The First Police Departments
The duties of the first police officers in those early years were very similar to what the watchmen were doing. But after the Civil War, which ended in May, 1865, city police departments began to establish a unique identity as they began to wear uniforms, carry nightsticks, and arm themselves with firearms. However, it can be said that police work was primitive in the early years. Early police officers, in the nineteenth century, performed many duties they do not have today, including cleaning streets, inspecting boilers, caring for the poor and homeless, operating emergency ambulances, and performing other social services (Dempsey and Forst, 2010). Following the English tradition, police officers in the north were not issued with firearms, although this changed by the 1860s.
Another form of early policing was established in what were becoming the key slave states of the south. These states were Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. And the form of policing evolving in these states was the slave patrols (Oliver and Hilgenberg, 2006). Although the slave patrols actually began in the seventeenth century, they were organized to prevent slaves from escaping from their owners. As time went on, the slave patrols would develop into more formal, government-sanctioned entities as they were legislated into existence (Oliver and Hilgenberg, 2006). For example, the code of 1705 in Virginia allowed the patrols to check blacks who were not on plantation property to ensure they had appropriate documentation and were not escaped slaves.
The slave patrols were often made up of hired hands from plantations, and frequently they treated blacks with suspicion and hostility. Sometimes, blacks were mistreated, tortured, or even murdered (Oliver and Hilgenberg, 2006).
There was little change in policing from the time of the early formation of police departments in the 1850s until the 1930s. It was apparent to many that changes were needed because, according to Oliver and Hilgenberg in A History of Crime and Criminal Justice in America (2006), the reality of American policing was that the police were corrupt, tied into politics, and very brutal in their approach to dealing with citizens.
As the country headed into the 1920s and the grand social experiment known as Prohibition created a new series of crimes and law enforcement challenges, police departments were unable to cope with the demands brought about by the attempt to ban the manufacture, distribution, transportation, sale, or consumption of alcohol. However, the status of police officers did not make their jobs any easier. Police officers in the 1930s were generally underpaid, poorly trained, and ill equipped (Oliver and Hilgenberg, 2006). It was a low-status job often given to political cronies or brutish men without an education (Walker, 1992). In addition, corruption was rampant. Often, police officers worked with politicians who themselves worked with gangsters, and the whole system ensured that gangsters could make sure that thirsty Americans could get booze—no matter what the federal law said.
Many cities, as well as the federal government, were concerned about the rise in crime and the flourishing bootlegging business. More than 100 surveys and studies were conducted during the 1920s to study the police problem, crime, and the criminal justice system (Oliver and Hilgenberg, 2006).
The most significant of these studies was the one initiated by President Herbert Hoover in 1929. Named the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, this commission was under the direction of George W. Wickersham, the U.S. attorney general. In 1931, the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, most commonly known simply as the Wickersham Commission, gave its report and recommendations. The Wickersham Commissions report concluded that Prohibition was unenforceable, but the report condemned the police and said that the police by and large were corrupt, that brutality by the police was widespread, and that police officers at all levels were ill equipped, ill trained, and ill prepared to perform the duties of law enforcement (Oliver and Hilgenberg, 2006).
Following the Wickersham Commission’s report and the number of recommendations given in it (e.g., one recommendation was for more extensive training for new police recruits, as well as for officers already on the job), it might be expected that changes would be forthcoming.That was not the case, however. There was no immediate response, but over the next few decades, gradual changes would come about.
Police chiefs and police organizations, with such forward-thinking men as August Vollmer and O.W. Wilson leading the way, brought about improved standards for hiring police officers, improved education and training, and better equipment for the police (Dempsey, 1999).