In the minds of many police admirers there exists the iconic picture of a friendly Irish beat cop cheerfully greeting his neighborhood shop keepers and playfully demonstrating his twirling skills with his nightstick for local children on foot patrol while protecting citizens from the criminal element. On the other hand, there exists a darker picture, especially within minority groups of an unremittingly corrupt organization run by even more corrupt political powers, in particular the infamous Tammany Hall era under the William “Boss” Tweed regime from 1858 to 1872. The reality overall during that era lies somewhere between those two extremes and remains so today.
Evolution of Policing in the US
Political Era Policing: Good Cop versus Bad Cop
So how did these two seemingly diametrically opposing images change and how in truth did the evolution of policing in the US come about? During this era, police agencies were typically established and authorized through local governing bodies with no oversight from outside. Well established families or local political groups exercising political influence would populate elected positions and subsequently appoint positions within the police, and other government agencies, from political allies or supporters in their respective towns or cities. In cases where the political powers that be were interested in truly serving their communities as a whole, this in turn affected the quality and focus of service in those selected for policing in that jurisdiction.
During this era, police performed much more comprehensive services, such as running soup kitchens, finding shelter for the homeless and helping immigrants find jobs, in addition to dealing with criminal activity. They were closely integrated within their communities and for those within the political sphere of the elected leaders within the community; the friendly image of the Irish beat cop emerges.
The problems within this era arose as a result of corrupt political regimes using their police force to harass, intimidate and even commit crimes against political opponents, new immigrants who wouldn’t follow the political order or other unpopular elements of society. Poor oversight or accountability except from the political regime appointing the police led to poor organization, rampant corruption and chaos in dealing with crime. The closeness within the community led to bribing to overlook or minimize enforcement of laws for those paying tribute, those favored by police and discrimination against new groups of immigrants or competing economic or political interests entering into their communities.
In addition, there were often no minimum standards or requirements to become a police officer other than political favor or connections. The lack of effective supervision and oversight, poor selection criteria and political favoritism led to, in essence, criminal enterprises within police forces overwhelming those few with a desire to truly serve the public. Training was limited, usually performed through “on the job” training and mentorship by veteran officers perpetuating corrupt practices. Career advancement was based on political connections rather than meritorious performance and service to the community.
My Field Observations
As a Sheriff’s Deputy serving under three different Sheriff’s administrations, I had an excellent opportunity to observe differing leadership styles, as well as the continuing influence that politics has over and within policing even today. While many reforms, such as basic educational, training and selection criteria and more stringent oversight have been implemented, politics, both within the organization and over the agency is still evident and to some extent, always will be.
The office of the Sheriff, being elected, is politically oriented. Depending on the community’s engagement and the professionalism of the Sheriff, the Sheriff’s Office can be responsive to its citizens, especially with the advent of advocacy groups suing in the event of civil rights violations. This political orientation, depending upon the character and professionalism of the Sheriff, can and sometimes does lead to politically oriented hiring and promotions, rather than merit based selections. This is particularly evident in smaller, poorly funded offices. Other influences on the Sheriff are the county commission or governing body involved in funding the office. Political differences between the Sheriff and commission have on more than one occasion led to deputies being caught in the crossfire. Lay-off notices, denial of budget requests for equipment or additional manpower are not unusual while these differences are being resolved.
While those involved in policing often hear the words “Do you know who I am” as an intimidation and deterrent to continuing to engage a person over whatever activity that caused the contact, most of the time it is an empty bluff. There are, unfortunately, still occasions where those words have led to disciplinary action including firing against officers or deputies trying to impartially enforce the law without regard for political connections. Town “fathers” with political clout behind the scenes, corrupt elected officials, as well as those who assume because of their political connections are above mundane laws for citizens continue to impact the best efforts of professional policing.
Perhaps the most disturbing from my perspective, is the development of specialized, elite units that while serving an important function within policing, have often been utilized indiscriminately and frequently at cross purposes with the overall aim of policing. Specialized units, such as SWAT, narcotics and street crime units can be a political tool against minorities or other groups without political favor. Within the agency, these units can be politically favored for promotions or other considerations and because of that favor, are too often given more latitude than officers or deputies in less politically favored positions. This latitude has resulted in abuses that would not have been tolerated within standard patrol units and damages efforts to build public confidence and support.
Political Era Policing- What We Can Learn
Policing is an extremely complex and dynamic field of endeavor that continues to evolve as sometimes hard lessons are learned about what works and what doesn’t. The important lesson of the Political Era of policing is that policing needs to be disconnected from political machinations of those in political power. While many reforms within policing have helped to reduce corruption and political influence, human nature where power is concerned will always require close monitoring, not just within policing, but of elected officials, as well as other components of the criminal justice system.
In order to achieve the best performance for the public, there is no substitute for an engaged, informed public carefully selecting responsible, competent and honest representation. Alert, fair minded and engaged citizens not only provide important oversight of those straying from positive and professional policing practices, they support the efforts of those within policing that seek to continually raise the bar in professionalism, integrity and the highest standards of service. Understanding the link between elected officials who in turn affect who is selecting those within every aspect of the criminal justice system is integral to the police profession most effectively serving the public.
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What are your thoughts on the evolution of policing in the US and in particular the Political Era of Policing? Do you think more work needs to be done to correct political influence within policing? If so what measures would you recommend? I welcome your thoughts and comments below.