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The Urban Conflicts that Created Policing in America

Our municipal police departments were born amid waves of civil disorder, and their mission and practices have always been disputed. This isn't the first time reform has been in the air.

By Hatch & Co. -, Public Domain
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has produced not only sweeping nationwide protests over the deaths of African Americans at the hands of white police officers but also, increasingly, calls for "defunding" and disbanding police forces, a demand only amplified by the harsh responses by some police to peaceful, constitutionally protected protests. Now, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council is calling for dismantling the city's police force, pledging to create "a new, transformative model for cultivating safety."

At the same time, looting and destruction of buildings have occurred in many cities, and police and their political leaders have been criticized for not stopping the chaos. Some have called for giving police more power rather than less.

Should some reform or reorganization come out of the current wave of unrest, it would be beneficial to look at the history of municipal policing in America. I draw here mostly from the chapter on police and prisons in my 2012 book, The Surprising Design of Market Economies.

These institutions of paid, uniformed, paramilitary men (and later women) are a relatively recent invention. They arose in the mid-19th century as part of the infrastructure of the modern city, along with water and sewer systems, paved streets and streetcar lines, gas and electrical service, and public schools. And just as riots and protests now accompany calls for reforming or even disbanding police forces, so did riots and protests spark their creation.

Various cities in the United States vie for the title of having had this country's first municipal police force, but no one disputes that all were modeled on London's, which as the world's lead city in industrialization in the early 1800s, with more than a million inhabitants, created the institution. Sir Robert Peel formed the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829. His uniformed men, commonly and sometimes derisively called "bobbies" because of the first name of their founder, were common sights. It is telling that riots over unemployment and low wages sparked the act of Parliament that charged Peel to do something.

Both Boston and New York City copied what London had done and created, in stops and starts, their own professional police forces in the 1840s and 1850s. It is again telling that riots and disturbances, often wrapped up with anti-immigrant fervor, were principal motivators.

The idea was controversial from the start. As I wrote in the book of the effort in New York: "In 1836, city leaders specifically rejected a proposal to establish a London-style professional police force as a 'threat to democracy.' In a population that had within memory thrown off the paid occupation force of the English, there was a reluctance to let paid, uniformed men carrying weapons patrol among them. There was a fear that these servants would become masters."

But in New York City the anti-abolition riots of 1834 (yes, the rioters were opposed to getting rid of slavery) and a riot over the price of flour in 1837 had a cumulative power, and the state in 1844 and then in 1857 passed legislation creating the present police force. Other cities followed. Soon, municipal police forces became part of and accepted as a legitimate part of government, although always accompanied by reformers and critics. There was something about a city stuffed with factories, with employees and employers as well as their poverty and wealth living in close and often tense proximity, that called for the constant presence of a uniformed man.

The police forces were not cities' only attempts in the 19th and early 20th centuries at keeping public order. New York and other cities, with help from their states, created "armories": massive, solidly built structures large enough for militias to drill in and for weapons to be stored at the ready. When riots or protests occurred, men with guns could quickly flood the streets. In some cases, historians say, the militias were seen largely as forces for fighting unions and labor rights, since many disturbances were over this in an era of rapid industrialization.

So what did cities do before the creation of their police forces? The answer is not much. Towns and cities were smaller and fewer. Some had constables or perhaps the legendary night watchman who called out "all is well" upon the hour. But most Americans still lived on farms or worked in related trades in rural America.

The urbanization that began to accelerate after the Civil War changed all that, of course. By 1920, a majority of the nation's population was living in cities. Today, only 2 percent of Americans live on farms. As metropolitan areas surged in population, their police forces grew as well, but the Great Migration of African Americans from farms in the South to cities in the North and other regions was not accompanied by much racial diversity on the part of the forces that patrolled city streets. For decades now, tensions between minority communities and police have produced protests that in some cases have escalated into full-blown riots, protests that in recent years have mostly been set off by the deaths of unarmed blacks at the hands of white police.

Now, with tumultuous demonstrations over the death of George Floyd continuing to convulse Minneapolis and dozens of other cities, most of the members of the Minneapolis City Council have pledged to "begin the process of ending" the city's police force. Without agreeing or disagreeing with this proposal, I will say that it is good that this institution be continually examined, evaluated and reformed.

After all, Americans' attitudes toward police tend to reflect the times. When murder, robbery and other violent crimes are more common, there are calls for more police. These calls are often answered not only in city budgets but also at the state and federal level, as in the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which provided for 100,000 new police officers and funded a prison-building spree that set the stage for mass incarceration. As is often forgotten now, that now-controversial law was supported by a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus, many African American mayors and other black leaders whose communities were afflicted with crime.

Now crime is near historic lows in most cities. Nationally, it's about half what it was in the early 1990s when Congress passed the crime law. And when crime is low, people begin to question why it is that we have so many of these armed, uniformed men and women walking among us. It is, it hit me, kind of like social distancing and COVID-19. When the disease retreats, or never makes an appearance in a community, people don't applaud the efficacy of social distancing; they wonder why they are being asked or required to wear uncomfortable masks, go months without a haircut and close their businesses down.

Balance and re-evaluation are appropriate. Our institutions should serve us, not we the institutions. This is a maxim I would keep in mind as, once again, we evaluate the men and women in uniform and their role and mission.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.


George Floyd
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Amcities.
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