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Part 3: History, governance: 21st-century policing -- how we got here

Barbara Thornton, a Precinct 16 Town Meeting member, and former Capital Planning Committee member for 30-plus years, writes the third in a series calling for dialogue around police reform and racial justice in Arlington. Contact those involved in this series at arlingtonma.voices at gmail.com.

Race and police reform logo

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, that city is considering abolishing its police department. This is not new. In July 1970, 50 years ago, citizens in Berkeley, Calif., petitioned the City Council to abolish the city’s police department and replace it with a structure based on community control.

The Berkeley citizens, and similar groups across the country, failed. It was one step in the 100-plus-year effort to rationalize what the police role is in a municipality. Understanding how the institution of municipal policing evolved is essential to understanding how to move it forward.

Some people track the current police model to slave patrols, intended to catch and return runaway slaves. These patrols were first established in 1704 in South Carolina. This tradition, with its overtly racist origins continued to shape the policing in the former confederacy. The Texas Rangers were established in 1835 to protect the Anglo-Caucasian population moving into that area from the original occupants, the Plains tribes. This tradition of protecting property rights of the Caucasian population from groups perceived as agitators has molded the general understanding of police responsibilities in America.

Boston was first

Boston established the first formal municipal police department in the United States in 1835. Unlike other city government departments after that, the department adopted military-style uniforms and a military-style command structure.

Until the early years of the 20th century, city police were responsive to such factors as the local political interests, party bosses and precinct leaders. Tammany Hall, the political machine in New York City, is a classic example of the political forces that shaped municipal policing in this period before reform.

National and local investigations of police department problems, including corruption, did not lead to significant change. But the national discussions around policing did form the basis of a new police-reform movement. This movement included academics, ministerial associations, municipal leagues, chambers of commerce and other voluntary organizations that identified themselves as part of the “progressive movement.” It brought a neighborhood-focused, “social-work” approach to what had been part of the military-oriented group controlled by city political machines.

These reformers focused on having police address the “causes of crime,” such as poverty, hunger, unemployment and sickness. To reduce the causes of crime, these police reformers believed in helping socioeconomically disadvantaged people, encouraging job development, and creating opportunities for youth. Police chiefs assigned welfare officers, created employment bureaus and public-works programs within the department. These police reformers believed that, by alleviating destitution and encouraging social mobility, the police department was preventing crime. This “first wave” of police reform influenced policing nationally and lasted until World War II.

After WWII, a new, second wave of reformers emerged, pushing for the professionalization and militarization of police.

Post-WWII reformers

These new police reformers also focused on crime prevention. But, in contrast to first wave reformers, they believed the police department should address “opportunities for crime,” such as people hanging out in groups on the corner, being in neighborhoods where they don’t belong, etc.

These reformers also pushed a more professional, militaristic model. They did not want the local politics and community interests to influence police behavior. They believed that data and patrolling for vagrants could prevent crimes from happening by anticipating, before anything happened, where the crimes might happen and who might commit the crimes. This vision fostered the practices known as “stop and frisk” and “broken-windows” policing. These practices are now widely discredited but not purged from police operations.

First-wave reformers focused on helping the less fortunate to move up the social ladder to stability. Second-wave reformers moved the focus away from neighborhood well-being, signaled to the public the need to “be afraid” and actively searched out potential criminals. These two perspectives of police reform are clearly in conflict.

By the late 1960s a third wave of change began as police moved toward the bargaining power of unionization. As the new model of professional, quasi-military policing came into fashion among police chiefs, the rank-and-file members of the department were seeing their wages, relative to other jobs, decline. They saw other Civil Service jobs unionize to increase pay and working conditions. Police chiefs, municipal managers and other national leaders fought the attempts by local police to organize unions, believing it was contrary to the “military” role police played. Adopting a Trojan Horse strategy, police rank and file organized as “benevolent associations,” a precursor to today’s police unions.

Arlington is now contending with serious questions about what we want from our police department and how we manage accountability in policing. A future “history and governance” piece will include more about police unions.


Sept. 9, 2020: Race, responsibility in policing


This viewpoint was published Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. 

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