The History of Policing in the United States, Part 5

EKU Online > The History of Policing in the United States, Part 5

By: Dr. Gary Potter

On a national basis, President Hoover appointed the Wickersham Commission in 1929 to examine what was perceived as a rising crime rate and police ineffectiveness in dealing with crime. It is no accident that in looking at those issues, the Wickersham Commission also became the first official governmental body to investigate organized crime.

Commissions, while shedding light on the extent of corruption and serving to inform the public have little lasting impact on police practices. As external organizations they report, recommend and dissolve. The police department continues on as a bureaucratic entity resistant to both outside influence and reform.

Other attempts to reform policing have come from within the ranks of the departments themselves. Reform police commissioners and chiefs, often appointed in the wake of one or another scandals, made efforts to change the nature of the police bureaucracy itself. Among the reforms instituted within police organizations were the establishment of selection standards, training for new recruits, placing police under civil service, and awarding promotion as a result of testing procedures. The hope of these reforms was to lessen the hold of politicians, and particularly ward leaders on police officers. If the recruitment, selection and promotions processes were housed within the department and governed by objective criteria, the hope was that officers would no longer owe their jobs and their ranks to political operatives.

Similarly, reform-minded police executives began to try to restructure the department itself, making it more bureaucratic, with an internal clear chain-of-command. Once again, the hope was to structurally isolate police officers from politicians. In this vein, many police departments added a middle-level of management to their organizational charts; changed the geographic lines of police precincts so they would no longer be contiguous with political wards; and created special squads to perform specific duties within the departments. One of the ironies of this reform effort was that the creation of centralized special squads such as traffic, criminal investigation, vice and narcotics, over time had the effect of reducing organized crime’s corruption costs. Rather than spreading through an entire department, narcotics and prostitution operators could now corrupt a smaller, more discreet unit and still maintain a high level of immunity from police interference with their illegal businesses.

By the 1950s, police professionalism was being widely touted as better way to improve police effectiveness and reform policing as an institution. O.W. Wilson set the standard for the professionalism movement when he published his book Police Administration, which quickly became a blueprint for professionalizing policing. Wilson argued for greater centralization of the police function, with an emphasis on military-style organization and discipline. Central themes for police administration were to become crime control and efficiency in achieving crime control. Closer supervision of police officers was recommended; foot patrols were replaced by motorized patrols, precinct houses were consolidated and more central police facilities constructed; and command functions were centralized in a headquarters staff (Uchida 1993).

Police professionalism, however, did not turn out to be the panacea Wilson had envisaged. Professionalism antagonized tensions between the police and the communities they served and created rancor and dissension within the departments themselves. The crime control tactics recommended by the professionalism movement, such as aggressive stop and frisk procedures, created widespread community resentment, particularly among young, minority males who were most frequently targeted. Police professionalism and the military model of policing became synonymous with police repression. Furthermore, as Walker points out “a half century of professionalization had created police departments that were vast bureaucracies, inward looking,  isolated from the public, and defensive in the face of any criticism” (Walker 1996). In addition professionalization had done nothing to rectify racist and sexist hiring practices that had been in effect since police departments had been created in the 1830s.

Within police departments professionalization meant an emphasis on bureaucratic efficiency. Police administrators centralized authority, tightened the chain-of-command, tried to run their departments through the application of arcane, contradictory and often inapplicable rules. A highly authoritarian police bureaucracy not only isolated itself from the public, but from the very police officers whose conduct it was trying to control. By the mid-1960s police officers had responded with an aggressive and widespread police unionization campaign. Aided by court rulings more favorable to the organizing of public employees; fueled by resentment of the authoritarian organization of departments; and united in a common resistance to increasing charges of police brutality, corruption and other forms of misconduct, nearly every large-city police department had been unionized by the early 1970s. Police officers struck in New York City in 1971; in Baltimore in 1974 and in San Francisco in 1975. “Job actions” such as “blue flue” and work slowdowns (i.e. not writing tickets, making few arrests) were common in other cities.

Initially, the response to this union activity was to reduce centralization in the police bureaucracy and to include officers in discussions of rules, procedures and departmental practices. What had been the exclusive fiefdom of the police executive was now subject to negotiation with a union. But reduced municipal tax bases, caused primarily by the exodus of white, affluent executives and professionals to the suburbs in the 1970s; a prolonged economic recession in the 1970s and early 1980s; and fiscal mismanagement in many cities, led to layoffs of police and other municipal workers, and rollbacks in benefits. In fact, unions became an attractive scapegoat for municipal problems. Politicians, administrators and the media all blamed demands by public workers for the financial straits in which the cities had been floundering. Despite the fact that the fiscal crisis had been caused by much larger social and economic trends, blaming police and other workers allowed police administrators and politicians to once again reorganize the police. This reorganization has been dubbed the “Taylorization of the police” by historian Sydney Harring (1981).

Under the “Taylorization” reforms, police departments reduced the size of their forces; went from two-person to one-person patrol cars; and increased the division of labor within police departments. Police work was broken down into ever more specific, highly specialized tasks; patrol became more reactive; technology was used to restore the control of police administrators (i.e., 911 emergency lines; computerization); and some traditional police tasks were turned over to civilian employees. All of this served to further isolate the police from the citizenry; to further reduce the effectiveness of police practices; and to continually justify ever more “Taylorization” as a response to increasing inefficiency.

Concurrent with reform efforts aimed at professionalization, was an increased reliance on technology and scientific aspects of police investigation. The idea of police as scientific crime fighters had originated with August Vollmer as early as 1916, with the introduction of the crime laboratory. By 1921 Vollmer was advocating the widespread use of lie detectors and the establishment of a database for collecting national crime data (Crank and Langworthy 1992). Over the years science became synonymous with professionalism for many police executives. The use of fingerprints, serology, toxicology chemistry and scientific means for collecting evidence were emphasized as part of a professional police force. In terms of technological advancements, new ways of maintaining police record systems and enhancing police communications, such as the police radio, became priorities. The emphasis was on efficiency and crime-fighting, with the social work aspects of policing deemphasized and discouraged. The hope was also that the professional, scientific crime-fighters would be less susceptible to corruption. It is therefore a further irony of policing that in Philadelphia new communications technologies were put to use in establishing what is arguably the first “call girl” system in the United States, calling out for prostitutes using police communications systems.

Complete Series:

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Read Part 5
Read Part 6


Crank, John and Robert Langworthy, “An Institutional Perspective of Policing,” The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 83, no.2 (1992).

Harring, Sidney, “The Taylorization of Police Work: Policing in the 1980s,” The Insurgent Sociologist 10, no. 4, (1981).

Uchida, Craig, “The Development of American Police: An Historical Overview,” In Critical Issues in Policing: Contemporary Readings, edited by Robert Dunham and Geoff Alpert, Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1993.

Walker, Samuel, The Police in America: An Introduction, New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.

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