In the wake of the protests against police abuse in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere, there have been some interesting articles on the history of policing – about how drastically the nature of policing has changed in recent years, and how even its origins are not what most of us were brought up to believe.

Here, for instance, David Whitehouse tells us that “(i)n England and the United States, the police were invented within the space of just a few decades—roughly from 1825 to 1855.”

“The new institution was not a response to an increase in crime, and it really didn’t lead to new methods for dealing with crime,” he writes. “To put it in a nutshell: The authorities created the police in response to large, defiant crowds. That’s

— strikes in England,
— riots in the Northern US,
— and the threat of slave insurrections in the South.

So the police are a response to crowds, not to crime.”

His suggestion that the Paris Commune might be a good model for reform is enough to turn the stomach, and it would be nice if specific historical claims had footnotes, rather than just a list of sources at the end, but there is some fascinating history here about the rise of police departments in the US, and what “law enforcement” and adjudication looked like before the advent of professional police.

“There was a night watch, which tried to guard against vandalism and arrested any Black person who couldn’t prove that s/he was free. The watch was not professional in any way. All of them had day jobs and rotated into watch duty temporarily, so they didn’t patrol regular beats—and everybody hated doing it. The rich bought their way out of it by paying for substitutes.

“During the day, a small number of constables were on duty, but they didn’t patrol. They were agents of the court who executed writs like summonses and arrest warrants. They did not do detective work. In the 1700s and well into the 1800s, the system relied almost entirely on civilian informants who were promised a portion of any fine that the offender might have to pay.”

“(The) spectacle of working-class defiance took place in full view of the families that ran New York City. Newspapers immediately began calling for a major expansion of the watch, so the Christmas Riot accelerated a set of incremental reforms that finally lead to the creation the New York City Police Department in 1845.

“The reforms of 1845 enlarged the police force, professionalized them, and centralized them with a more military chain of command. The watch was expanded to 24 hours, and policemen were forbidden from taking a second job. The pay was increased, and police no longer received a portion of the fines that were extracted from offenders.

“This meant the cops were no longer going out on patrol looking for how they were going to make a living, a process that could lead to a strange selection of prosecutions. Eliminating the fee system gave commanders greater freedom to set policy and priorities—and thus made the department more responsive to the shifting needs of the economic elite.

“That’s how the New York police got started.

“The story of police in the South is a bit different, as you might expect.

“One of the first modern-type police forces came in Charleston, South Carolina, in the years before New York force became fully professional. The precursor of the Charleston’s police force was not a set of urban watchmen but slave patrols that operated in the countryside. As one historian put it, ‘throughout all of the [Southern] states [before the Civil War], roving armed police patrols scoured the countryside day and night, intimidating, terrorizing, and brutalizing slaves into submission and meekness.'”


EPJ‘s Bob Wenzel had a fascinating piece in December that takes apart New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s implementation of the “broken window theory.” 

“…(M)ost city police forces now employ tactics based on the foundation of  what is known as the broken window theory. The theory holds that if minor crimes go unpunished this will lead to greater crime. If you don’t, for example, stop crime after one window is broken, many windows will be broken, by those who see the first window broken.

“This theory was advanced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, in a 1982 essay inThe Atlantic. One of the first to grab hold of the theory and implement it was (Boston Police Commissioner) William J. Bratton.”

“But did Giuliani and Bratton really adopt the policies that one would have adopted from a thorough reading and understandin of the Kelling and Wilson paper? Or did they simply grab the most aggressive recommendations in the paper, stretch them as far as possible and ignore what else was written  in the paper?

“Any impartial reader of the paper would reach the conclusion that the paper is disjointed and appears to make contradictory suggestions in different parts of the paper. For example, Kelling and Wilson describe at one point, with seeming approval, a successful policy that is far from  zero tolerance policy.They write:

[H]ow can a neighborhood be “safer” when the crime rate has not gone down–in fact, may have gone up? Finding the answer requires first that we understand what most often frightens people in public places. Many citizens, of course, are primarily frightened by crime, especially crime involving a sudden, violent attack by a stranger. This risk is very real, in Newark as in many large cities. But we tend to overlook another source of fear–the fear of being bothered by disorderly people. Not violent people, nor, necessarily, criminals, but disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.

One of us (Kelling) spent many hours walking with Newark foot-patrol officers to see how they defined “order” and what they did to maintain it…

The people on the street were primarily black; the officer who walked the street was white. The people were made up of “regulars” and “strangers.” Regulars included both “decent folk” and some drunks and derelicts who were always there but who “knew their place.” Strangers were, well, strangers, and viewed suspiciously, sometimes apprehensively. The officer–call him Kelly–knew who the regulars were, and they knew him. As he saw his job, he was to keep an eye on strangers, and make certain that the disreputable regulars observed some informal but widely understood rules. Drunks and addicts could sit on the stoops, but could not lie down. People could drink on side streets, but not at the main intersection. Bottles had to be in paper bags. Talking to, bothering, or begging from people waiting at the bus stop was strictly forbidden. If a dispute erupted between a businessman and a customer, the businessman was assumed to be right, especially if the customer was a stranger. If a stranger loitered, Kelly would ask him if he had any means of support and what his business was; if he gave unsatisfactory answers, he was sent on his way. Persons who broke the informal rules, especially those who bothered people waiting at bus stops, were arrested for vagrancy. Noisy teenagers were told to keep quiet.

These rules were defined and enforced in collaboration with the “regulars” on the street. Another neighborhood might have different rules, but these, everybody understood, were the rules for this neighborhood. If someone violated them, the regulars not only turned to Kelly for help but also ridiculed the violator. Sometimes what Kelly did could be described as “enforcing the law,” but just as often it involved taking informal or extralegal steps to help protect what the neighborhood had decided was the appropriate level of public order. Some of the things he did probably would not withstand a legal challenge.

“It is important to understand how the police interaction was different from what a security mall interaction under these circumstances would have been like.. For certain, in the case of Garner, if he was selling loosies in a mall, security would have come up to him and told him that he couldn’t sell loosies there and they would have watched until he left. There would have been no arrest attempt. And if Brown was acting up in the mall, they would have told him to cool it. But you say, police are different and couldn’t act like private security. But in the old days, that is exactly how they acted.

“Kelling and Wilson explained this in their paper:”

 From the earliest days of the nation, the police function was seen primarily as that of a night watchman: to maintain order against the chief threats to order–fire, wild animals, and disreputable behavior…Until well into the nineteenth century, volunteer watchmen, not policemen, patrolled their communities to keep order. They did so, by and large, without taking the law into their own hands–without, that is, punishing persons or using force.

“It was very much different kind of police:”

 Solving crimes was viewed not as a police responsibility but as a private one… In the March, 1969, Atlantic, one of us (Wilson) wrote a brief account of how the police role had slowly changed from maintaining order to fighting crimes. The change began with the creation of private detectives…who worked on a contingency-fee basis for individuals who had suffered losses. In time, the detectives were absorbed in municipal agencies and paid a regular salary simultaneously, the responsibility for prosecuting thieves was shifted from the aggrieved private citizen to the professional prosecutor. This process was not complete in most places until the twentieth century.

“And there you have it. From a paper that is extremely sympathetic to police of a bygone era that acted more like private security, Giuliani and Bratton ignored all that and focused on the advice in the paper that says it is important to maintain, intact, “communities without broken windows.” They then stretched this concept to make it an overall zero tolerance policy which includes arrests of those selling loosies and stop and frisks. Is it any wonder then that the tension exists between the community and the police and police are trigger happy when coming up against those they want to grind to the ground, encouraged by the zero tolerance policy?

“The policy is clearly a failure that leads to distrust and provocation and escalation on both sides.”

It is an unfortunate human tendency to seek to justify the peculiar ways that history has played out, and the way things are in one’s own lifetime. It is as if the mind simply cannot tolerate the possibility that things may have been better in some ways in the past, or that institutions we have had around us all our lives and are very comfortable with might actually be quite harmful to us. The institution of modern-day policing is one of our culture’s most sacred cows, and it’s long past time to start calling its existence into question.