When it comes to law and order, 'order' historically comes first for police

Dec 29 (Reuters) - Police misconduct has ignited a political firestorm in New York and many other cities across the nation, not seen in quite some time. Relations between the public and the police are fraught with tension, mistrust and violence. ...

Dec 29 (Reuters) - Police misconduct has ignited a political firestorm in New York and many other cities across the nation, not seen in quite some time. Relations between the public and the police are fraught with tension, mistrust and violence. Many are outraged. Politicians and the media are posturing and promising reform. The police are angry, feeling besieged.

It is all pretty ugly - and thanks to modern media it appears that things are worse than ever before. We can now watch video of people being killed. Protests can be organized, recorded and broadcast instantly. Guns make deadly confrontations easier to provoke.

There are many reasons specific to this time that have brought us to this unhappy point in the relationship between the police and society. But the problem of police violence is hardly new.

In New York City, recent events have stirred memories of violent confrontations of the not-so-distant past, from Sean Bell and Abner Louima to the murdered policemen Rocco Laurie and Gregory Foster. Violence, however, has always been inherent to policing, and its troubled history goes back much further than anyone alive can remember.

Police brutality has long been a source of tension between the police and the public. It has regularly provoked political controversy, as it did in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. Then, and after, however, graft and corruption, not violence, have proved easier problems to address than the much thornier issue of brutality.


Modern militarily organized police forces first appeared in American cities in the 1840s, during the first great wave of urbanization and immigration in the United States. Their mission was not to detect or investigate crime, but to pacify what was then called "the dangerous class" - meaning young immigrants and unskilled workers. Violence was naturally intrinsic to this mandate.

Philadelphia's first police force, for example, was created in 1845 as a direct response to vicious ethnic and religious riots the year before. Many of the new policemen were members of one of the warring factions - ensuring that some of the same violence would now be undertaken in the name of order.

The expectation that the police should be violent was not so explicit elsewhere. But it was quickly understood. In neighborhoods where the "danger" was thought to be greatest, the goal of the police was to maintain physical control of the streets.

Patrolmen were armed with stout clubs in order to establish police authority over those who congregated in the streets. Typically, a policeman ordered people lounging on the street to "move on" - an instruction resisted at the peril of arrest. The mostly young men on the receiving end of such orders were seldom cowed at that prospect, however. Most patrolmen understood that the physical challenge implicit in a gang member's refusal to move had to be met if the police were ever to truly have control of a beat. So out came the club.

In New York City by the end of the 19th century, this led to a virtual science of brutality among the police, using the instrument that gave them their advantage over civilians in the days before firearms. One New York police commissioner, a particularly honest and celebrated one, titled his autobiography "Night Stick."

The most famous policeman of 19th-century New York, Alexander "Clubber" Williams, was known for saying that there was more justice at the end of his club than in all the courts of the land. Use of the club was so instrumental to the job of policing New York that the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens referred to it as an "art."

Williams gave an admiring Steffens instruction on the proper technique - how to club a man so that he would be neither killed nor battered, but instead knocked unconscious. "One lick," Williams pointed out, "is always enough."

He boasted to critics that clubbings were all that were needed for him to keep the peace on his beat. On Steffens' recommendation, Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt gave a plum assignment to one of Williams' most notorious protégés, happily expecting him to be his "big stick." Another patrolman remembered how he "dispensed the law with the night stick, seldom bothering to make arrests" when he patrolled the Bowery district.


Patrolmen learned to initiate violence strategically, once they gained enough experience to be able to spot a likely recalcitrant in advance. They would sail into an aspiring tough "with that good old night stick, and believe me he would give up the idea of becoming a tough."

In this way, police brutality toward working-class boys and young men became routine, with or without an arrest. Though there were many of those - more than 60,000 were arrested for disorderly conduct each year around the turn of the century.

The city was teeming with new immigrants - almost none of them represented on the police force - and the city was rife with ethnic conflict and misunderstanding. Police violence often had ethnic overtones, and their routine brutality against ordinary people helped fuel the crucial politics of police reform in fin-de-siecle New York.

The annals of the 1895 Lexow Commission hearings, which inaugurated the reform frenzy, include endless pages of testimony about police brutality in the most mundane of circumstances. The epochal municipal reformers of the Progressive era like Steffens and Roosevelt, however, found police violence much less troublesome than other forms of police misconduct, such as their protection of gambling and commercial sex, and their intimate role in political corruption.

The police had by 1900 largely become an arm of the Tammany Hall political machine. People wanting appointment to, or promotion within, the New York Police Department had to contribute substantial sums to the machine or one of its clubs. That only encouraged policemen to collect graft from illegal businesses in their districts, often operated by machine-connected businessmen.

It was in this context that the idea that police should "serve and protect" emerged. Before that there was never any sense that the police should have a role in social policy, in modern parlance, to be "social workers with guns." But before police reformers ever concerned themselves with improving community relations and assisting people in need, or even fighting dangerous crime, they sought to break the machine in order to control the police and harness their violence in pursuit of reform ends.

Not everyone agreed that the end of destroying corrupt politicians and fighting vice justified the continuation of aggressive and violent law enforcement. The most penetrating criticism came from New York State Supreme Court Justice William J. Gaynor, who was elected New York City mayor in 1909 largely on the strength of his criticism of police violence and abuse. He warned his fellow critics of the police not to "go into a reform which hopes to reform the world by means of a police club. Don't go into a reform that takes for granted that the police are our masters instead of our servants."

But Gaynor's was a relatively lone voice in reform and political circles. The moment was missed. The police were wrested from machine control and became an instrument of social policy, which had many salutary effects, including improved police-community relations.


The vexing issue of police violence, however, was largely avoided. Violence remains at the core of police work, as it has been from its inception in American cities. It is less routine than in the 19th century, but far more lethal and militarized. The police have more amicable and structured relationships with urban populations than they did then, and cities are markedly more peaceable than they were. But the primary responsibility of the police to patrol the streets and maintain order, however defined, through the threat and sometimes use of serious violence, remains intact.

It's both a thin blue line and a very slippery slope. If another moment for serious reform is again upon us, let's hope we don't miss it again.


By Allen Steinberg.
Allen Steinberg, professor emeritus of American history at the University of Iowa, specializes in the social history of law and politics. He is author of "The Transformation of Criminal Justice: Philadelphia 1800-1880."The opinions expressed here are his own.

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