For police, when it comes to law and order, ‘order’ historically comes first

December 24, 2014

Demonstrators in Times Square protest a grand jury decision not to charge a policeman in the chocking death of Eric Garner, in New York

Police misconduct has ignited a political firestorm in New York and many other cities across the nation, not seen in quite some time. Relations between the public and the police are fraught with tension, mistrust and violence. Many are outraged. Politicians and the media are posturing and promising reform. The police are angry, feeling besieged.

It is all pretty ugly — and thanks to modern media it appears that things are worse than ever before. We can now watch video of people being killed. Protests can be organized, recorded and broadcast instantly. Guns make deadly confrontations easier to provoke.

There are many reasons specific to this time that have brought us to this unhappy point in the relationship between the police and society. But the problem of police violence is hardly new.

New York Police Commissioner Bratton speaks as New York Mayor De Blasio looks on at a news conference at Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York

In New York City, recent events have stirred memories of violent confrontations of the not-so-distant past, from Sean Bell and Abner Louima to the murdered policemen Rocco Laurie and Gregory Foster. Violence, however, has always been inherent to policing, and its troubled history goes back much further than anyone alive can remember.

Police brutality has long been a source of tension between the police and the public. It has regularly provoked political controversy, as it did in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. Then, and after, however, graft and corruption, not violence, have proved easier problems to address than the much thornier issue of brutality.

Modern militarily organized police forces first appeared in American cities in the 1840s, during the first great wave of urbanization and immigration in the United States. Their mission was not to detect or investigate crime, but to pacify what was then called “the dangerous class” — meaning young immigrants and unskilled workers. Violence was naturally intrinsic to this mandate.

Philadelphia’s first police force, for example, was created in 1845 as a direct response to vicious ethnic and religious riots the year before. Many of the new policemen were members of one of the warring factions — ensuring that some of the same violence would now be undertaken in the name of order.

Protesters observe a moment of silence in a chokehold gesture during a march at Grand Central Station for Eric Garner in New York

The expectation that the police should be violent was not so explicit elsewhere. But it was quickly understood. In neighborhoods where the “danger” was thought to be greatest, the goal of the police was to maintain physical control of the streets.

Patrolmen were armed with stout clubs in order to establish police authority over those who congregated in the streets. Typically, a policeman ordered people lounging on the street to “move on” — an instruction resisted at the peril of arrest. The mostly young men on the receiving end of such orders were seldom cowed at that prospect, however. Most patrolmen understood that the physical challenge implicit in a gang member’s refusal to move had to be met if the police were ever to truly have control of a beat. So out came the club.

In New York City by the end of the 19th century, this led to a virtual science of brutality among the police, using the instrument that gave them their advantage over civilians in the days before firearms. One New York police commissioner, a particularly honest and celebrated one, titled his autobiography Night Stick.

The most famous policeman of 19th-century New York, Alexander “Clubber” Williams, was known for saying that there was more justice at the end of his club than in all the courts of the land. Use of the club was so instrumental to the job of policing New York that the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens referred to it as an “art.”

tr as police commish

Williams gave an admiring Steffens instruction on the proper technique — how to club a man so that he would be neither killed nor battered, but instead knocked unconscious. “One lick,” Williams pointed out, “is always enough.”

He boasted to critics that clubbings were all that were needed for him to keep the peace on his beat. On Steffens’ recommendation, Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt gave a plum assignment to one of Williams’ most notorious protégés, happily expecting him to be his “big stick.” Another patrolman remembered how he “dispensed the law with the night stick, seldom bothering to make arrests” when he patrolled the Bowery district.

Patrolmen learned to initiate violence strategically, once they gained enough experience to be able to spot a likely recalcitrant in advance. They would sail into an aspiring tough “with that good old night stick, and believe me he would give up the idea of becoming a tough.”

In this way, police brutality toward working-class boys and young men became routine, with or without an arrest. Though there were many of those — more than 60,000 were arrested for disorderly conduct each year around the turn of the century.

The city was teeming with new immigrants — almost none of them represented on the police force — and the city was rife with ethnic conflict and misunderstanding. Police violence often had ethnic overtones, and their routine brutality against ordinary people helped fuel the crucial politics of police reform in fin-de-siecle New York.

A woman passes by NYPD officers as they stand guard while a small group of protesters demanding justice for the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Akai Gurley take part in a "die-in" at Grand Central Terminal in New York

The annals of the 1895 Lexow Commission hearings, which inaugurated the reform frenzy, include endless pages of testimony about police brutality in the most mundane of circumstances. The epochal municipal reformers of the Progressive era like Steffens and Roosevelt, however, found police violence much less troublesome than other forms of police misconduct, such as their protection of gambling and commercial sex, and their intimate role in political corruption.

The police had by 1900 largely become an arm of the Tammany Hall political machine. People wanting appointment to, or promotion within, the New York Police Department had to contribute substantial sums to the machine or one of its clubs. That only encouraged policemen to collect graft from illegal businesses in their districts, often operated by machine-connected businessmen.

It was in this context that the idea that police should “serve and protect” emerged. Before that there was never any sense that the police should have a role in social policy, in modern parlance, to be “social workers with guns.” But before police reformers ever concerned themselves with improving community relations and assisting people in need, or even fighting dangerous crime, they sought to break the machine in order to control the police and harness their violence in pursuit of reform ends.

allen -- gaynor

Not everyone agreed that the end of destroying corrupt politicians and fighting vice justified the continuation of aggressive and violent law enforcement. The most penetrating criticism came from New York State Supreme Court Justice William J. Gaynor, who was elected New York City mayor in 1909 largely on the strength of his criticism of police violence and abuse. He warned his fellow critics of the police not to “go into a reform which hopes to reform the world by means of a police club. Don’t go into a reform that takes for granted that the police are our masters instead of our servants.”

But Gaynor’s was a relatively lone voice in reform and political circles. The moment was missed. The police were wrested from machine control and became an instrument of social policy, which had many salutary effects, including improved police-community relations.

The vexing issue of police violence, however, was largely avoided. Violence remains at the core of police work, as it has been from its inception in American cities. It is less routine than in the 19th century, but far more lethal and militarized. The police have more amicable and structured relationships with urban populations than they did then, and cities are markedly more peaceable than they were. But the primary responsibility of the police to patrol the streets and maintain order, however defined, through the threat and sometimes use of serious violence, remains intact.

It’s both a thin blue line and a very slippery slope. If another moment for serious reform is again upon us, let’s hope we don’t miss it again.


PHOTO (TOP): Demonstrators in Times Square protest a grand jury decision not to charge a New York policeman in the chocking death of Eric Garner, in New York, December 4, 2014.  REUTERS/Mike Segar

PHOTO (INSERT1): New York Police Commissioner William Bratton (R) speaks as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio looks on at a news conference at Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, December 20, 2014. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Protesters observe a moment of silence in a chokehold gesture during a march at Grand Central Station for chokehold death victim Eric Garner in New York, December 6, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Theodore Roosevelt when New York City police commissioner. WIKIPEDIA/Commons

PHOTO (INSERT 4): A woman passes by NYPD officers as they stand guard while a small group of protesters demanding justice for the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Akai Gurley take part in a “die-in” at Grand Central Terminal in New York, December 12, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

PHOTO (INSERT 5): William J. Gaynor. WIKIPEDIA/Commons


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Our government in general has become more fascist. Corporations buy and control our leaders and only the wealthy get served by our leaders. The police are increasingly seen as being the implementers of our fascist leaders dictates to the poor. They seem to be saying injustice is what the masters want and so we will give them injustice. Combine this trend with the fact that many police officers are either racist or sadistic, are increasingly armed with military weapons against the people, and you have what we have. That one point cannot be overstated. The police are being increasingly armed like military personnel against the people. The terrorist are not coming to get us, but it appears that the police are.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive


Posted by DDofAL | Report as abusive

It’s the American way, espouse liberty and freedom and then beat the crap out of people until they agree that we’re for liberty and freedom.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

There’ll be no comments if you allow none. I suppose censorship is your right as a member of the ruling class.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

My prayers for the families. The outrage over murdered officers should be the same outrage for everyone murdered. Sure it’s a hard job, check with the NRA for blame, not the Mayor or protesters. Does mental lunatic gunmen without back ground checks sound familiar?

Posted by Amwatching2c | Report as abusive

Three things are obvious if we are a nation of just laws and not mobs. Police violence are to minimized because it is for the courts to decide guilt and punishment. A lone police officer cannot be expected to subdue all violent individuals and must depend upon manufactured weapons when confronting large athletic individuals (who have built in deadly weapons) who are making themselves and immediate credible threat of great bodily harm to someone. Leaders and followers who protest before trails or evidence of wrongdoing are lynch mods and instigators of riots and should be dealt with as such. If indeed some police violence is found unjustified the protests should be directed towards the laws and and politicians in charge. They are responsible for police behavior the patrolmen are porns and the head. One should go for heard and it’s financiers not the feet.

Violent large athletic people can expect to meet great bodily harm themselves or they will become our rulers.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

An out of control para-military force all but denying they are “civil” authority. A civil police cancerously positioned within the criminal and civil justice system to the extent that no citizen expects “justice” in an adversary role to law enforcement. Prosecutors so precariously dependent upon law enforcement for their livelihood, for the outcome of their cases, that malfeasance is nurtured and harbored on both sides.

Therein lies the contemporary state of “law and order” enforcement.

Posted by Dwyne | Report as abusive

“Philadelphia’s first police force, for example, was created in 1845 as a direct response to vicious ethnic and religious riots the year before. Many of the new policemen were members of one of the warring factions”

I mean, that is one way of putting it, but you don’t mention that “one of the warring factions” were recent Irish immigrants. Bugs Bunny doesn’t put on an Irish accent when dressed as a cop in those old Looney Tunes cartoons just for fun.

Posted by TheBeerNerd | Report as abusive

We’ve been through this before with the mafia, gangs, drug lords, violent unions, etc. What perpetuates this violence, particularly youthful violence? Why aren’t we addressing that?

Two cultural issues were discussed here: 1- the police mission (i.e. “But the primary responsibility of the police to patrol the streets and maintain order, however defined,…”)and, 2-the police tactics (e.g. “… through the threat and sometimes use of serious violence, ….”). I would like to see a third issue discussed whenever these two are brought up: 3- the street culture of violence and intimidation which causes the need for police, and, also, often dictates the methods they must use. Without an understanding of issue #3, we can never agree of the right formulas for #1 and #2.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

I don’t understand why the US citizens accept the existence of the “bad areas” the “high crime areas” when they all full filed their part of the deal with the government (paid their taxes). The government on the other side is obliged to provide safety to its taxpayers everywhere and at any time.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Good idea Macedonian, but in those areas, the disparity is the population are not all taxpayers.

Posted by smokeymtnblues | Report as abusive

An out of control para-military force all but denying they are “civil” authority. A civil police cancerously positioned within the criminal and civil justice system to the extent that no citizen expects “justice” in an adversary role to law enforcement. Prosecutors so precariously dependent upon law enforcement for their livelihood, for the outcome of their cases, that malfeasance is nurtured and harbored on both sides.

Posted by Dwyne | Report as abusive

I guess these “bad areas” can be used for a conflict with the middle class once it wakes up after the decades long free fall to the bottom.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

As long as these neighborhoods produce criminals and a criminal culture these shootings will, and should continue. This criminal culture causes the shootings. No need to train the police. Train the criminals and their parents who perpetuate this crap/

Posted by Daviel | Report as abusive

A thug with a gun gets shot in Missouri and we have riots.

Two Policemen minding their own business in their car are murdered by another thug with a gun – where are the riots about these murders? Guess it does not play into the riot inciters, because the victims were Hispanic and oriental, and because they were Police Officers rather than some street thug being immortalized as an innocent victim by family and friends who will not admit their little “innocent baby” was a thug, bent on violence.

If and when their is inappropriate behavior on the part of police it must be ferreted out by the legal process. Murdering innocent Police Officers, rioting and destroying property is not the answer!

Posted by Robert76 | Report as abusive

Citizens expect lawful order. Citizens are delivered unlawful order. There is no hope.

Posted by Dwyne | Report as abusive

Here is an idea – let these rioters, looters, murderers, rapists start policing in the south side of Chicago, in Detroit, in D.C., in any of the areas where they are marching, blocking traffic, burning buildings, looting businesses.

See how long it takes for the decent people of those areas to start crying for the regular law enforcement groups to come back.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Daviel- good comment… I’d add that these communities need to reach out to the police force and have a larger say on who gets hired. The community and the police force are responsible for cleaning up their streets. Nothing like a “citywatch” program to provide a venue for working together.

I think the article just confuses the issue babbling on about police force problems from 100 years ago. Might as well add some info about how the Vigiles in ancient Roman policed the streets. Their primary weaponry included a helmet and a bucket. (they fought fires as well)

Posted by michaelryan | Report as abusive

When the “peaceful protesters” are breaking Mr Steinberg’s windows and threatening his family or livelihood, he too will want the clubs to come out.

I include a url to a bit from Chris Rock, the greatest and most truthful commentator on Modern Black culture alive today. He has given up his routine on the difference between “Blacks and N****s” because he claims he doesn’t want to give racists an excuse to use the N word. No offense Chris, but that is BS, you just couldn’t take the heat from the Culture Warriors. This bit is entitled “How to not get your ass kicked by the police”
Number 1 on the list- Obey the Law…please watch and see how much WISDOM is in this 4 minute sketch.

Apparently the fascists at Reuters won’t let me include a link, so go to YouTube, and search “Chris Rock How not to get your ass kicked” and watch the item at the top of the list.

This contempt for authority and the law is the root of so much of this. Michael Brown and Eric Garner would be alive today if they obeyed the law and did what the police said. The halting of stop and frisk will result in probably a hundred more dead young black men next year in New York…and not at the hands of the cops. Thank you de Blasio.

My biggest beef is with the Eric Garner death(this is the one even the most conservative pundits say they see no justification)…What are the cops supposed to do when they tell someone they are under arrest and the guy says “No”. Tell him they will come back tomorrow when it is more convenient? And there was NO CHOKING involved. You wouldn’t be able HEAR a 380 lb, diabetic, asthmatic, obese waiting for a heart attack man say ‘i can’t breathe” from 20 feet away being recorded on a cell phone. The guy was a walking health disaster, who had to stop and rest and catch his breath after walking a block.

How to get along with the police?
obey the law
use common sense
stop immediately
turn that s*** off
be polite
shut the f**k up
Don’t hang with lawbreakers

Posted by largestminority | Report as abusive

I’m curious, has anyone compared the criminal record of the blokes who got shot vs the policeman who shot the bloke?

I’m quite baffled by the outcry for these poor unfortunately life long criminals who decline to be questioned / detained / taken into custody. they’ve been doing this for years and years – do they really have a question about whether the police will just go away?

Posted by Breadie | Report as abusive

Teddy was the original,”Rough Rider;On Horse back with a John Browning Automatic rifle hanging in a scabbard.That was then; The Beat cop in the 40’s and 50’s He or She carried a night stick,Sap; and a 38 Smith and Wesson and soft leather soled boots;and the 60’s- 70’s patrol car driving a shift with the windows rolled down may have been the best of twentieth Century Police presence on the ground. But 21st century Civilian assistance safety campaigns will look like Google camera mapping platforms in 4 K hi-def resolution with infrared scanning of all pedestrians the entire street and every Heat signature gets streamed back to HQ. If Paddy in the 1950’s could tell you might be trouble by your swagger;We can tell everything about you by your Heat signature,then attach a chemical or pheromone tag trace or tracking component you would never know that teams had been sent to track and protect you. Sound Far Fetched? Why no more than Riots in the street or Civilian Vigilantes Hunting the White Hats;Promise me you will not wait until They mouth the words;”Too Late,”on the streets of your lost Society

Posted by DJSanDiego | Report as abusive

Order trumps law and gender trumps race. Just look at the prisons crowded with men, the men killed by police, beaten by police, etc. (and thank goodness for the Innocence Project). Men are damned in this society. If you’ve got a male offspring prepare to be robbed of them.

Posted by Jaffar29 | Report as abusive

The police certainly do make mistakes, but realistically I do not see how that can change much. The police have to do their job, and sometimes they have to make quick decisions, sometimes with guns, and hindsight is always 20/20. This is in contrast to a doctor or lawyer who have time to think before they act. As far as I am concerned, people who hate the cops need to pack up their stuff and leave. Move to Mexico where 40+ students went missing recently. And I do not see very many Hispanics out their with the protesters. Having lived in Mexico, many of them know the difference. I don’t want to even begin to imagine what the US would be like if there were no police.

Posted by 123456951 | Report as abusive

SamuelReich: We are not a nation of just laws. Every truthful person knows this. Why were no bankers sent to jail after the bank bailouts? Because know laws were broken? Sure, that’s the ticket, that makes you look honest. No, we are a land of rich vs. poor and no justice. The only lynching that still happens are done by racists in the south. No “mob” as you call them has strung anyone up. You can scare old small white people, but the rest of us are unafraid of the image of chaos that you portray and which isn’t real. Anyway, chaos would be preferable to the corruption we now have.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Police power = too much government power.

Never trust your Constitution to a washed-up high school jock. Be skeptical of the police, know they are just human; and that they therefore do not enjoy special powers for entry, interrogation or detainment. Make them work for it. They are your flunkies, not the other way around.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Curiosity as a Cat may have Nine-Lives but Police Officers do not. How amusing that arm chair Academics and detached Citizens who have never engaged the brutal criminal elements or suffered the mindless, emotion driven offenders or struggled life for life with drug-driven lunatics or attempted to out-fox terrorists before the innocent die. Please…write your books, publish colorful theories or shout inanely from the safety of the 1st Amendment wrapped in the folds of a street mob.

Or set yourself against life/death, roll the die and see if you make it to the end of Watch. Would surprise overtake your sensibilities to know how easy it is to both assume responsibilities for community safety and to lose your life on any given day or night?

I would bet that Mr. Steinberg and others do not live in the “hood” or worry outside their well-protected homes. If you wish to write/speak of Police corruption there are many countries on the “bucket-list”. Post Script: Do notify your Next-of-Kin when making travel plans.

Americans…such silly and uninformed creatures.

Posted by NPeril | Report as abusive

When feral pig herds are unleashed upon innocent people those responsible should be on trial for treason and executed. Only by exterminating the traitors does the USA have a chance.

Posted by RealityBites | Report as abusive

@ Nperil, if police officers do not like how dangerous it is to be a cop, then they should not choose to become one. No one is making them.

Their current problem is that they have a hero complex (they eat up the talk of bravery), but they what they really tend to be now is trigger-happy and paranoid. Completely jumpy and without adequate resolve, based on recent footage.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

What a biased bit of drivel.

Posted by rlm328 | Report as abusive

The article accuses “police misconduct” as the cause of all our problems while it is anarchy on the part of the USA public (as it is anywhere) that causes problems. Anarchy is unacceptable, it is the lack of order, Michael Brown was an anarchist, his parents are anarchists and his supporters proved themselves to be anarchists by their demands that no policing authority stop them from doing whatever they wished in Ferguson and that police disarm themselves so they would be subject to being murdered by those same protesters. Government is not the problem, police are not the problem, citizenry that is mentally and socially unstable is the problem.

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive