Policing | Section 1.4

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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The Political Era

It was not long before the value of such police forces was noted by America’s largest cities and the idea was selectively imported.  The main element of the British model that Americans rejected was the nationalization of police services.  Americans at the time were still fearful of strong central authority and elected to establish police forces on a local level.  While arguably more democratic, decentralized police forces organized on the local level were not nearly as well insulated from local politics as their British counterparts.  Political leaders were able to exert a large amount of influence over police hiring, policymaking, and field practices.

There is some debate amongst the concerned departments as to whether Boston or New York City was the first modern police force in the United States.  Boston’s day watch was established in 1838, and many credit this as the first modern police force. New York City formed its police force in 1844. Most other large cities soon followed suit, and full-time, salaried officers became the norm.

Early Problems with Police

As previously mentioned, early police forces were highly political.  Graft and corruption were rampant. Police ranks were filled with officers of particular ethnic groups to garner votes for particular politicians.  Criminals paying off the police to ignore vice crimes was also common. Policing was more about political advantage than protecting public safety in many neighborhoods.  Efforts to eliminate corruption were doomed from the start because the very politicians that had the power to end it benefited from it.

A distinct characteristic of policing in the United States during the 1800s is the direct and powerful involvement of politics. During this time, policing was heavily entrenched in local politics. The relationship between the police and local politicians was reciprocal in nature: politicians hired and retained police officers as a means to maintain their political power, and in return for employment, police officers would help politicians stay in office by encouraging citizens to vote for them.

The relationship was so close between politicians and the police that it was common practice to change the entire personnel of the police department when there were changes to the local political administration. Politicians were able to maintain their control over police agencies, as they had a direct hand in choosing the police chiefs that would run the agencies. The appointment to the position of police chief came with a price. By accepting the position, police chiefs had little control over decision-making that would impact their employees and agencies.

Many police chiefs did not accept the strong political presence in their agencies, and as a result, the turnover rate for chiefs of police at this time was very high. For example, “Cincinnati went through seven chiefs between 1878 and 1886; Buffalo (NY) tried eight between 1879 and 1894; Chicago saw nine come and go between 1879 and 1897; and Los Angeles changed heads thirteen times between 1879 and 1889.” Politics also heavily influenced the hiring and promotion of patrol officers. In order to secure a position as a patrol officer in New York City, the going rate was $300, while officers in San Francisco were required to pay $400.54 In regard to promoted positions, the going rate in New York City for a sergeant’s position was $1,600, and it was $12,000 to $15,000 for a position as captain.

Upon being hired, policemen were also expected to contribute a portion of their salary to support the dominant political party. Political bosses had control over nearly every position within police agencies during this era. Due to the extreme political influence during this time, there were virtually no standards for hiring or training police officers.

Essentially, politicians within each ward would hire men that would agree to help them stay in office and not consider whether they were the most qualified people for the job. August Vollmer bluntly described the lack of standards during this era: Under the old system, police officials were appointed through political affiliations, and because of this they were frequently unintelligent and untrained, they were distributed through the area to be policed according to a hit-or-miss system and without adequate means of communication; they had little or no record-keeping system; their investigation methods were obsolete, and they had no conception of the preventive possibilities of the service.

Haller described the lack of training another way:

“New policemen heard a brief speech from a high-ranking officer, received a hickory club, a whistle, and a key to the callbox, and were sent out on the street to work with an experienced officer. Not only were the policemen untrained in law, but they operated within a criminal justice system that generally placed little emphasis upon legal procedure. Police services provided to citizens included a variety of tasks related to health, social welfare, and law enforcement. Robert Fogelson described police duties during this time as “officers cleaning streets . . . inspecting boilers . . . distributed supplies to the poor . . . accommodated the homeless . . . investigated vegetable markets . . . operated emergency vehicles and attempted to curb crime.”

All of these activities were conducted under the guise that it would keep the citizens (or voters) happy, which in turn would help keep the political ward boss in office. This was a way to ensure job security for police officers, as they would likely lose their jobs if their ward boss was voted out of office. In other cities across the United States, police officers provided limited services to citizens. Police officers spent time in local saloons, bowling alleys, restaurants, barbershops, and other business establishments during their shifts.

They would spend most of their time eating, drinking, and socializing with business owners when they were supposed to be patrolling the streets. There was also limited supervision over patrol officers during this time. Accountability existed only to the political leaders that had helped the officers acquire their jobs. In an essay, August Vollmer described the limited supervision over patrol officers during earlier times: A patrol sergeant escorted him to his post, and at hourly intervals contacted him by means of voice, baton, or whistle. The sergeant tapped his baton on the sidewalk, or blew a signal with his whistle, and the patrolman was obliged to respond, thus indicating his position on the post.  Sometime in the mid-to-late 1800s, call boxes containing telephone lines linked directly to police headquarters were implemented to help facilitate better communication between patrol officers, police supervisors, and central headquarters.

The lack of police supervision coupled with political control of patrol officers opened the door for police misconduct and corruption. Incidents of police corruption and misconduct were common during this era of policing. Corrupt activities were often related to politics, including the rigging of elections and persuading people to vote a certain way, as well as misconduct stemming from abuse of authority and misuse of force by officers.

Police officers would use violence as an accepted practice when they believed that citizens were acting in an unlawful manner. Policemen would physically discipline juveniles, as they believed that it provided more of a deterrent effect than arrest or incarceration. Violence would also be applied to alleged perpetrators in order to extract information from them or coerce confessions out of them (this was referred to as the third degree). Violence was also believed to be justified in instances in which officers felt that they were being disrespected by citizens. It was acceptable to dole out “street justice” if citizens were non-compliant to officers’ demands or requests. If citizens had a complaint regarding the actions of police officers, they had very little recourse, as police supervisors and local courts would usually side with police officers. One of the first groups appointed to examine complaints of police corruption was the Lexow Commission.

After issuing 3,000 subpoenas and hearing testimony from 700 witnesses (which produced more than 10,000 pages of testimony), the report from the Lexow investigation revealed four main conclusions:

      • First, the police did not act as “guardians of the public peace” at the election polls; instead, they acted as “agents of Tammany Hall.”
      • Second, instead of suppressing vice activities such as gambling and prostitution, officers allowed these activities to occur with the condition that they receive a cut of the profits.
      • Third, detectives only looked for stolen property if they would be given a reward for doing so.
      • Finally, there was evidence that the police often harassed law-abiding citizens and individuals with less power in the community instead of providing police services to them.

After the Lexow investigation ended, several officers were fired and, in some cases, convicted of criminal offenses. Sometime later, the courts reversed these decisions, allowing the officers to be rehired.69 These actions by the courts demonstrate the strength of political influence in American policing during this time period.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading



Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  08/27/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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