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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
During these same early years, mobs of thugs like the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits in New York, and the Schuylkill Rangers in Philadelphia, practically controlled certain sections of their cities. These gangs were frequently allied with prominent politicians of the era, and this made them almost immune to prosecution. So the police developed their own forms of punishment. Encouraged by a vigorous mayor, Richard Vaux, the Philadelphia police sent sixty picked men after the Schuylkill Rangers. Day and night they roamed the gang’s territory, and whenever they caught a known member they pounded him into insensibility. The mayor personally supervised the operation. In New York City the police force employed very similar tactics to break the power of the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. It applied the same tough techniques against the Jewish and Italian gangs of the Lower East Side during the early 1900’s. As late as the 1930’s, under one of New York’s most highly regarded police commissioners, Lewis Valentine (appointed by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia), the orders regularly went out from headquarters: “Muss ‘em upl” The constant motive over the years has been the one dominant with the early Irish, or watchman-style, cop—not the elimination of crime and criminals but social control.
Then there was the mass violence of the labor movement. In labor’s contemporary aura of respectability many Americans have forgotten the lawless spirit of early strikes and strikers, who were sometimes influenced by revolutionary anarchist or communist philosophies. In 1872 New York’s workers struck for an eight-hour day. About a hundred strikers attempted to seize a woodworking plant at Forty-Second Street and Second Avenue and in the course of their occupation threw the foreman downstairs. A squad of police charged in with their clubs, flattening numerous strikers. The next day the Tribune scolded the police for “mismanagement and impulsiveness.” At a mass protest meeting that night one speaker, in a remark that sounds almost familiar if transferred to today’s campus context, declared, “Nothing is better calculated to arouse the great masses of the workingmen of America. …” He proved to be a poor prophet: the strike fizzled. But the tradition of labor violence continued; it was complicated by a wave of anarchists, many of whom were identified with labor’s cause. In 1886 a bomb thrown into police ranks during a workmen’s rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square killed seven policemen and injured seventy others. The psychological impact on the relationship between police and strikers was enormous and lasted for decades. Henceforth they were enemies, and the public was far more willing to condone the nightstick as a strikebreaking tool.
There was also a class connotation in the police readiness to use violence against thugs of the Dead Rabbit variety, and against strikers. In the Lexow investigations Inspector Alexander “Clubber” Williams proudly acknowledged his nickname when questioned by the committee’s counsel, but vehemently denied that he had ever clubbed “a respectable man.” The remark aroused little or no comment, perhaps because of the continuing violence the policeman had to cope with on the streets. In 1903 William McAdoo remarked that a policeman would be killed within a week if he tried to apply the London bobbies’ minimum-force philosophy in rougher New York.
In 1931 a federal commission took the first national look at American police. Called the Wickersham Report after its chairman, George W. Wickersham, the commission’s study played up, to what many now consider a sensational degree, police use of “physical brutality or other forms of cruelty.” But most of the commission’s indignation was directed against the misuse of the so-called third degree by detectives seeking confessions. The brutality that concerns contemporary Americans is in the area that the President’s commission of 1967 called “police field practices.” The abuse of the third degree was swiftly curtailed by appellate court decisions, and in the 1967 reports of the President’s commission there is hardly a reference to it. Professor James Q. Wilson of Harvard, one of the most sophisticated students of modern police operations, points out that it was relatively easy to bring under control because it was “part of the crime-solving function of the police.” Recent Supreme Court decisions protecting the rights of those accused of crimes have made police use of the third degree self-defeating. But there is no way that courts have yet found to spell out in specific detail how the police are to maintain order in the streets and in society, their original—and perhaps most fundamental—role. This responsibility still depends on the discretion of the policeman on the scene.
This in turn is influenced by a number of subtle factors—the situation in the local courts, the attitude of police superiors and local officials toward violence, and the policeman’s own on-the-spot judgment as to whether it is his authority or the authority of the social order that is being threatened. Never before have American policemen confronted nationwide a superior social class—college students—bent on anarchic mob action. With his traditional emphasis on maintaining order (and, perhaps, his middle-class prejudice against bearded hippies, especially hippies who call him Pig), it is hardly surprising that the average policeman should at first instinctively regard these young agitators as supremely menacing and should retaliate with force —his traditional method of control.