Is the Boston Police Department the Oldest in the United States? The “First in the Nation?” (No)
The Boston Police Department and its public relations apparatus have long laid claim to the department as being the “oldest in the United States.” “First in the Nation” is seen emblazoned on police vehicles and on certain uniform insignia worn by members of the department. The narrative continues to be promulgated and facilitated (even celebrated) by the local Boston media without even cursory interrogation or documentation. This storied and long-embraced bit of local lore has remained unquestioned and undisputed, but it is factually inaccurate and unsupported by the actual history of the emergence of urban law enforcement agencies in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. The Boston Police Department is not the oldest police department in the United States: It was not the first police department established in the United States, or the second, or even the third.
William J. Stuntz, the late criminal justice scholar and Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, writing in The collapse of the American criminal justice system (2011) observed that in fact it was the New York City Police Department, established in 1845, that was the first police department in the United States: “Another force driving the rise of local governments’ power was the spread of urban police forces, the first of which was established in New York in 1845” (2011, p. 89). He continues: “After New York abandoned the privatized night watch system, other cities soon followed: Baltimore’s police force was established in 1847, Philadelphia’s in 1850, and Boston’s in 1854” (p. 90). Stuntz cites New York City police historian and scholar James F. Richardson’s The New York police, colonial times to 1901 as the source dating the 1845 establishment of the NYPD (1970, p. 32, 49). Richardson reported that: “The council bill (establishing the New York City Police Department) was signed into law May 23, 1845, and New York at last achieved a police force akin to London’s” (p.49), and “The new department established in 1845 had to police an explosively changing city. In 1845 they were 800 policemen and in 1855 less than 1200” (p. 51).
And de Francias Folsom, writing in 1888 in Our police: A history of the Baltimore force from the first watchman to the latest appointment: “The Southern District (of the Baltimore Police Department) was established under an ordinance dated on February 18, 1845” (p. 23), although the department, according to Stuntz, did not become fully operational until 1847. “The Baltimore police, as constituted in 1848, consisted in the daytime of one high constable, one regular policeman for each ward, who was also lieutenant of the night-watch in his district, and the night watchmen” (p. 23).
Howard O. Sprogle (1887) wrote of the establishment of the Philadelphia Police Department in The Philadelphia police, past and present: “… the (Pennsylvania) Legislature passed the desired law, April 12, 1845. Under its provisions, the city of Philadelphia… (was) required to establish and maintain (a) police force of ‘not less than one able-bodied man for one hundred and fifty tax-payable inhabitants’ for the prevention of riots and the preservation of the public peace” (p. 86). By 1850, according to Sprogle, the Philadelphia police saw that “a radical improvement was made in reorganization and systematizing the public arrangements” (p. 89).
According to the Boston Police Department’s website, the department was established in 1854, nine years after the establishment of the New York force, at least seven years after the establishment of the Baltimore Police Department, and at least four years after the Philadelphia force was established. “In 1854, the City replaced the Watch organizations with the Boston Police Department, which consisted of 250 officers.” The historian Roger Lane, author of Policing the city: Boston 1822-1885, cites 1855 as the year that the Boston Police Department was formally established in the incorporation by the Common Council of an ordinance authorizing the payment of funds for the establishment of a paid police force, a matter that had been in contentious dispute since 1854: “The rule was incorporated into an ordinance adopted May 19, 1855, which finally recognized reorganization and turned the ‘Watch and Police’ into the ‘Boston Police Department’” (1967, p. 100).
The Boston Police Department is an honorable institution with a long and colorful history, one steeped in tradition and cultural continuity. To set the record straight however, is to acknowledge that it is neither the oldest police department in the United States nor the “first in the nation.” To represent otherwise is counterfactual and misleading.
Folsom, D. (1888). Our police: A history of the Baltimore force from the first watchman to the latest appointment. Baltimore, MD.
J.M. Beers. Lane, R. (1967). Policing the city: Boston 1822-1885. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Richardson, J. (1970). The New York police, colonial times to 1901. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sprogle, H. (1887). The Philadelphia police, past and present. Cornell University Archive.
Stuntz, W. (2011). The collapse of the American criminal justice system. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.