Our Rich History

Old photo of policeman in 1888

The Bow Street Runners

Henry Fielding (the author of Tom Jones) was appointed as Magistrate of London to solve the problem. He organized a force known as the “Bow Street Runners.” This force was given the power to break up criminal gangs and make arrests.

How It Started…

Although every civilization since the dawn of time had imposed order by one method or another, the system of policing that would develop in the United States had its origins during the reign of Alfred the Great who ruled England in the late 10th century.

During this period, the peace was maintained by the mutual pledge. Groups of 10 families were organized as a “tithing.” Generally, one man in the tithing was given the responsibility of compliance with the law. If any one member committed an offense, all could be fined. Tithings were organized into groups of 100, led by a constable. These groups of 100 were concentrated into geographical areas known as “shires,” with a “shire-reeve,” appointed by the king to serve as chief law enforcement agent. Wrongdoers were generally brought before the local landowners who dispensed punishment as they saw fit.

In the 11th Century, law enforcement became an around-the-clock responsibility as night patrols were added. These constables and night watchmen were also expected to serve as firefighters. The office of justice of the peace was created to supervise this force. As in the US seven hundred years later, this system was generally sufficient to serve a predominately rural area where everybody knew everybody else.

Although there was no nationally recognized and uniform code of laws, over the centuries, the system known as “common law” had evolved. Common law, as distinguished from local laws which might be very specific, covered crimes such as murder that everyone could agree were wrong.

By the 18th century, as towns grew into cities full of strangers and immigrants from other cultures, crime became more random and more violent. The sheriffs, constables, and local watchmen who had kept the peace for hundreds of years in rural areas and small towns were simply overwhelmed by the complexity of urban law enforcement.

Henry Fielding (the author of Tom Jones) was appointed as Magistrate of London to solve the problem. He organized a force known as the “Bow Street Runners.” This force was given the power to break up criminal gangs and make arrests.

To further emphasize the presence of the police, in the mid-1700s, for the first time, police officers began to wear uniforms.

British Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel is credited with establishing the first “modern” police system in 1829. Under his leadership, The Metropolitan Police Act was passed. It set up two commissioners who established regulations for the hiring, training, and supervision of the agency.

Twelve principles of policing were developed:

  1. The police must be stable, efficient, and organized along military lines.
  2. The police must be under government control.
  3. The absence of crime will best prove the efficiency of police.
  4. The distribution of crime news is essential.
  5. The development of police strength, both by time and area, where and when a crime has occurred or may occur is essential.
  6. No quality is more indispensable to a police officer than a perfect command of temper. A quiet, determined manner has more effect than violent action.
  7. Good appearance commands respect.
  8. The selection and training of proper persons are at the root of efficient law enforcement.
  9. Public security demands that every police officer be given an identifying number.
  10. Police headquarters should be centrally located and easily accessible to the people.
  11. Police officers should be hired on a probationary basis before permanent assignment.
  12. The keeping of crime records by police is necessary to determine the best distribution of police strength.

However, it would be many years before these principles made their way across the Atlantic and were adopted by police forces in the United States.

a crowd of people standing around a man holding a rifle

The Evolution of Policing in the US

Although within a hundred years, our ancestors would begin arriving from all corners of the world, the first to arrive in any number came from England in the 1600s. They had left the old world to start a new life in a more hospitable social environment. But, like all creatures of habit, they brought along the elements of society with which they were familiar — English as a common language, black frock coats, skirts with lots of petticoats, a preference for meat and potatoes, and a system of law enforcement.

The system of law enforcement practiced by most of the earliest colonists was based on the English common law. Under common law, serious crimes (felonies) were distinguished from less serious ones (misdemeanors). A judge presided over a court where serious crimes were tried before a jury. The jury heard the case and determined guilt or innocence. If the accused were found guilty, the court determined what the punishment would be. Less serious crimes were adjudicated by justices of the peace or magistrates.

But the laws and punishments often varied considerably from what they had been in England. Those colonies that were essentially theocracies, for example, based their local laws on the tenets of their religion. And sentences, as we all remember from reading The Scarlet Letter, often consisted of humiliating the guilty who failed to see the error of their ways to the satisfaction of those handing out the punishment.

In most of the colonies, the governor appointed a sheriff (the American version of the “shire reeve”). This individual usually had a variety of responsibilities including locating offenders, managing the jail, and serving as coroner. The sheriff was then, as now, a county official. In the larger towns and cities, volunteer watchmen and constables had what we would now call patrol duty. They walked the streets at night to protect citizens from robbers, looked after the security of businesses, and sounded an alarm when there was trouble.

In the earliest days, as in England, constables and watchmen were generally sufficient to maintain order. But by the mid-1800s, the crush of immigrants into what were becoming major American cities simply overwhelmed these untrained and unorganized volunteers, as well. While some cities considered bringing in the military to keep the peace, most preferred to establish a full-time paid police organization.

In 1844, New York became one of the first states to give its cities and towns the right to organize police departments. Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Newark, New Orleans, and Philadelphia soon followed. And, in what was to differentiate American policing from British policing forever, in 1854 the Philadelphia police began to carry guns. Although these forces adopted the principles developed in England by Sir Robert Peel, they were, compared to the British police, still unprofessional. Rather than following a clear chain of command up to a commissioner, these early departments quickly became part of the local political machine with appointments and dismissals made at the whim of the party in power.

In some instances, this system had its advantages. Despite, or perhaps due in part to, the patronage nature of their job, often, these early officers were models of what we now know as “community policing.” They were the center of social welfare for the neighborhood they patrolled, solving family disputes, making sure the hungry were fed and the poor taken care of. Police “paddy wagons” even doubled as ambulances. More importantly, by being a full-time, identifiable presence, they served as a force for order. At last, in most neighborhoods, there was someone specific to go to report a disturbance, file a complaint or seek help. Unfortunately, as politicians continued to dominate the police, the good that was done was often overshadowed by the bad and before long many city police departments were riddled with graft and corruption.

To bring objectivity back to policing, the Pendleton Act was passed in 1883, establishing a civil service commission to oversee entrance examinations, promotions, and grievances within police agencies. But even after the Act went into effect, police were still often poorly trained and supervised. There were countless reports of police brutality and ineptness in solving crimes.

While the East was becoming more urbanized and police forces becoming more structured, the West was still, well, wild. Seldom, if ever in human history had so many people moved in such numbers to settle so vast an unknown (at least to them) territory. They quickly overwhelmed the indigenous people who lived in scattered tribes and did not have the single military force that might have helped them stage an effective resistance.

Legend and scores of cowboy movies would have us believe that the settlers who did not survive were killed by renegade bands of Indians. In fact, a great many died of disease, in childbirth, or simply as a result of living in a sod house with poor sanitation and few amenities of any kind. Furthermore, the social climate in which most settlers had grown up was absent from their new home. There was no local police chief who knew most of the people in the town. Law enforcement was left up to the sheriff, who often had a territory of several hundred miles to patrol. When trouble broke out, the sheriff had to assemble whatever posse he could from the citizens of the nearest town.

The only other presence was that of the US Marshals who enforced federal law in the absence of any other type of criminal justice system. When the citizens were unhappy with the law as it was enforced (or not enforced), they often formed “vigilance committees” which were often little more than mobs who were quick to mete out justice as they saw fit. In frustration with the lack of an established police force, some citizens chose another alternative. In Wyoming in 1892, for example, cattle ranchers feuding with farmers over livestock grazing rights hired 25 professional gunfighters from Texas to help them in their feud with the farmers. Outlaws like Frank and Jesse James, the Dalton boys and Billy the Kid robbed stagecoaches transporting gold back east. To protect their assets, bankers and the railroads also hired private police organizations like the Pinkerton Detective Agency. But they, too, unencumbered by the law, were pretty much free to get their man by whatever means it took.

As towns in the West became bigger and more settled, full-time police agencies were hired and courts set up to handle disputes. But, in many ways, the die was already cast for the problems that would continue across the country from that time forward. “Loyalty to the weapon that had helped the colonists win the Revolution and allowed pioneers to brave the frontier remained fervent. Guns were firmly rooted in the American tradition. They had come to symbolize freedom, independence, and power attributes that have often been used to describe America, a nation born and sustained with the help of gunfire.”

Meanwhile, in the South, life for many wasn’t all that much different from life in the middle ages. Powerful white families owned huge tracts of land, maintained by slaves or poor white sharecroppers. Local towns, populated by middle-class whites, existed in part at least to service the plantations. “Free” blacks had scarcely more rights than slaves. As in the East and West, county sheriffs were free to deputize posses when the need arose. But the sheriff was an elected officer, beholden to the only eligible voters, white men. And the white men with the most power and money generally decided how the law would be enforced.

After the Civil War, when the South was occupied by federal troops and governed by northern “carpetbagger” administrators, civil policing was basically suspended, with the army filling the void. The control exercised by the army and northern interlopers combined with the deep-seated feelings over the loss of the war gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan and other secret white supremacist organizations.

By the turn of the century, the United States faced a number of challenges. While the question of what to do to solve these problems would vary from state to state, the solution as to how to solve them would be the same: the creation of the state police.

a newspaper advertisement for the boston post

Labor Unrest

One of these problems was labor unrest. Throughout the latter part of the 19th century, the American economy had been growing at a record pace. Inventions such as the sewing machine, harvesting machine, high speed printing press and typewriter had changed American farms and factories forever. By 1890, for the first time, the value of industrial goods was greater than agricultural goods and workers flocked to the cities to find higher paying work. Although jobs were plentiful, workers, especially those who worked for large corporations, were becoming increasingly discontented. From 1880 to 1900, nine million immigrants landed on American shores and many workers feared that they would be replaced by this continuous influx of immigrants who would often work longer hours for less pay.

Others found their jobs being eliminated as machines began to replace manual labor. Many also became bitter at what they saw as an increasing disparity in wealth between themselves and the owners.

In many industries, companies fed these fears by opposing trade unions, firing workers who joined and refusing to bargain with unions. In this atmosphere, strikes were inevitable.

In 1877 a railroad strike shut down two thirds of the nation’s railways. Violence erupted in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Workers were shot and railroad properties sabotaged. In 1892, seven people were killed in a steel strike in Pennsylvania. In 1894, federal troops were called in to break a strike against the Pullman Company near Chicago.

In the early 1900s, unions staged a series of violent strikes at the nation’s coal mines, iron mills, textile factories and railroad yards. The magnitude of such strikes quickly overwhelmed the ability of local police officers to contain the violence. Faced with these strikes, the states tried a variety of tactics.

To provide protection to the coal and steel operators, the Pennsylvania state legislature granted police powers to the Coal and Iron Police, but they were little more than untrained thugs hired by the operators. In 1902, during the Great Anthracite Strike, 140,000 Pennsylvania coal miners walked off the job causing such a coal shortage that President Theodore Roosevelt finally intervened. He sent in federal troops. Michigan dealt with labor unrest and lawlessness by calling in the state militia.

In West Virginia, strikes in the coal mines resulted in the National Guard being called in, martial law declared and a military tribunal created. While local police were often involved in providing police protection during strikes, in some cases, local police could not be called out to settle a strike because the police were the ones striking. Such was the case in Boston on September 9, 1919 when 75% of the city force walked off the job. While the private security forces and state and federal militias often quelled the violence when local police could not, there were many problems associated with using them. Private security forces, paid for by management, stopped the violence but did so by brutalizing the strikers. The military, both state and federal, had the power to stop the violence, but, as soldiers, had no training as peace officers. They had been taught to destroy an enemy by force, not prevent violence. In addition, settling domestic disputes was not their primary objective. States such as Michigan suddenly found themselves without the option of the militia when it was called to active duty in World War I.

The problem was the need for a permanent professional police force, trained to keep the peace that could be mobilized in sufficient numbers to make an impact. The solution would be the creation of the state police.

a group of men standing next to each other in front of a building

Illegal Liquor

A second problem was illegal liquor. Alcohol for consumption and currency has been as American as apple pie since Colonial days. Even the Puritans, who preached against almost every other kind of pleasurable activity did not outlaw drinking. During the last half of the 18th century, the going price for a muscular slave was twenty gallons of whiskey. Distillers regularly paid a higher price for grain than millers did and babies were often given rum in their bottles to quiet them down. By the 1830s, the consumption of alcohol had reached an estimated 10 gallons per capita per year.

Although there had always been those who advocated temperance, they remained a small minority until the 1850s when a move toward limiting the sale of alcohol, if not prohibiting it altogether, began. In 1851, Maine prohibited the manufacture and sale of “spiritous or intoxicating liquors” that had no medicinal use and by 1855, twelve other states had followed suit.

Although there was not much temperance activity during the Civil War, as soon as the war ended, the rapid increase in saloons (one for every 400 people) by 1870, caused a renewed focus on the problem. In 1873, thousands of women joined the “women’s war” against liquor, a battle that was still being waged at the turn of the century.

By 1916, 23 of the 48 states had anti-saloon laws. These laws presented a special challenge to law enforcement, particularly when, during WWI, additional states enacted wartime liquor prohibitions. Since some states were “wet” and others “dry,” bootlegging liquor across state lines became a booming industry.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1919, went into effect in January 1920 prohibiting the manufacture, importation, transportation, or sale of alcoholic beverages nationwide.

The Volstead Act, which defined how the new law was to be enforced, made violations of the law federal crimes. The Jones Act of 1929 further stiffened penalties.

Many states also passed laws related to alcohol and the enforcement of these laws added significantly to the workload of local law enforcement personnel. In Columbus, Ohio, in 1929, for example, arrests for violations of liquor laws were 10 times that of arrests for auto theft and 20 times the rate for arrests for robbery. In Virginia, liquor violations dominated all other forms of felony.

Making liquor illegal, of course, did not make it any the less desirable to many Americans. So in addition to coping with liquor laws, local agencies found themselves facing a new and much more menacing problem- organized crime. Gangsters like Al Capone quickly stepped in to meet the needs of this lucrative market, happily adding bootlegging to its repertoire of other illegal pursuits. And lucrative it was. In 1927, Capone’s Chicago-based organization alone realized a $60 million profit.

The illegal liquor business was also deadly. From 1923 to 1926, 215 Chicago gangsters killed each other in competition for the business. From 1919 to 1933, 164 police officers died in the line of duty in Chicago, nearly one officer every month for 15 years.

Local law enforcement agencies, sometimes working with federal agents, were also often involved in shutting down “blind pigs” and speakeasies. But the result was often a Catch 22 situation for them. Many citizens, contemptuous of the law in the first place, simply ignored law enforcement’s efforts, and the establishments were up and running again almost as soon as they were shut down.

In some cases, local newspaper reporters served as go-betweens, warning speakeasy operators of impending raids based on tips from law enforcement officers who were careful to spread enforcement around so as not to harm any one proprietor too much. Even when offenders were arrested, they often used their connections in local government to receive little if any punishment. Enforcement efforts became a largely ineffective deterrent. In many areas, drunkenness before and after Prohibition was not treated as a serious offense.

“The police tended to treat the ordinary drunkard with a kind of amused, vacant paternalism. It was important to arrest drunks, sober them up and keep the streets in shape for respectable people. Often, the police infantilized drunks, who were mostly laborers, and often immigrants; they treated their offenses with malicious humor. This was also the attitude of the newspapers when they reported the goings-on in police court. It was, in a sense, a big joke. Laughing at drunks and skid row bums was one way to avoid taking the problem seriously.”

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, organized crime and criminals did not go away. They merely shifted the focus of their enterprise to gambling, prostitution, and drug trafficking. Court records from 1920 to 1930 show that Prohibition agents concentrated their efforts on those they could not shake down – the poor, the barely literate, the recent immigrants least able to defend themselves. The wealthy were virtually immune from prosecution, as were bankers and wealthy entrepreneurs responsible for establishing lucrative contracts with bootlegging investors, often with the complicity of congressmen.

And, as importantly, in this era of widespread police corruption, the problem of enforcing what liquor laws were enacted following Prohibition became state laws. The solution would be the creation of the state police.

an old black and white photo of two people

Violent Criminals

While urban organized crime bosses like Al Capone specialized in bootlegging, prostitution, gambling and drugs, smaller, but no less dangerous gangs of violent criminals terrorized rural Areas robbing banks, gunning down citizens and police, and fleeing across county lines out of the jurisdiction of local law enforcement agencies.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Kansas became a haven for criminals such as Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker and Alvin Karpis. Between 1932 and 1934, Bonnie and Clyde, alone, killed 10 law enforcement officers from four states.

Bank robbers like John Dillinger and the lesser known Brady and Easton gangs were also knocking over Midwestern banks at the rate of one a day. The 1920s and 1930s were also two of the deadliest decades in law enforcement history. An average of 169 law enforcement officers a year died during the 1920s and 165 a year during the 1930s.

While stiff federal laws had been passed relating to these violent criminals in May 1934, these crimes became federal crimes only when the criminals escaped across state lines to avoid prosecution or killed a federal officer. Bank robbers continued to have a heyday rushing across county lines and out of the jurisdiction of the sheriff yet staying within the state, thus eluding federal officers.

The public, many of whom who had been more tolerant of the escapades of criminals during Prohibition, had had enough. They were ready for a professional police agency with statewide jurisdiction.

The solution to this problem would be the creation of the state police.