Reforming the Nineteenth Century Police System

Reforming the Nineteenth Century Police System

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Reforming the Nineteenth Century Police System

American cities of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had problems with crime, vice, and disorder. Some urbanites complained about the extent of prostitution, brawling and robbery. Yet few cities felt cities felt impelled to make subsequent changes in the traditional pattern of night watch and unsalaried police officers before the 1830s. There are many reasons for problems getting worse in American cities. One reason for this is that serious crimes, by the standard of subsequent decades at any rate, were infrequent. Another reason was because there was a good deal of corruption in the old system of policing. The geographical growth of the cities and its population was increased. The crime was happening more frequently. There were a lot of problems in the old system of policing. As a result, in major cities like New York, there was a demand for reforming the police system.

By the 1830s, larger northern cities found their problems of crime and disorder overpowering the traditional instruments for dealing with them. The old system was not able to maintain order or prevent crimes. This coincided with a tremendous growth of urban population. America was shifting from a farming civilization to a big business society. Also there was mass immigration into the United States and many men and women settled in cities. For example, cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia underwent rapid social and economic change in this time period. Because of the pace of this change, the policing system could not keep maintain order. Maintaining order seemed imperative and the demands for reform increased as well.

Immigration jumped substantially after 1830. The total number of arrivals at the port of New York was more than three times greater in the 1830s than it had been the previous decade and there was a great movement on Manhattan Island as well as many other major cities. From time to time New York State officials extended the city’s lamp and watch district, the area in which the municipal corporation was to provided street lighting and watch protection and to collect taxes to pay for these services.[1] Boston had twice as many people in 1840 as twenty years before. This caused problems in the urban cities.

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With rising immigration in the 1840’s and 1850’s, came nativists’ movements.[2] The nativists were people who opposed to the mass immigration in American cities. During this time period there was mass immigration in America. Masses of people came from foreign lands. This was considered the second wave of immigration. These people came primarily from southeast Europe. These immigrants spoke very little English. They were considered poor and uneducated, and most were hired as unskilled laborers. They lived the least desirable parts of the cities. The middle class and the nativists saw the immigrants as a threat to their society. Between the nativists, those who hated immigrants, and the foreign born caused widespread death and injury and the destruction of churches and public buildings. These events, plus the existence of a model in the London Metropolitan Police, encouraged the formation of organized police force. Its primary job would be to control riot and disorder. In the early to mid- nineteenth century New York’s neighborhoods were growing rapidly. One of the most important motivations was for reorganization of the police systems in New York was the growing sense that the old informal system was breaking down as the population expanded and the rich became segregated from the poor. Criminal elements found increasingly security in isolated slum districts because they could allude the police in the crowd. As the middle class moved further away from the poor, the poor became more of a threat.[3]

At the same time some groups wanted the police to expand their functions to control public drunkenness and other offenses to a heightened conception of public order. The middle class temperance movement increasingly looked to the police and the criminal law as mechanisms for achieving desirable goals. Moralists wanted the police to suppress public prostitution and gambling and to enforce Sunday laws, which decreed that saloons and other businesses remain open on the Sabbath.[4]

These laws did not enjoy universal support. Thirsty urbanites resented attempts to close the saloons on any give day, especially Sunday, which was the one-day workingmen could call their own. Saloonkeepers and “sporting men” had common interests in limiting police activities; their interests, whether as suppliers or consumers, required at least the tacit consent of the police. In many instances, it would be impossible to enforce the law and maintain order at the same time. Attempts to enforce unpopular laws could lead to serious breaches of the peace, and the police had to make a trade off between the two. In New York’s Little Germany, closing the saloons on Sundays once led to three days of rioting. Moreover, policemen were little disposed to enforce those laws that which forbade behavior they themselves engaged in. Officers who liked to gamble could hardly get exercised about the existence of policy betting shops of gambling parlors. Indeed, in New York policemen themselves often acted as “steers” or “ropers” for the gambling houses. Thus, the vice laws formed the subject of a political tug of war between those who wanted the police to control behavior, to impose moral codes on the community, and to those who wanted the police to simply leave them alone. These themes of conflict over legislation and the police characterized smaller cities and towns as well as the nation’s urban centers.

Prostitution existed in American cities from the beginning of settlement. As cities grew and as a sensational press came into being in the 1830s and 1840s, prostitution came to be considered a problem in ways that it had not been twenty or thirty years before. Moralists wanted the police either to suppress prostitution or at least make it less visible. In Boston the police had a little bit of compassion for many of the prostitutes, especially the young farm girls. In New York the police sometimes arrested individual streetwalkers, but for the most part the ignored the houses in the red light districts. Prostitution was too embedded in urban life for the moralists’ goals ever to be achieved, and overly energetic attempts to eliminate it might raise tensions to a dangerous level.[5]

The old opposition to the police as an instrument of despotism did not give way easily, and the organization of police forces proceeded slowly. In New York City, Mayor Cornelius Lawrence proposed the establishment of a London-style police as early as 1836.[6] However, it was not until 1845 that the New York Police Department came into being. Before 1845, New York City’s Police arrangements consisted of two constables elected in each of the city’s wards, a high constable chosen by the Common Council, one hundred marshals appointed by the mayor, and a part-time watch. Just before its abolition in 1845, the forces number 1,096 men. The constables and marshals were not salaried but compensated by fees and rewards. Accordingly, they spent their time in the service of civil processes to earn fees or pursuing stolen property, which returned, would also bring rewards. They did not engage in any patrol activity or other preventive measures to curb crime and disorder, although, the mayor to keep could call them on order at fires or quell riots. The night watch consisted of men who had other occupations during the day. The Common Council kept control of the watch and any change in the party composition of the council meant substantial turnover among the watch. The watch kept an eye for fire and riot and hoped to deter burglars. As the city grew in geographical area, population, and social complexity, the watch proved unequal to the challenge. Its prestige, never high to begin with, declined further as the scope of its responsibilities widened. Increasingly, the idea that New York City could be a self-policing community with a minimal police force lost its credibility.

In the next three years, various politicians proposed plans for reforming the police. The man responsible for the proposal finally adopted was Robert H. Morris, a Democrat who was elected to his first term as mayor in 1841.[7] Morris pressed the case for action in his messages to the Common Council, and the press attributed his reelection as mayor in 1843 to his identification with the cause of police reform. In the summer of 1843, Morris presented a sweeping proposal designed not only to establish a formal police but also to make basic changes in the pattern of municipal government by creating ward legislative councils. These councils would handle governmental matters of immediate interest to the locality, while the city’s Common Council would act only on those questions that concerned the city as a whole. At the time, the Common Council was New York’s administrative board. New York was one of the last of the major cities to change this board. It was for the belief that the only safe was to deal with power to keep it limited and divided. A board was also often functional for the political parties in enduring them at least a share of the spoils.[8]

In 1844 the legislature adopted the police portion of the Morris’s proposals. The act abolished all existing agencies of police, except the constables of not more than eight hundred men. Marshals continued to serve civil processes. Each ward constituted a separate patrol district and policemen had to live in the ward in which they served. All members of the force were appointed for terms of only one year by the mayor on nomination of the council members of the particular ward. The act created a Chief of Police whose supervisory powers over the police were limited. Finally, the act stipulated that it would not go into effect until the municipal authorities had approved it. The authorities responded with an ordinance in 1833 for a day police of twenty-four men in addition to the night watch of one hundred twenty men. In 1835 the ordinance was repealed and Philadelphia returned to a system of district autonomy. In 1848 the city establish an independent day police of thirty-four men, while the night watch retained its old form.

At least in the larger cities the Police were not centralized. Several other cities followed the New York pattern of having each ward constituted a separate patrol district with little administrative supervision by the police chief. The technology of the age, or rather the lack of it, encouraged such decentralization. Before the spread of the telegraph in the late 1840s and 1850s, a chief could communicated with his precincts only by messenger; nor was there any way of getting word to and from the man on the beat and his station house without the physical movement of a human being.

Most of the early policemen did not wear uniforms. The marshals and constables did not wear uniforms or an identifying badge or emblem. Many Americans thought uniforms was a sign of degradation more fitting to the class-consciousness of Europe than to the egalitarian democracy of the United States. However, as the number of unskilled and property less increased, people who believed in values of efficiency and authority succeeded in imposing uniforms upon policemen. New York City’s police became uniformed in 1853, Philadelphia’s in 1860, and Chicago’s in 1861. Everywhere the men objected to wearing uniforms. They argued that wearing uniforms demeaned the freedom and equality to those who had to wear them. These objections were overridden by counter arguments that the discipline and dignity required of policemen made the uniform a necessity. Even though the police were starting to wear uniforms, people still complained of all of the corruption that was still happening. Americans were not reassured that the uniforms would end the scandals and corruption. The continuous recurrence of scandal and complaints about his ineffectiveness offered a bleak testimony that despite his uniform, a police officer is not a soldier. Americans refused to see him any other way.[9]

There was a major difference between the soldier and the police officer. A soldier was part of a group or unit and is dependent on his unit. The soldier in the unit would work together and motivate on another. They would work along side one another to accomplish their tasks to reach their goals. Every soldier had a supervisor to watch over him and the unit. If the soldier or the unit were to fail their task, the supervisor would punish them. The police officer differed greatly to the soldier.

The police officer would normally work alone. In some cases, a colleague would offer support or assistance when needed. The police of this time did not work closely with one another. The police officer had to be dependent on them. They had to trust their own judgment and skills because they were usually a solitary worker.[10] During this time, the police had self-interest to conceal things that could potentially be profitable to them in the near future. The police officer would often keep information to him and not even tell his closest colleagues.[11] Moreover, the policeman, unlike the soldier, leaves his work and his colleagues behind him at the end of the day and resumes his private life.[12]

The police had the impossible task of being required to enforce laws, which a large segment of the community did not want enforced. The state legislatures, which enacted these laws, had majorities who lacked both knowledge of and sympathy for urban conditions. Conversely, in the cities themselves, opponents of the vice laws often held the effective political power. In New York from the 1850s on, men held many public offices either formally or currently in the liquor business.

The need for improvement in the quality of policing in urban society had been long apparent.[13] The movement for a London-style police received stronger support after the unsolved murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers in 1841.[14] What disturbed the newspapers like the Herald and the Star was that the existing police officers would not work on a homicide unless they were promised substantial rewards.[15] Because their incomes came from fees and rewards, they spent their time the recovery of stolen property. In 1842, New York State Governor William Seward cited the Rogers case in calling for a stronger police in New York City.[16] In addition to enforcing the law and maintaining order, police departments had the responsibility of preventing and detecting crime. In the period between the establishment of the London Metropolitan Police and the creation of organized forces in American cities. The tern “preventive police” was used frequently and loosely. Preventive seemed to mean that by their presence the police would inhabit the commission of crime and that they would deal with potentially serious situations before they reached the crisis stage.[17] Detection of crime was considered a private rather than a public matter. The police did not receive any regular salaries. Rather they were compensated by fees for services performed according to a schedule established by the New York’s state legislature.[18] Police officers also sold their services to the victims who wished to recover their stolen property. This system was attacked because the police officers would devote their time to what was likely to earn the largest fees and not to what was most important. The private interests of recovering the property took precedence over any public interest of apprehending and punishing the criminal. Even after the formation of organized police departments, detectives continued to function according to established patterns. In New York veteran police officers, those who had functioned on the old fee basis, continued as members of the new department created in 1845. No matter what their titles, they continued to act as professional returnees of stolen property, for which they often received handsome rewards. As a result, honest police officers earned very little money due to this system. In 1816 the city authorities applied unsuccessfully to the New York’s state legislation to abolish the fee system and pay the police officers a regular salary instead.[19]

To be effective, detectives needed wide knowledge of professional criminals, who alone could provide them with the stolen property they sought to return. Compounding with the thief was the easiest way to recover property. The detective gave the thief either money or immunity in return for the stolen goods, and the rightful owner received his property less whatever he had agreed upon as a reward with the detective. Some victims found it cheaper to advertise in the newspaper and deal directly with the thieves, thus eliminating the detective as the middleman. As late as the 1890s, witnesses before the Lexow Committee in New York, a legislative group investigating the Police Department, charged that detectives would not work on cases unless promised money beforehand. In a number of cities professional criminals had reached an understanding with the detectives and would not work without such protection. One of the points of these agreements was that if anyone of sufficient power and prestige had been robbed, the thief had to return his property.

Between 1830 and 1850, every very important American town adopted the territorial organization and strategy of the preventive police. The local watch committees were abolished and a central police force was established.[20] Prior to the abolishment of the old system, there were distinct differences between the day watch and the night watch. This idea was abolished under the new system. The creation of the Board of Commissioners for New York Police Department was one instance of many in various cities if council control giving way to an independent administrative board.[21]

American police department was beginning to become modeled after London police. Laws established modern patrol forces in London in 1829 and in New York City in 1845 out lined their basic structure but did not provide a formula for legitimating the police.[22] The New York Municipal Police Act was enacted in 1845. This created the first police force modeled on London’s precedent outside if the British Empire.[23] This act replaced the old system of policing. This act established full time day and night patrol force. This act also gave more stability to the police. It specified Qualification for appointment, fixed the men’s terms to office, and established the pay for various ranks.

The New York force was changed in a variety of ways in the 1850s. In 1853 one of the changes was it put the force under command of a commission of three elected officials, the Major and two judges. In 1857, it shifted control from city to state authorities, entrusting direction to commissioners appointed by the governor. Later in 1870, control was returned to the city with a commission appointed major. The New York force was an evolving and changing institution.

In modern America, an effective police force is vastly more important than it was in former times.[24] As America changed from a rural to urban civilization, citizens relied more and more on police.[25] The police have many functions. Some examples of their duties are:

- Traffic violations and accidents

- Drunkenness and other disorderly conducts

- Thefts

- Muggings

- Sexual violations

- Domestic violence and other violent crimes

- Rioters

- Directing traffic

- And any illegal activity

People who try to become a licensed police officer have to go to professional police schools. While they attend, they are called recruits. In simplest terms: it must be made clear as clear as possible that education is important in police work. It is not just for the aspect to educate the new recruits on policing, but to abolish permanently the idea that is all too prevalent in our society that if one does not want to take the trouble of becoming something worthwhile, one can always become a cop.[26] In attempt to prevent corruption in police officers, they have initial training as in the military. This is done in hopes of instilling loyalty and a sense of duty in a police officer. The strict initial regulations are also to allow the recruits to be threatened, dismiss the reluctant, the lazy, and the untrustworthy. Unfortunately, this military discipline does not always work.[27] One major problem is that a police officer cannot be paid enough to insure his honesty, loyalty, and bravery. Police do not steal because they are underpaid, nor can men be inspired to bravery and high risk simply by offering them a few dollars more.[28]

Today’s modern police have advanced greatly. The modern police force is monitored a lot more closely. The modern police force now acts as a unit. The police department itself has changed as well since the invention of the telephone and the radio. Now the police officer can keep in contact with their station at any time. There is a person called a dispatcher relating in formation to the police officer. The police officer also related information back to the dispatcher. This is a much more efficient method. The police officer is no longer working in solitude, but as a unit with his colleagues. If the police officer is in trouble or needs assistance, it is a lot easier for him to get the support he needs. The polices officers also have to fill out reports on events that happened throughout the day. These reports are filed. This is not only for documentation for evidence, but also to help to prevent corruption. The modern police have a stronger supervisory system that oversees what officers within the department are doing. There are rules and conduct that a police officers have to follow. If a police officer breaks the rules or acts out of conduct, there are policies set up to punish that officer. There is still corruption in the department, but it is a lot less than in the past. In our culture, it is impossible to get rid of all the corruption.


Bittner, Egon. The Functions of the Police in Modern Society. Maryland: National

Institute of Mental Health, 1970.

Catalog of Law Enforcement Training Programs. Washington D.C.: US Government

Printing, 1983.

Fogelson, Robert M. Big-City Police. London: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Edwards, George. The Police on the Urban Frontier. New York: Institute of Human

Relations Press, 1968.

Lane, Roger. Policing the City Boston 1822-1885. Cambridge: Harvard University

Press, 1967.

Matsell, George W. The Secret Language of Crime. New York: Temple Gate

Publishers, 1997.

Miller, Wilbur R. Cops and Bobbies. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press,


More, Harry W. The Changing Police Role. San Jose: Justice Systems Development, Inc,


The Reader’s Companion to US Women’s History. Boston: Houghton Miffin Company,


Richardson, James F. The New York Police. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Rubinstein, Jonathan. City Police. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.

Stonecash, Jeffery M. Politics, Professionalism, and Urban Services the Police.

Cambridge: Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain, Publishers, Inc, 1981.

Wilson, James Q. Varieties of Police Behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,


[1] James F. Richardson, The New York Police (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970) 19.

[2] Miller, Wilbur R. Cops and Bobbies (14 Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1973) 143.

[3] The Reader’s Companion to US Women’s History. ( Boston: Houghton Miffin Company,

1998) 479.

[4] The Reader’s Companion to US Women’s History. 480.

[5] James F. Richardson The New York Ploce 315

[6] Richardson, 36

[7] Richardson, 42

[8] Richardson, 80

[9] Jonathan Rubinstein, City Police ( New: Farr, Strauss & Giroux, 1973) 12.

[10] Jonathan Rubinstein, City Police 12.

[11] Rubinstein, 13.

[12] James Q. Wilson, Varieties of Police Behavior. ( Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1968) 79.

[13] Henry W. More, The Changing Police Role. ( San Jose: Justice Systems Development, Inc, 1976) 37.

[14] Richardson, 37.

[15] Richardson, 38.

[16] Richardson, 38.

[17] Miller, Wilbur R. Cops and Bobbies 5.

[18] Richardson, 18.

[19] Richardson, 18.

[20] Rubinstein,12.

[21] Richardson, 79.

[22] Miller, 1.

[23] Miller, 3.

[24] Edwards, George. The Police on the Urban Frontier: A Guide to Community Understanding ( New York: Institute of Human Relations Press, 1967) 4.

[25] Edwards, George. The Police on the Urban Frontier: A Guide to Community Understanding 4.

[26] Bittner, Egon. The Functions of the Police in Modern Society ( Maryland: National Institute of Mental Health, 1970) 83.

[27] Rubinstein, 13.

[28] Rubinstein, 13
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