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The Early Nineteenth Century Law Enforcement, Research Paper Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1637

Research Paper

The 19th century was a period of rapid change in many areas of life. The effects of the industrial revolution were causing massive increases in population with this population moving in greater numbers into urban areas. The practical effect of these changes was that American cities were suddenly burdened with handling social problems such as crime, riots, civil disorder, and public health problems that were present in only minimal amounts prior to the rapid urbanization that developed in the 19th Century (Dawley, 1976).  As the Century progressed, many cities faced food riots, increases in burglaries and vandalism, wage and union protests, and traffic control. These problems and how to deal with them became a major social issue and certain segments of society were quite vocal in their demand for action and reform. From these demands grew the formation of the modern idea of a police force (Monkkonen, 2004).

Industrialization began in England long before it did in the United States and, as a result, political authorities in England were also forced to address the problems brought on by industrialization much earlier than the United States. In England, despite strong opposition from certain political sectors, a police force was established and in the United States similar actions were established in the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. These were the cities that were most immediately affected by industrialization in the early 19th century and correspondingly also affected by massive increases in immigration (Sheldon, 2007). Unlike in England, however, the initial movement toward the formation of police forces in the United States was done on a local basis and there was no movement toward centralization. Officers were recruited and selected by political leaders in a particular ward or precinct. As a result, police officers became intricately involved in the neighborhoods where they worked and became political extensions of the party officials who selected them. The image of the happy go lucky beat officer developed during this period and the practical result was that the style of policing often varied from neighborhood to neighborhood. Cops in 19th Century United States were free from institutional and legal restraints and provided with much broader personal discretion than modern officers.

Once the city wide police department concept caught on in the larger cities like New York and Boston, it spread rapidly to smaller cities like Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Chicago. The debates that surrounded the formation of departments in New York were not typical in the smaller cities as the concept of a local police department had become accepted. Most urban areas now considered police protection as part of the city’s responsibility to its citizenry. Police protection joined sanitation and fire services as a routine part of every city’s special services.

Police departments in the smaller cities developed over the same lines as those in New York and Boston. The allegiance of the officers was to their political bosses and not to the department itself. The pay was good and was better than jobs in the trades and factories but because the jobs were heavily dependent on the officer’s political connections it was not particularly secure. Employment was too often dependent on the election day results.

Due to rapid turnover, officer training was not a major priority for most police departments. New officers would often be sent out on the beat with little or no training of any kind. As a result, these officers lacked any concept of proper arrest procedures, the applicable laws, or administrative processes. What developed over time were informal police procedures that varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and, often, from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Typical of the days before wage and hour laws were enacted police offices in the nation’s largest cities were working 12 hour days. A major portion of these 12 hours were spent walking a beat in one of the city neighborhoods. Because communication methods were primitive, there were no telephones, short wave radios, or any other available method of communication, officers went about their activities virtually unsupervised. This situation allowed for the beat officer to exercise a great deal of discretion.

The result of this unsupervised practice was that the arrest rates in the nation’s largest cities actually decreased in the 19th Century when police departments were first being organized. Victimless crimes like vice (gambling, prostitution, drugs), drunkenness, and disorderly conduct fell dramatically during this period. Such trend runs contrary to what would be expected in light of the greater police presence on the streets but the fact that the police were so closely integrated into the community they spent a great deal of time performing social work type functions such assisting the poor and finding lost children than they did patrolling for crime.

There was also the continuing problem of corruption in the police department. Due to how police departments were recruited and selected, departments in the 19th Century were highly political. Political machines ran the mayor’s office, the city councils, and the local wards and precincts. This meant that community services such as the police, fire, and sanitation departments were run by the same political machines. Patronage ruled the day and employment as a police officer, fireman, or garbage man depended on one’s willingness to vote for the right candidate. The natural result of this practice also included providing protection for each candidate’s illicit activities.

The lack of supervision also allowed for individual officers to benefit from illicit activities in their particular beat neighborhood and to also shake down the local businesses. Failure to take care of one’s beat officer could translate into not having one’s business being provided police protection. Under this system, prostitution and gambling businesses flourished and operated with little or no interference from the police and certain businesses in the neighborhood were provided with police protection while others found themselves constantly victimized.

This system of corruption typified police departments throughout the United States in the 19th Century. Those individual police officers who failed to follow the system soon found themselves transferred to positions and neighborhoods that were less desirable and resigned to not receiving promotions or raises. Because this system was so rampant throughout the country, being the rule and not the exception, police departments throughout the nation were inefficient and provided inequitable services to the public.

The widespread corruption in the nation’s police departments did not go unnoticed by the general public. Toward the latter half of the 19th Century a movement began to reform police departments throughout the nation. This movement, led by a group known as Progressives, provided serious opposition to the political machines that had dominated politics throughout the entire century (Monkkonen, History of Urban Police, 1992). The Progressives began demanding improvements in government and a generalized improvement in the country’s overall morality. The goal of the movement was to improve the services provided by governments such as police, fire, and sanitation.

The changes demanded by the Progressive movement were slow in coming to pass (Walker, 1977). The three major changes demanded by the movement were that police departments become centralized; that the personnel are better trained; and, the roles of the police be narrowed. Centralization meant placing more power in the hands of the police chief and removing it from the political machine. Better trained personnel meant that police departments would be more professional, more disciplined, and better educated. Finally, narrowing the responsibilities of the police would eliminate their performing many of the social work functions that they typically performed and allow them to concentrate on fighting and monitoring crime.

As admirable as the goals of the Progressives were the movement met with limited success. Some improvements were seen but widespread success was not attained. Lip service was provided through the appointment of investigation boards and commissions but the elimination of the corrupt practices that had existed did not occur.

Out of this movement, however, the civil service system that typifies the present system of police protection did evolve. The theory behind the civil service system was that it would allow for officers to be selected on an objective basis and that promotions would be based on merit and not on political patronage. In time, the civil service system was installed in most jurisdictions but it had only minimal effect on the system. Corruption remained a significant problem and it would remain for further reformers to take action before police departments became truly professional operations (Liebman, 1978). Divorcing politics from the operation of police departments in the 19th century proved to be too difficult and too ingrained in the system.

True and total reform of police operations in the United States would take many more years. In the early years of the twentieth century there were efforts to professionalize police departments by the appointment and recruiting of police chiefs with improved educational qualifications and the establishment of training procedures for police officers. Improvements in communication technology made the supervision of officers on the street more efficient and led to greater accountability. Motorized patrols replaced the need for police walking local beats which, in turn, lessened the influence of the neighborhood cop.

The corruption that characterized police departments in the 19th Century has slowly eroded but only an idealist would claim that it has been totally eliminated. Police practices in the 19th Century were highly suspect and led to many injustices but time and enlightened thinking resulted in significant improvements.

References

Dawley, A. (1976). Working-Class Culture and Politics in the Industrial Revolution: Sources of Loyalism and Rebellion. Journal of Social History , 466-480.

Liebman, R. (1978). Perspectives on Policing in Nineteenth-Century America. Social Science History , 346-360.

Monkkonen, E. H. (1992). History of Urban Police. Crime and Justice , 547-580.

Monkkonen, E. H. (2004). Police in Urban America, 1860-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sheldon, R. G. (2007). Controlling the Dangerous Classes: A History of Criminal Justice in America (2nd Edition). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Walker, S. (1977). Critical History of Police Reform. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co.

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