Boston is credited with being home to the very first modern American police force in 1838. The Boston Police Department (BPD) consisted of nine officers identified only by a distinctive hat and badge. Instead of carrying guns, officers protected themselves using six-foot blue and white poles and ”police rattles,” which they used to call for assistance. Also, police communicated through a telegraph system that linked the central office and area police stations.

Boston, like many of the other police forces forming across the nation at the time, structured itself nominally after the London model of modern policing created by Sir Robert Peel. This British model consisted of three elements: the mission of crime prevention, the strategy of visible patrol over fixed beats, and the quasi-military organizational structure. However, the American police force differed from its British counterpart in that politics dominated nearly every facet of American policing in the nineteenth century, which led to inefficiency, corruption, and a lack of professionalism. In Boston, for example, the mayor frequently rewarded loyal campaign workers by appointing them as members of the police force. Boston Police also took on a more multifunctional role than London police, carrying out a host of civic activities that were not necessarily crime related. Some of these additional responsibilities included snow removal, street repair, and animal control. Finally, since Boston police officers served at the pleasure of the mayor, large numbers of police officers were terminated each time a new mayor took office.

Widespread police corruption planted the seeds for the Reform Era in the twentieth century, which introduced an organized movement for police professionalism nationally. The Professionalism Movement defined policing as a profession; thereby, raising standards for police departments especially with regards to recruiting and training. It also called for taking power away from politicians and captains in neighborhood precincts and centralizing command and control within police departments. Specialized units such as traffic, juvenile, and vice emerged out of this movement, and departments began to employ female officers. The Boston Police Department hired its first female officers in 1921.

On the other hand, reformers alienated the rank-and-file in their campaign to recruit strong leaders, and this helped to bring about one of the most infamous events in police history, the 1919 Boston Police strike. At the time, the department consisted of mostly Irish-Catholic rank-and-file and was under the control of a Protestant police commissioner described as ”an uncompromising martinet with no previous experience in police administration and no great affection for the Boston Irish” (Russell 1975, 43). Also, new officer pay had remained the same for sixty years despite a nearly 80% increase in the cost of living, and officers worked between seventy-three and ninety-eight hours a week. The police turned to the American Federation of Labor, but Police Commissioner Edwin U. Curtis condemned the formation of a police union, which ultimately resulted in nearly three-quarters of the city’s police going on strike. The absence of police brought out the worst in people, and massive rioting ensued followed by Governor Calvin Coolidge summoning the entire State Guard. All of the strikers lost their jobs, and the Boston Police Department lost its reputation as being one of the most respected police forces in the country.

The wounds of the strike were slow to heal. Department morale suffered following the strike, and there were rumors of large-scale police corruption and inefficiency. The Boston strike also killed police unionism around the nation for the next twenty years. It would take forty-six more years before Boston police, triggered by a collective bargaining law giving state and municipal workers the right to organize, launched its own union, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. In those years, and in large part due to the Reform Era, the BPD became much more insular, shifting from a decentralized organizational design influenced by politics and patronage to an organization centralized in both command and control. It was around this time that the changing social climate of the 1970s and 1980s ushered in a new era of policing, the Community Problem-Solving Era.

In the 1980s Massachusetts legislators, following a national trend, enacted tax reduction measures that resulted in officer layoffs and reductions in overall staffing within the Boston Police Department. Around this time, Boston began to experience a significant increase in violence fueled by gang rivalries that increasingly involved firearms. The city averaged 95 homicides per year in the 1970s and 1980s, but the number of homicides increased to 152 in 1990. This unprecedented level of violence persuaded the Boston Police Department to develop partnerships with community groups, most notably members of the African American clergy, to deal with this extraordinary level of violence.

A broad array of partnerships developed with community groups, many for the first time. The clergy formed a group called the Ten Point Coalition, and worked in conjunction with area academics and city-funded Boston Streetworkers. The Boston police attempted to send a message to the community that any future violence would not be tolerated, and any future shootings would be dealt with by the full force of the law, including for the first time the possibility of federal prosecution. Police officials delivered their message in face-to-face meetings with young men from area gangs, who were most at risk of becoming victims or offenders of future gun violence. Most importantly, this message of deterrence was delivered in conjunction with an offer to help those at-risk young people turn their lives around through employment and job readiness training, educational support, substance abuse counseling, life skills workshops, and mentor-ship programs.

During the course of the next ten years, gun violence in the city of Boston dropped dramatically. The number of homicides dropped from 152 in 1990 to 34 in 1998. In addition, the city of Boston enjoyed a two-and-a-half-year period with no juvenile homicides. This represented a first for the city at least since homicide records had been maintained.

The Boston Police Department received national recognition for its success, most notably from U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and also garnered a number of national awards. In addition, the crime reduction efforts in Boston, dubbed ”the Boston Miracle” by some in the media, was replicated in cities across the country and became the backbone of a number of federal initiatives, including most recently the $1 billion Project Safe Neighborhoods Program.

Next post:

Previous post: