Developing the New Police

The period between the end of the Revolutionary War and 1900 was a time of disorder and change in this country. Industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and slavery contributed to crime and disorder. Seeking a new mechanism for social control, Americans borrowed the London model of policing.

Robert Peel and the “Bobbies”

Robert Peel, a politician, convinced British Parliament to pass the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829. It abolished the night watch in England and established a full‐time, uniformed police force whose primary purpose was preventing crime and disorder. Under Peel's leadership, the London police introduced new elements into law enforcement. Instead of watching for crime or waiting for a night watchman “to raise the hue and cry,” the London police set crime prevention as their goal. The mission of this publicly funded force was proactive—it tried to prevent crime before it occurred. To accomplish this goal, the London police embraced preventive patrol. Police administrators had Bobbies (a nickname for London police derived from Peel's first name) walking beats (areas of the city). It was assumed that the presence of Bobbies on the streets would deter would‐be criminals from breaking the law. Peel also instituted a military style of administration. Officers had ranks, wore uniforms, and adhered to an authoritarian system of command and discipline.

Adopting the London model

Americans selectively incorporated parts of the London model. They adopted the approach of crime prevention through patrol and organized police agencies along military lines. But the London Metropolitan Police were too elitist for Americans. Whereas the British made their new police an agency of the national government, Americans opted for a more democratic police. Americans were given a much more direct voice in police administration than the British. Power and authority were highly centralized in the London police, and the police department was insulated from political influence. Unlike the London police, American police departments were decentralized with political leaders in wards and neighborhoods exerting power over police recruitment, policies, and practices.

The first American police department

Boston's day watch, which was created in 1838, ranks as the first modern‐style police force in the United States. New York City formed its police department in 1844. The foundation for today's modern police was laid in these departments. In most cities, the creation of a modern police force meant adding a day watch or combining the day and night watches. Employing officers on a full‐time basis and paying them salaries were other important steps.

The problem of political control

Political machines ruled the cities and controlled the police. Machine politicians in a particular city doled out police jobs to members of ethnic groups for political support. Such political patronage produced a police force that reflected the racial/ethnic makeup of the machine's political constituents.

The problem of corruption

Corruption was pervasive. The police ignored vice laws (in other words, laws regulating drinking, prostitution, and gambling) in return for payoffs from vice entrepreneurs. Efforts to stamp out police corruption failed because politically powerful groups benefited from it.

The problem of police brutality and racial/ethnic discrimination

Longstanding conflicts between the police and the public created tension between them. The public regarded the untrained, unsupervised police as nothing more than political hacks. Americans believed the adoption of the police institution was too authoritarian for a democratic society. Police brutality often occurred within a context of racial and class conflict.