The History of Policing in the United States, Part 4

EKU Online > The History of Policing in the United States, Part 4

By: Dr. Gary Potter

By the end of 19th century municipal police departments were firmly entrenched in the day-to-day political affairs of big-city political machines. Police provided services and assistance to political allies of the machine and harassed, arrested and interfered with the political activities of machine opponents. This was a curious dichotomy for an ostensibly crime control organization. Political machines at the turn of the century, were in fact, the primary modality through which crime was organized in urban areas. Politicians ran or supervised gambling, prostitution, drug distribution and racketeering. In fact, organized crime and the dominant political parties of American cities were one in the same. Politicians also employed and protected the many white-youth gangs that roamed the cities, using them to intimidate opponents, to get out the vote (by force if necessary), and to extort “political contributions” from local businesses. At the dawn of the 20th century, police were, at least de facto, acting as the enforcement arm of organized crime in virtually every big city.

Police also engaged in and helped organize widespread election fraud in their role as political functionaries for the machine. In return, police had virtual carte blanche in the use of force and had as their primary business not crime control, but the solicitation and acceptance of bribes. It is incorrect to say the late 19th and early 20th century police were corrupt, they were in fact, primary instruments for the creation of corruption in the first place.

Police departments during the machine-era provided a variety of community services other than law enforcement. In New York and Boston they sheltered the homeless, kept tabs on infectious epidemics, such as cholera, and even emptied public privies. While this service function of police continues to be important today, it is important to recall that in the context of political machine, government services were traded for votes and political loyalty. And while there is no doubt that these police services were of public value, they must be viewed as primarily political acts designed to curry public favor and ensure the continued dominance of their political patrons.

The advent of Prohibition (1919-1933) only made the situation worse. The outlawing of alcohol combined with the fact that the overwhelming majority of urban residents drank and wished to continue to drink not only created new opportunities for police corruption but substantially changed the focus of that corruption. During prohibition lawlessness became more open, more organized, and more blatant. Major cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia has upwards of 20,000 speakeasies operating in them. Overlooking that level of publicly displayed crime required that corruption become total. But most important to policing, Prohibition marked a change in how corruption was organized. Criminal syndicates, set up to deliver alcohol to all those illegal outlets, acquired enormous sums of money, political power in their own right, no longer dependent on the machine’s largesse, and respectability. Organized crime was able to emerge from the shadows and deal directly with corrupt police. In many cities police became little more than watchmen for organized crime enterprises, or, on a more sinister vein, enforcement squads to harass the competition of the syndicate paying the corruption bill. By the end of prohibition, the corrupting of American policing was almost total.

The outrages perpetrated by municipal police departments in the ensuing years inevitably brought cries for reform. Initially, reform efforts took the form of investigative commissions looking into both police and political corruption. As is the case today, these commissions usually were formed in response to a specific act of outrageous conduct by the police. And, like today, those commissions upon investigating the specific incident in their charge, uncovered widespread corruption, misfeasance and malfeasance. Examples of such specific outrages spawning investigatory bodies include: (1) the formation of a prostitution syndicate by Los Angeles Mayor Arthur Harper, Police Chief Edward Kerns, and a local organized crime figure, combined with subsequent instructions to the police to harass this syndicate’s competitors in the prostitution industry; (2) the assassination of organized crime figure Arnold Rothstein by police lieutenant Charles Becker, head of the NYPD’s vice squad; and, (3) a dispute between the Mayor and District Attorney of Philadelphia, each of whom controlled rival gambling syndicates and each of whom used loyal factions of police to harass the other (Fogelson 1977: ; Potter and Jenkins, 1985).

One of the earliest of these investigative commissions was the Lenox Committee, formed in 1894 to investigate police corruption related to gambling and prostitution and to investigate charges of police extortion. The Lenox Committee also determined that promotion within the New York Police Department required a bribe of $1,600 to be promoted to sergeant and up to $15,000 to be promoted to Captain. Subsequent investigatory commissions in New York City include the Curren Committee (1913), which investigated police collusion with gambling and prostitution; the Seabury Committee (1932), which investigated Prohibition-related corruption; the 1949 Brooklyn grand jury which investigated gambling payoffs; the 1972 Knapp Commission which looked into corruption related to gambling and drugs; and the 1993 Mollen Commission which exposed massive drug corruption, organized theft by police officers, excessive use of force, and use of drugs by the police (Kappeler, Sluder and Alpert 1998).

In Philadelphia a series of investigative grand juries exposed massive police collaboration with gambling and prostitution enterprises. Commissions also investigated police corruption in Louisville, San Francisco, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Recently, the Christopher Commission investigated police misconduct in Los Angeles related to the widespread use of excessive force by LAPD and racism within the ranks of that department.

Complete Series:

Read Part 1
Read Part 2
Read Part 3
Read Part 4
Read Part 5
Read Part 6


Fogelson, Robert, Big-City Police, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Kappeler, Victor, Richard Sluder and Geoff Alpert, Forces of Deviance: Understanding the Dark Side of Policing, 2nd edition, Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1998.

Potter, Gary and Philip Jenkins, The City and the Syndicate: Organizing Crime in Philadelphia, Boston, Massachusetts, Ginn Press. 1985.

Learn More