Who Watches the Watchmen: Police Leadership in the Age of Reform, 1880-1920

Heather Lane, University of Notre Dame

In the later nineteenth century, police leaders found themselves in an uncomfortable position. Despite heading established forces, their jobs were often politically appointed and precarious. Efforts to formalize and bureaucratize local government challenged their entrenched authority, as well as the leeway they were accustomed to in dealing with both their subordinates and the public. Reformers called for structural reform and new priorities. Police leaders faced a difficult balancing act—changing their forces while staying in charge, despite their association with past police failings. This paper examines the strategies that police leaders used to build and maintain their authority from about 1880 to 1920. Over the course of this period, police leadership worked on professionalizing, separating themselves from electoral politics and building national and transnational professional networks. They adopted a wide range of technologies. They moved towards a narrower focus on preventing crime and controlling criminals. They jettisoned previous, often relatively informal social work functions, and accepted some new, more formalized ones. Some of these policy shifts happened in concert with legislative changes to police forces, but how and when leadership decided to accept and/or resist them remains an important part of this story. While doing this, police leaders also tried to explain themselves and their work more fully to a broader audience. It is no coincidence that many police forces’ earliest institutional and organizational histories date from this time period. I use these histories, as well as the minutes of the (International) Association of Chiefs of Police and the reports and internal documents of police leaders, to show how they presented themselves to a (sometimes imagined) public, how they understood and defended their actions, and how they framed these efforts when talking amongst themselves.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 66. Debating Progressive-Era Police Professionalization