Bringing Police Back Under Municipal Control

The US is entering a new wave of police reform intended to shape a police department that is responsible to the community it serves.  But this in not the first time in America that municipal policing has undergone reform.  Understanding the reasons for prior reforms and what went wrong, may help the country to get it right this time.

Slave patrols, to catch and return runaway slaves, were first established in 1704 in South Carolina.  This tradition, with its racist overtones, continued to color the policing in the former confederacy.  The Texas Rangers were established in1835 to protect the Anglo-caucasian population moving into that area from the original occupants, the Plains tribes.  This tradition of protecting the perceived property rights of the caucasian population from groups perceived as agitators has continued as part of the general understanding of police responsibilities.  Boston established the first formal municipal police department in 1835.

By the late 1800’s, city police departments, typically in the northeast, were more responsive to  local party bosses, and precinct leaders desires to control elections than to the elected officials and public.  Tammany Hall, the party machine in New York City, is a classic example of the leadership that shaped municipal policing in this pre-reform period.  In 1895 the Lexow Committee was formed to investigate the increasing number of reported flagrant police abuses.  These investigative commissions spread across the country, identifying some shocking findings about police collusion with local political machines, manipulating elections.

These findings did not lead to wholesale change, but they formed 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 city political machine.

By 1915 this reform movement, aligning with the progressives’ thinking, emphasizing a “guardian” role, but also organizing according to a military model, was moving across the USA, according to BIG-CITY POLICE by Robert M. Fogelson.  Arthur Woods, New York City police chief and August Volmer, Los Angeles police chief, were both leaders in re-shaping police departments to follow the precepts of the Progressive / Reformer thinking.

Building on the basic assumption that crime prevention was the principal task of American police:   these first wave reformers focused on undercutting the causes of crime.   To do this Chief Woods and his fellow police reformers believed in helping poor people, encouraging job development, and creating opportunities for youth.  Police chiefs assigned welfare officers, created employment bureaus and public works programs within the department. They focused on helping at the local community precinct level.  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 the war, a new, second wave of reformers emerged, pushing for the professionalization and militarization of police.  These new police reformers also focused on crime prevention.  But, in contrast to first wave reformers, they believed the vision and mission of the police department should be to undercut opportunities for crime.  Led by Chiefs like William H. Parker, Los Angeles and Orlando W. Wilson, Chicago, they pushed a more militaristic model of policing.  Separate local community politics from policing. Prevent crimes from happening by anticipating, before anything happened, where the crimes might happen and who might commit the crimes.  Their vision fostered the practice of “stop and search” and “broken windows” policing.  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 proactively searched out potential criminals.  Mission and vision between these two perspectives of police reform are in conflict.

A third wave of change happened when police gained the bargaining power of unions.  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 unionized to increase pay and working conditions.   Police chiefs and municipal managers fought the attempts by the rank and file to organize unions, believing it was contrary to the “military” role police played.  Adopting a Trojan Horse strategy, to get what they wanted, police rank and file organized as “benevolent associations”. By the late 1950’s, the police associations had won a formal grievance procedure, a dues check-off, and collective bargaining rights in cities  Essentially, they had unionized in all but name and were actively negotiating terms with their cities.

During the 1970s many cities, including Boston, signed agreements making police department policy as well as work conditions negotiable. This opened the door to weaken city control over police behavior.  Cities paid more attention to the immediate and obvious goal of budget management, ceding accountability and their right to discipline bad police behavior.  For decades municipal officials have complained that they cannot remove the “bad apples” in the police department because they would lose the legal battle with the union.  Police unions have become more adept at rewarding state elected officials with contributions, making it harder for states to reinforce the right of cities to control their police officers’ behavior.

In 2020, with the horrific and very public death of George Floyd, the nation has reached an impasse.  The removal of bad police officers must remain at the municipal level, a  of the officials who are elected by and accountable to the people in that community.  Compliance with rules of good conduct like those outlined in Campaign Zero’s  8 Can’t Wait project are not enough.  Protests under Black Lives Matter signs are not enough.  Responsibility for disciplining and removing police officers who do not abide by the community’s standards must be given back to local elected officials who hire the city manager who hires the police chief.  They must take back this responsibility from the unions.  And if the Mayors, City Councils and Select Boards do not act, let the state Attorneys General use their power to act.  And if the Attorney General does not act, let the Federal Department of Justice act.  And if the Department of Justice does not act, then we should all be very afraid.  We must take back our right to demand lawful behavior by the police we pay.

Article by Barbara Thornton, Asset Stewardship

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see also:
John Oliver Examines the Past, Present, and Future of Policing in America

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