The History and Legacy of the Philadelphia Police Department

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Law enforcement, and subsequently criminal justice, is a field that is ever evolving and changing to become more progressive, effective, and to best serve the public. A long record of the law enforcement policy and strategy has shaped the current scheme of the system as it exists today. Many factors contribute to the mold of justice systems within society. In the United States, these driving influences include legislation, criminal history in a given area, demographics, and administration. The overall profile of a city in terms of types of crime, rate of crime, and dispersal of criminal activity by location can also have a significant effect on policies and procedures. Each of these underlying influences interacts in a dynamic manner to define and shape law enforcement agencies. Thus, awareness and knowledge of how such agencies came to be is critical in examining the criminal justice system in terms of both positive and negative attributes.

The Philadelphia Police Department presents an ideal case study for the complex history of the police force. As one of the oldest municipal police departments, the Philadelphia Police Department has seen a vast amount of change, trial and error, success and failure, over the years since its establishment. Notable highlights include the early history of the department, policies and procedures, important cases and how these have shaped the strategy and outlook of the department, as well as the shifting demographical impacts of a changing community. Ultimately, a thoughtful analysis of the Philadelphia Police Department since its inception provides the framework for a broader examination on policies, procedures, the life of a police officer, and the system of law enforcement as a whole.

Foremost, the Philadelphia Police Department holds significance in American history. As the sixth largest non-federal law agency in the country, the department has undergone many changes and evolved through the years since its inception (Klein 23). The department was initially founded in 1751 as a mounted police force. This practice is a testament to how far back the Philadelphia Police Department’s roots extend. Mounted constables originated in France and quickly spread throughout Europe. Klein points out, “poor roads and extensive rural areas made horse-mounted police a necessity in European states until the early 20th century. The establishment of organized law-enforcement bodies throughout Africa, Asia and the Americas during the colonial and post-colonial eras made the concept of predominantly horse-police accepted almost world-wide” (Klein 35). Often, organized departments were the result of volunteer forces that eventually assembled under a civil ordinance. Such was the case with Philadelphia.

During the early part of the 1700s, the city of Philadelphia organized a town watch. This force comprised local men who volunteered to ensure order and civil justice was kept. Still under British rule and possessing relatively limited economic resources, the volunteer department enabled the small settlement to expand until a larger force was needed. Sklansky points out that it was a demographic and population-based necessity which allowed the first municipal police department to take shape in Philadelphia when the population reached over 4,000 people (Sklansky 122). This number was large for the time period and thus afforded the institution of paid officers and a more formalized means of law enforcement. Structure and organization have historically been shaped by both economics and demographics. Philadelphia’s inception was no different. The initial police force was comprised of several officers and wardens. Taxes were thus used to pay the salaries necessary to maintain the force. This model is one that has endured the test of time and continues to be the central operating model of the current police force. “This new system was a first – before that, all towns used watches made up of volunteers or young men who had been drafted to serve as watchmen for specific periods. With the paid force, however, only those who were actually interested in working in police positions applied for them. The end result was improved policing while the disruption in the lives of general citizens was minimized” (Klein 18). While the effectiveness of Philadelphia’s police department during its early years was undeniably positive in the restructuring and refining of social systems, it remains to be seen whether the tax and revenue basis of departmental law enforcement still reflects a citizens’ first model or whether this strategy has become outdated and less effective over time.

In following, further urbanization and population growth lead Philadelphia to base its early model after London’s police force. By 1833, the Philadelphia Police Department was operating around the clock, with emergency response services active at all hours of the day and night. This model was yet another step closer to the contemporary approach of the department’s current system. Yet a more sophisticated organizational approach and the transition to a 24/7 emergency service was also a response to heightened crime rates, the inevitable outcome of a growing population. Immigration created shifting demographics that resulted in many challenges for law enforcement. Primarily, discrimination towards Irish Catholics on the part of Protestants and similar reverse tension resulted in an increase of violence and riots. Law enforcement rose to meet this new challenge through increased patrols and attempts to mediate social prejudice. 

However, this was far from the only incident of racial tension in Philadelphia. Immigration and the tension surrounding a changing dynamic continued to create bigotry and violence within the city. In furthering the argument for demographics driving law enforcement outlooks, the rising population led to an increase in community diversity. Geographically, Philadelphia was among the closest major cities that sat on the border between slave territory and Union territory. Many freed and fugitive slaves moved North in the hopes of establishing a better life. These slaves found allies in the growing Quaker population, who preached staunch abolitionism. Not everyone in Philadelphia was as social justice minded. 

In 1838, Philadelphia ratified a constitutional amendment in a legislative move to decisively relegate African Americans to the status of secondary citizens (Sklansky 180). This move was met with resistance which culminated in the Lombard Street Riots of 1842. In summary, Irish Catholics who feared the loss of job security due to the influx of former slaves vehemently opposed abolitionist efforts to protect the rights of black Americans and restore first-class citizenship as promised by the Union. Holding black citizens as equals would pose a threat to an already crowded job market where immigrants vied for desirable work. As a result, large numbers of primarily Irish counter protestors violently aggressed against a city-wide abolitionist march. The riots lasted three full days and involved multiple wings of law enforcement to quell. The police department, the fire department, and eventually the militia were all called in to subdue the riots, which culminated in the burning of Philadelphia Hall – a known abolitionist meeting place.

Here again, it is apparent that the combination of the legislature and demographic change created the initial friction. However, the aftermath of the riots proves that civil justice matters do not simply end at the law enforcement level. An example of this is criminology is depicted in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Political agenda often plays a driving role in shaping operational procedures for years to come. Major John Morin refused to arrest those involved in the riots, sympathizing strongly with the bigotry and anti-abolitionist sentiment of the day (Sklansky 187). Those that were arrested by the local militia received substantially lighter sentences. Even at its earliest inception, law enforcement was not unbiased or as objective as many would like to believe. Local politics and policy held significant control over the Philadelphia Police Department. The 1842 riots provide an example of the manner in which law enforcement and legislators have the ability to de-escalate or exacerbate a situation. Thus, the system is an interrelated machine of legislation, demographics, and social and cultural climate that has historically come together to influence and determine law enforcement action. 

A notable change came in 1854 with The Act of Consolidation. This act merged the city and county of Philadelphia, leading to the official inception of the Philadelphia Police Department as it is currently known. This change was significant in creating a larger scale police force. The department transitioned into a tiered payment system, similar to the model used by the current force which assesses salary based on rank. Uniforms were also introduced for the first time since the department’s inception. A more sophisticated level of organization and consolidated force, policies, and systems allowed the department to establish a more effective means of law enforcement. This created stability and a lasting system. However, the aforementioned political influence over the Philadelphia Police Department would worsen in the years following the consolidation of the force. Sklansky summarizes, “while this new era ushered in professionalism hitherto unseen in Philly, it also marked the beginning of a century-long spell of political manipulation of the department. With the mayor at the top of the pecking order, a complex government structure consisting of political appointees fostered a patronage system that valued close political relationships over merit” (Sklansky 190).

The Republican Party held significant power over the department late into the 20th Century, shaping policies and procedures that were in line with the Republican political agenda. This undermined the initial philosophy of a citizen’s first model set forth by the Philadelphia Police Department. Furthermore, this precedent set the stage for corruption to fester. Extortion and funneling of money to politicians through the police force gave Philadelphia a reputation for corruption. This was furthered by the high crime era of American Prohibition. During the 1920s and 30s, police corruption reached new heights. Mafia and local gangs with law enforcement and political ties accepted bribes, accepting revenue from bootleggers with political ties, and generally infiltrating the police department to the extent that the corruption was well known and severely damaging to the credibility of the department.

Due to the volatile situation developing in the city during the roaring 20s, the federal government took action. A special task force under General Smedley Butler was responsible for shutting down several casinos and bootleg liquor operations. This speaks to the failure of the police department to serve as a reputable, autonomous public service institution. The extent of the corruption led Butler to famously call Philadelphia a “cesspool” upon filing his final report therein (Klein 52). This label would go on to tarnish the reputation of the city in the eyes of the nation, marking Philadelphia as a pit of corruption and crime.

Yet Philadelphia’s early history was not all failures. Notable cases portray a different side to the Philadelphia Police Department in terms of commitment to the community, bravery, and tact. One remarkable case in 1939 involved the arrest of several known Nazi sympathizers in the city by a select task force of detectives (Klein 28). Lead by Sergeant Jacob Gomborow, the team had received information that a known Nazi group was planning to disrupt and possibly pose a threat to an interfaith church organization in the community. The conspirators were apprehended in a victory not only for the department but for social justice advocacy within the city of Philadelphia.

Despite notable progress, a history of racial tension and corruption followed the Philadelphia Police Department well into the 1960s. The notorious Frank Rizzo served as police commissioner until his tenure as mayor from 1972 to 1980. Rizzo’s history in the department was marked by extreme racism and the escalation of riots and violence within the city. In a highly profiled incident, Rizzo raided the offices of the Black Panthers and was quoted as stating that the black power organization deserved to be lynched (Klein 23). His mayoral career was little better, marked with scandal and fraud. Rizzo was not only noteworthy for tarnishing his personal rapport, but for the damage done to the Philadelphia Police Department as a whole. Racism and corruption were furthered, as well as the suspicion that politics strongly governed law enforcement action in Philadelphia.

As a result of the department’s tumultuous history, the present state of the Philadelphia Police Department is both a testament to progress as well as a reminder of the work yet to be done. In 2013, Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner, Charles Ramsey, asked the Department of Justice to conduct a thorough report on the operational procedures and protocols in place. The goal of the report was to address the increasing rates of violent incidents, primarily resulting in the death of on-duty officers. Since then, the department has implemented nearly all of the suggested reforms. Furthermore, enormous strides have been made to introduce a higher level of transparency and objectivity. These changes include the use of body cams, thorough reporting procedures, and a tiered power structure to better prevent internal corruption. Furthermore, the department has implemented better safety measures of the officers in service. Resource allocation has improved alongside efforts to rid the department of political influence. Greater efforts towards diversity are among the positive changes the department has also implemented.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly in recent years, the Philadelphia Police Department has made a concerted effort to reduce the use of deadly force in police-citizen encounters. The department has worked to address concerns that such incidents hold primarily racial bias. Furthermore, Philadelphia has worked in accordance with the DOJ’s recommendations and implemented criticism therein to make the department better – structurally and ethically. To quote a recent response issued by the current mayor of Philadelphia, “we don’t know what’s coming but we will continue to improve the relationship between the police department and our communities because it is vital to having a safe and productive city” (James 52).

A review of the history of Philadelphia’s police department is not only enlightening from a scholastic lens but serves as an example for criminal justice analysis. It is ultimately the goal of law enforcement systems to maintain a citizens’ first model. Public safety must remain the governing motivation and primary objective, first and foremost, in all operational proceedings. When departments deviate from this objective, corruption and negligence are allowed to fester. A community-centric model entails prioritizing public service over revenue, politics, and social bias. While the city of Philadelphia has progressed in many ways towards a more efficient and transparent model, a history of corruption, racism, and political scandal has defined the department as significantly as its historic success in terms of organizational structure and public notoriety. Many notable cases demonstrate the balancing act of this dynamic within the city of Philadelphia. The successes and the failures of the Philadelphia Police Department have paved the road towards reform. With knowledge of past standards in mind, Philadelphia can ultimately work towards creating an improved future for generations to come.

Works Cited

James, Lois. "The Stability of Implicit Racial Bias in Police Officers." Police Quarterly 21.1 (2018): 30-52. James 52

Klein, Howard B. "Fighting corruption in the Philadelphia Police Department: the death knell of the conspiracy of silence." Temp. LQ 60 (1987): 103. 

Sklansky, David Alan. "Not your father's police department: Making sense of the new demographics of law enforcement." The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-) 96.3 (2006): 1209-1243.