American Police Forces Were Created to Fight Rioters. But Police Probably Made Things Worse.
“Whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity,” Abraham Lincoln told a crowd in Springfield, Illinois, in 1838, “the feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated from it.”
Lincoln’s Lyceum Address spoke to the concerns over the riots that had erupted in cities throughout the nation in the 1830s. As many politicians have done in the face of social unrest, Lincoln called for law and order. Although he did not advocate police suppression of the riots—as professional police forces were unknown to the United States in 1838—he would actively work to help establish the Metropolitan Police Department for the District of Columbia in the first months of his presidency.
Between Lincoln’s address in 1838 and the founding of the Washington, DC, police force, urban riots continued to plague the country’s cities, and politicians increasingly looked for ways to deal with the disorder. New York City led the way in 1844 with the Municipal Police Act, which established the first professional urban police force in the United States. It was modeled after London’s novel police force established in 1829, nicknamed “bobbies” after the British Home secretary Robert Peel who introduced the bill.
Many historical accounts—especially in-house histories—of the origins of the police claim that police forces “had been created because of a marked increase in criminal activity.” Whether or not there was any actual increase in crime in the nineteenth century is difficult to assess, because the formal collection of crime statistics did not come about until the twentieth century, but there is little reason to believe that individual crime drove the adoption of police forces.
Sheriffs were traditionally responsible for dealing with crime, and they were able to deputize citizens as they saw fit to adequately deal with the crime in their jurisdictions. This gave them the flexibility of expanding and contracting according to the needs of their community. While there is much we can find wrong today with the practices of nineteenth-century sheriffs, it is important to note that few people at the time considered them incapable of handling local crime.
Mob violence was a different problem that required a unique solution. Professional police forces introduced a number of law enforcement innovations that are now so commonplace that we rarely question them. The first is the idea of a “beat,” or a regular patrol, in which police officers actively look for crime, rather than merely responding to calls from citizens.
The patrol wasn’t entirely a nineteenth-century innovation, as New York and other cities had long employed nightwatchmen—a British practice that survived the Revolution—in which men patrolled the streets after sunset to deter crime. It is, of course, worth remembering that prior to electric lighting, nighttime darkness precluded legitimate business and social activities while providing natural cover for burglaries to an extent that is unfamiliar to the modern world. The first and most important service offered by the nightwatch was light from their lanterns. The police force of 1844, by contrast, introduced regular daytime patrols.
Municipal police were also professionally trained. Then, as now, their training was not designed to educate them about the laws they were tasked with enforcing, nor were they trained to deescalate potentially violent situations. Instead, their training focused on two things: (1) military-style discipline, which meant teaching them to obey orders and respect officer hierarchy, and (2) crowd and riot control. The latter is especially telling, as riot control training is emphasized even in the in-house history of the NYPD that repeatedly claims that the creation of the police was a response to rising crime with no mention of the riots that precipitated their formation.
The relationship between riots and the birth of the police has obvious topical implications that should be sobering for both antipolice rioters and the anti-riot supporters of police. The first is that, rather than quell riots, police intervention simply exacerbated them. The 1849 Astor Place Riot, a clash over culture, aristocracy, and nativism that centered around two Shakespearean actors, provides an illustrative example. While crowds who opposed the British actor William Charles Macready had been disruptive and even destructive (throwing tomatoes and ripping up theater seats), the intervention of police—as well as state militia, at the police chief’s request—fueled the escalation from stone throwing and fistfights between two groups of theatergoers into a three-sided armed conflict that left as many as thirty-one civilians dead and dozens injured on all sides.
This, of course, is not meant to serve as a defense of the rioters, or any of the riots that preceded it, which involved violence and property destruction. But the Astor Place Riot—the first in New York in which the new professional police force was employed—marked a turning point in the deadliness of urban rioting. Rather than deterring or quelling riots, police intervention had the effect of exacerbating them and escalating the violence.
While this lesson may suggest the need to reconsider the deployment of police in response to mob violence on purely utilitarian grounds, another lesson from the history of riots and policing has implications for modern rioters. The political response to the riot was to pass a series of reforms that essentially began police militarization. The 1850s saw the uniforming and arming of police (during the Astor Place Riot only the state militia had firearms and police officers were only identifiable by their copper badges).
From a modern perspective, it may seem hyperbolic to describe these reforms as “militarization,” but that is quite literally how they were understood at the time. The original pieces of legislation establishing the police intended them to wear uniforms, but both civilians and many police officers objected that uniforms (and, later, firearms) resembled the standing army that the Founding Fathers had revolted against. An additional reform was the expansion and centralization of the police force with the creation of the Metropolitan Police, which had jurisdiction over all the boroughs of present-day New York City.
Although the riots of the 1830s and ‘40s were sparked by a variety of causes—most commonly in response to abolitionists and immigrants—the police themselves were the catalyst for further riots. Most infamously, the Great Police Riot of 1857—also known as the New York Police Riot—erupted as a protest against widespread police and political corruption. This riot was actually a clash between the Metropolitan and Municipal Police forces (the latter being the police force of New York City proper, under the command of Mayor Fernando Wood). However, the police riot created the urban disorder that led to the Dead Rabbits riot, a street war between the Dead Rabbits and Bowery Boys gangs that is famously depicted in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.
The Great Police Riot illustrates how police forces can actually increase criminal opportunism, as the gangs sought to take advantage of the disorder. This again has implications for the recent protests, in which people largely debate whether the mobs are of peaceful protestors or violent rioters and looters. Naturally, it is easy to find examples of both, but we don’t have to morally exculpate the criminal opportunists looting their communities to recognize how the police helped to create the environment that these criminals exploited. Their riot suppression tactics seemed to encourage disorder rather than stifle it.
The Dead Rabbits riot, of course, only served as visible justification for more police and centralized authority, despite the fact that the riot would likely not have occurred in the absence of an urban police force. People often object to calls to abolish, defund, or privatize the police by conjuring up images of the crime and disorder that would exist without them, unaware that we have such a history to draw comparisons from. Riots took place before the police existed, but they became significantly more deadly and destructive after the police became participants. Despite these results, every subsequent riot has served to further legitimize increases in police authority, budgets, weaponry, and centralization in the eyes of political leaders and average citizens.
This again calls to mind modern parallels. Although the peaceful participants of the recent protests have largely moved on and returned to their normal lives (or as normal as they can be in 2020), many of the violent rioters—particularly those in Portland—have continued their destructive rampages in protest of all perceived evils, real or imagined (predominantly the latter, it seems). The consequence is justifiably terrifying, as national police forces are now arresting civilians under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that Obama signed in 2011, empowering national law enforcement officers to arrest and indefinitely detain American citizens.
Jeff Deist has recently pointed out that those arrested are people who riot in the name of increased political centralization and a strong-arm state. Few Democrats criticized the NDAA until it was employed by a Republican administration, which should serve as a reminder that every power we grant the government in the service of our political goals can and will be used against us.
But the other important lesson we should keep in mind is that this kind of increased police presence and heavy-handed enforcement—whether from national or municipal governments—is the predictable outcome of the violence and property destruction that rioters justify on Machiavellian and anticapitalist grounds. This was the behavior that led to the creation of the country’s first professional police force in 1844, and since then we have seen a pattern of police exacerbating and encouraging violent riots while rioters facilitate the centralization, expansion, and militarization of police.
The police and violent protestors may claim to be oppositional forces, but they effectively work together to enflame the greatest evils of both sides.