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The Policeman’s Lot
Benevolent father figure? Bloody-handed Cossack? Slow-witted flatfoot? Irish grafter? Brave but underpaid public servant? Check your prejudice against this inquiry into police history
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
“The police … are virtually in a state of mutiny. Their hearts are not in their work, they have no pride in their office, they have the inclination to evade duty, give service grudgingly, and are constantly praying for a change. A sullen, discontented and discouraged army will not win battles. …”
A contemporary sociologist, describing the current crisis in the American police? No, it is William McAdoo. describing the New York Police Department shortly before he became its commissioner in 1904.
In recent months the reading public has been almost buried under an avalanche of books and magazine articles about the supposedly sorry plight of American policemen. They have been analyzed psychiatrically their behavior attributed to their “harsh and punitive fathers"; they have been probed sociologically, their attitudes explained by their “bluecollar background”; and they have been accused of endemic fascism and racism, corruption and brutality. On the other hand, the policeman has been defended as an individual who works on “the cutting edge of social conditions,” and news magazines have worried over the fact that “the average cop feels that he is unappreciated or even actively disliked by the public he serves.”
In this proliferation of comment and observation, one approach has been strikingly absent—the view from the past. Yet a grasp of the history of the police in America is absolutely essential if we are to understand their contemporary dilemma. Many of the reckless judgments being passed on them, and the equally reckless demands being made on them, can be explained only by an almost total lack of historical perspective. Sonic of the “solutions” emanating from a small army of sociologists, psychiatrists, lawyers, writers, and politicians become instantly fatuous when viewed in this perspective. A University of Chicago sociologist, Jerome Skolnick, recently suggested, for instance, that policemen should abandon their uniforms in order to bring them “closer to their fellow citixens.” Other social tinkerers, pursuing this same sentimental trend of thought, have suggested making the police subject to neighborhood control. Such proposals betray an almost unbelievable ignorance about the history of the police.
The policeman has always occupied an uncomfortable, ambiguous position in American society. The explanation lies in our English traditions and their intensification by the republican ideas of the American Revolution. To eighteenth-century Englishmen and their countrymen in America the police looked too much like that bete noire of all political idealists, the king’s standing army. So, in both the mother country and the colonies, cities tried to get along with a haphazard dual police force: watchmen who patrolled by night, with orders simply to keep the city peaceful, and a tiny group of day police who functioned as court officers and embryo detectives—but who often spent more time worrying about the city’s sanitary conditions. The 1834 report of Boston’s city marshal, for instance, discussed privies and drains exhaustively and did not even mention crime or criminals.
Not until 1829 did London form a unified police force. New York did not follow this lead until 1845, and other American cities not until the 1950’s. In London a very severe crime wave was the final persuader. In America the impetus came from a series of massive riots that shook major cities from the mid-iSgo’s onward. For decades 1834 was known in New York as “the year of riots.” Almost always they were clashes between immigrants and native Americans.
In Boston, on June 11, 1837, a mob of fifteen thousand, more than one sixth of the city’s population, battled in the streets. Again and again, in city after city, only bayonet-wielding militia, often backed by cannon, restored order. At a time when some people seem to be blaming the police for the upheavals that have shaken our cities, it is important to recall that the police department was originally created in response to massive disorder bordering on anarchy. The very last thing the police needed was to be “controlled” by any “neighborhood.”
For those who like to think nostalgically that in the good old days police (along with everything else) were better than they arc today, history has another rude shock. One word sums up these first police departments: wretched. Policemen were usually nominated by aldermen, and their tenure was for one year. The criterion of selection was almost totally political. There were no standards such as age, physical fitness, or literacy. The only uniform was a copper badge (which gave policemen their first nickname), and they looked, said one disgusted observer, “like Falstaft’s regiment.” New York’s chief, three-hundred-pound George Matsell, a former police magistrate, had no power whatsoever to appoint, assign, or remove policemen; the mayor and the common council kept this right securely in their own hands.