men who cherished their anonymity.

Although the New York police now looked like their London counterparts, there were still substantial differences between the two departments. London’s administrators stressed careful control of the use of police powers and tried to keep the police from having to perform unpopular tasks like closing drinking places on Sunday. In New York ultimate authority over the police lay in the hands of locally elected officials who, along with New York’s judges, were more prone to let the police take a tougher approach than their counterparts in London. Historian Wilbur Miller, Jr., has documented how the New York police were more inclined to use force and make arrests on suspicion than London’s. Despite police rhetoric about judicial intervention or not being backed up, they were rarely disciplined for such actions or discouraged from using such tactics. London’s police were generally more circumspect in their dealing with citizens because their superiors wanted them to be embodiments of the moral authority of the state, with the uniform accepted as its legitimate symbol.

An obvious and very important difference was the unarmed police of London compared with the armed police of New York. Throughout the nineteenth century and for most of the twentieth, English police officers were not armed; in recent years a rising volume of violent crime has led to serious questioning of this policy. In New York the police were not armed early in their history. Officers began to carry weapons without legal authorization to do so because they perceived their working environment as dangerously unpredictable. Samuel Colt’s technological innovations made handguns cheaper and more readily available in the 1850s. New York newspapers complained in the mid-1850s that the streets of New York were more dangerous than the plains of Kansas, while historians Roger Lane and David Johnson have noted the prevalence of violent crime in Philadelphia during these years.

The arming of American police, begun by officers without legal authorization, soon became enshrined in custom. Unlike their British counterparts, American public authorities took the position that the tough, armed cop was the best response to the pervasive problems of crime and disorder within their cities.

Police departments joined other public institutions such as school systems as instruments of order, stability, and uplift to cope with an explosively growing and often disorderly urban environment. Within the ranks, station house socialization passed the norms of the veterans along to the rookies, norms that had less to do with law enforcement than with maintenance of group solidarity and respect. ”Don’t talk about police business to outsiders” and ”Don’t take any guff from civilians” were more important than the statute topics or the rules and regulations of the department set forth in such minute details.

At top levels, such as among board members and commissioners, political winds could blow harshly. In 1857 the New York state legislature abolished the municipal police and substituted a new department, the Metropolitan Police, with responsibilities for an enlarged district. New York City still had to pay for the officers assigned within its boundaries. This arrangement lasted for thirteen years. In other states as well, legislatures stepped in and replaced individuals holding senior administrative positions. These interventions were usually related to some hope of partisan advantage or distaste for the way city police were or were not enforcing liquor and vice laws.

One branch not always provided for in the first stages of a bureaucratic policy were the detectives. If a preventive police were fully effective, there would be no need for detectives. Establishing a detective squad was an admission that the police had not lived up to expectations. And there was the old fear that detectives and criminals were much too close. Roger Lane has shown how slow Philadelphia was in assigning police officers to work as homicide specialists.

Marxist scholars treat American police within a conceptual framework of class analysis. Historians such as Sidney Har-ring and Sean Wilentz look at the police as an instrument created by the owners of the means of production to control workers’ behavior. The most obvious instances of such control came in strikes, where the police aided owners who wished to keep operating despite turnouts of their workforce. In such situations, say these scholars, the naked realities could not be disguised under such formulas as enforcing the law or protecting life and property. One does not have to be a Marxist to acknowledge that in large cities at least local police departments were seldom neutral in labor disputes.

Just as London provided the model for New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, these eastern cities served as models for other American communities. Historian Eric Monkkonen sees the establishment of bureaucratic police departments as an innovation beginning in the older and larger cities and then diffusing surprisingly quickly out and down the urban hierarchy. According to Monkkonen, fifteen cities had adopted uniforms—his key indicator of a bureaucratic police—by 1860 while another twenty-four joined them in the following decade. Evidently, the salaried, bureaucratic police was an idea whose time had come between 1840 and 1870. Later decades were to see the maturation and expansion of the patterns established during these formative years.

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