The paramilitary aspects of police culture are so deeply entrenched that most officers and police chiefs take them for granted, rarely questioning the need for boot polishing, drill and formations, and rigorous mandatory workouts as a central part of police training. But the paramilitary model is as pernicious as it is ubiquitous, and any meaningful approach to police transformation needs to confront it head-on.
Nothing about paramilitary policing is inevitable, and historically speaking, the vision of policing as a paramilitary enterprise is of relatively recent vintage. In early colonial America, police departments as we think of them today did not exist. Public safety was a communal responsibility, and in many New England towns, appointed sheriffs were supplemented by a town watch comprising ordinary citizens. In the frontier towns of the American West, sheriffs made do by deputizing citizens into temporary posses when needed. In the southern United States, policing was also seen as a shared public responsibility, albeit one distorted by the brutal institution of slavery: Many southern towns and counties established volunteer “slave patrols” charged with capturing runaways and returning them to their owners, dead or alive. As one slave patroller put it, his job was to “apprehend any negro whom we found from his home, and if he made any resistance, or ran from us, fire upon him immediately.” The toxic legacy of these patrols remains alive today.
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In the mid-19th century, industrialization, rising income inequality, and the growth of cities led to increases in both violent crime and property crime. As communities became more populous and urbanized, the relatively informal mechanisms of social control that had prevailed in colonial America and the early years of the republic began to be perceived by elites as inadequate, and police organizations were formalized and professionalized in most major American cities. New York established its first police department in 1845, and in 1861 Washington, D.C., followed suit with the creation of the Metropolitan Police Department. Policing quickly ceased to be viewed as a collective obligation and became, instead, the work of a permanent body of paid specialists.
From their inception, and in contrast to earlier models of law enforcement, these newly created police departments in the 19th century were paramilitary in nature. In Washington, D.C., for instance, President Abraham Lincoln insisted that General George B. McClellan be consulted on the appointment of the first police superintendent. Ultimately, William Webb, a major in the D.C. militia, was chosen, and Webb quickly recruited several other Union soldiers into the department’s ranks.
America’s new police departments adopted military-style titles, rank structures, and uniforms. In Los Angeles, for instance, the first citywide law-enforcement officers, the Los Angeles Rangers, were citizen volunteers authorized by the city council in 1853; they wore no uniforms, but sported white ribbons identifying them as “city police.” By 1869, however, the city had hired its first paid professional police, kitting them out in surplus Union Army uniforms, and as in D.C., many early recruits came from a military background. (The path from military service to law enforcement remains well trod; currently, almost 20 percent of police officers are military veterans, although veterans make up just 6 percent of the general population).