Progressive Police Reform

At the end of the 19th century, progressives attempted to reform the police. Progressivism was a social movement advocating progress, change, improvement, and reform as opposed to maintaining things as they were. Reacting to the demands of an urban‐industrial society in the early 1900s, Progressives advanced the ideas of regulating corporations, eliminating corruption from municipal government, abolishing child labor, and extending the right to vote to women. Under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt (who later served as the 26th president from 1901 to 1909), a small group of eastern civilian reformers entered municipal government, made important contributions to police administration, and moved on to careers in other fields. As president of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners (1895–1897), Roosevelt advocated reforms designed to reduce the power of political machines over the police.

Civil service

Civilian reformers instituted civil service. Under civil service, appointments and status are determined by merit and examination rather than by political patronage. Eventually, civil service helped to get rid of political patronage in American police departments.

Other recommended changes

Civilian reformers recommended these other changes:

  1. Centralizing power and authority within police departments.

  2. Upgrading police personnel.

  3. Narrowing the police function so that police could focus on law enforcement aspects of policing.

  4. Eliminating politics from policing.

Police as social workers

Some progressives saw the police as social workers. To implement the social work role, a few police departments hired women officers. When the Portland Police Department hired Lola Baldwin for child protection duty at the World's Fair in Portland in 1905, she became the first woman police officer in the United States. Alice Stebbins Wells, a policewoman with the Los Angeles Police Department, stressed the idea that policewomen should play a helping role similar to that of the mother in the home. This sex‐role stereotyping relegated women to work with juveniles and barred them from patrol until the latter part of the 20th century.

Police Professionalism

Progressive thinking about how to improve the police paved the way for a second reform movement. Within police circles, a group of police chiefs advocated professionalizing the police. The professional police department was administratively efficient, organizationally separate from political influences, technologically advanced, and expertly staffed.

August Vollmer

Following the lead of the progressives, August Vollmer, the chief of police in Berkeley, California, from 1909–1932, championed police professionalism. Vollmer defined police professionalism in terms of efficient crime control, nonpartisanship, college‐educated police officers, and public service. Vollmer is known for many firsts. He was the first to develop an academic degree program in law enforcement. His police agency, the Berkeley (California) Police Department, was the first to use forensic science in solving crimes and the first to use automobiles. His agency was also one of the first to create what is now called a code of ethics, which introduced prohibitions against the acceptance of gratuities, rewards, or favors.

O. W. Wilson

Vollmer's student O. W. Wilson emphasized the application of scientific management principles to police bureaucracy to increase efficiency. As chief of police in Wichita, Kansas, Wilson was one of the first to favor single‐officer patrol cars. As a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Wilson became the nation's top expert on police administration.