The History of Policing in the United States, Part 3

Written by Dr. Gary Potter

Download a free eBook of The History of Policing in the United States

In the post-Civil War era, municipal police departments increasingly turned their attention to strike-breaking. By the late 19th century union organizing and labor unrest was widespread in the United States. New York City had 5,090 strikes, involving almost a million workers from 1880 to 1900; Chicago had 1,737 strikes, involving over a half a million workers in the same period (Barkan 2001; Harring 1983). Many of the "riots" which so concerned local economic elites were actually strikes called against specific companies. The use of public employees to serve private economic interests and to use legally-ordained force against organizing workers was both cost-effective for manufacturing concerns and politically useful, in that it confused the issue of workers rights with the issue of crime (Harring 1981, 1983).

Police strike-breaking took two distinct forms. The first was the most obvious, the forced dispersal of demonstrating workers, usually through the use of extreme violence (Harring 1981). The second was more subtle. In order to prevent the organization of workers in the first place, municipal police made staggering numbers of "public order" arrests. In fact, Harring concludes that 80% of all arrests were of workers for "public order" crimes (Harring 1983). In Chicago, according to Harring the police force was "viciously anti-labor ... On a day-to-day basis it hauled nearly a million workers off to jail between 1975 and 1900 ... for trivial public order offenses" (Harring 1981). In other cities police made use of ambiguous vagrancy laws, called the "Tramp Acts," to arrest both union organized and unemployed workers (Harring 1977).

Anti-labor activity also compelled major changes in the organization of police departments. Alarm boxes were set up throughout cities, and respectable citizens, meaning businessmen, were given keys so that they could call out the police force at a moment's notice. The patrol wagon system was instituted so that large numbers of people could be arrested and transported all at once. Horseback patrols, particularly effective against strikers and demonstrators, and new, improved, longer nightsticks became standard issue.

Three compelling issues faced early American police departments: (1) should police be uniformed; (2) should they carry firearms; and (3) how much force could they use to carry out their duties. The local merchants and businessmen who had pushed the development of municipal policing wanted the police uniformed so that they could be easily identified by persons seeking their assistance and so they would create an obvious police presence on the streets. Some police officers themselves opposed uniforms. They felt that uniforms would subject them to public ridicule and make them too easily identifiable to the majority of citizens who bore the brunt of police power, perhaps making them targets for mob violence. Early police officers began carrying firearms even when this was not department policy despite widespread public fear that this gave the police and the state too much power. Police departments formally armed their officers only after officers had informally armed themselves. The use of force to effect an arrest was as controversial in the 1830s and 1840s as it is today. Because the police were primarily engaged in enforcing public order laws against gambling and drunkenness, surveilling immigrants and freed slaves, and harassing labor organizers, public opinion favored restrictions on the use of force. But the value of armed, paramilitary presence, authorized to use, indeed deadly force, served the interests of local economic elites who had wanted organized police departments in the first place. The presence of a paramilitary force, occupying the streets, was regarded as essential because such "organizations intervened between the propertied elites and propertyless masses who were regarded as politically dangerous as a class" (Bordua and Reiss 1967).

State police agencies emerged for many of the same reasons. The Pennsylvania State Police were modeled after the Phillipine Constabulary, the occupation force placed in the Philipine Islands following the Spanish-American War. This all-white, all-"native," paramilitary force was created specifically to break strikes in the coal fields of Pennsylvania and to control local towns composed predominantly of Catholic, Irish, German and Eastern European immigrants. They were housed in barracks outside the towns so that they would not mingle with or develop friendships with local residents. In addition to strike-breaking they frequently engaged in anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic violence, such as attacking community social events on horseback, under the pretense of enforcing public order laws. Similarly, the Texas Rangers were originally created as a quasi-official group of vigilantes and guerillas used to suppress Mexican communities and to drive the Commanche off their lands.

Download a free eBook of The History of Policing in the United States

More from this series:

Read Part 1
Read Part 2
Read Part 4
Read Part 5
Read Part 6

Dr. Gary Potter is a professor of online and on-campus courses for the EKU School of Justice Studies. His current research areas include transnational organized crime, human trafficking and the sex industry, and drug trafficking by teenagers in rural Kentucky.


Barkan, Steven, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding 2nd edition, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2001.

Bordua, David and Albert Reiss, Jr. "Law Enforcement," In The Uses of Sociology, edited by Paul Lazarsfeld, William Sewell, and Harold Wilensky, New York, New York: Basic Books, 1967.

Harring, Sidney, "Policing in a Class Society: The Expansion of the Urban Police in the Later Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries," In Crime and Capitalism, edited by David Greenberg, Palo Alto, California: Mayfield, 1981.

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

Harring, Sidney, Policing in a Class Society: The Experience of American Cities, 1865-1915, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1983.

Published on July 09, 2013