A Political History of Policing in Pre-1930s New York City: An Excerpt from “Gotham’s War within a War”

The following is an excerpt from Gotham’s War Within a War: Policing and the Birth of Law-and-Order Liberalism in World War II–Era New York City by Emily Brooks which is available now wherever books are sold.

Contemporary popular discourse in the United States understands urban policing solely through a lens of crime. This formulation fundamentally misconstrues the history of policing in U.S. cities and the relationships between police departments and municipal governments. Broader discussions about the roles that police play in American life are distorted by an expectation that when we talk about police, we are talking about crime, and when we talk about crime, we must talk about police.

The history of policing in New York City shows that policing is better understood not as a response to crime but as an expression of the political priorities of governing elites. These priorities generally involved efforts by members of this group to maintain political, economic, or social control. The process of writing laws, enforcing them, and creating criminal categories has always been a reflection of the priorities of governing institutions. Historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez describes human caging in Los Angeles as a practice embraced by those with political and cultural power to “resolve social tensions and reach political objectives.” The history of policing in New York City flows from the motivations of the city’s ruling powers; from the West India Company’s attempts to expand European settlement and exert power over neighboring Lenape communities, to English colonial administrators’ efforts to prevent fires and quash uprisings of enslaved New Yorkers, to campaigns by revolutionists to punish disloyalty, to efforts by the occupying British to maintain an orderly class of soldiers, to ruling elites’ endeavors to smash nascent industrial working people’s movements, to the Tammany Democratic machine’s attempts to solicit votes and distribute jobs, to Fiorello La Guardia’s campaign to establish a nonpartisan regime of “law-and-order,” politics drove policing in New York City. These efforts were not always successful, and what constituted the work of policing was also produced by the needs and desires of patrolmen themselves. Despite these caveats, the political motivations of the city’s leadership were at the core of policing and law enforcement throughout the city’s history. This chapter will briefly trace this political history of policing in New York City. It will demonstrate how efforts to enforce laws and maintain order were inextricable from the political motivations of ruling factions.

The history of policing in New York City shows that policing is better understood not as a response to crime but as an expression of the political priorities of governing elites.

The model of policing that exists in the United States today can be traced to elite efforts to encourage investment and preserve order in an expanding and increasingly divided nineteenth-century Gotham. This model has roots that can be followed to earlier law enforcement projects in the city, including the organized patrols, vigilante groups, and town criers responsible for controlling enslaved people in public space throughout the eighteenth century, the night watch that vacillated between military and civilian control depending on colonial leadership’s assessments of the risks of war with imperial rivals, and the West India Company’s military commanders who selectively enforced the colony’s laws in order to maintain a strong force of soldiers available for essential labor. These law enforcement projects served the changing goals of New Amsterdam and then New York’s leadership. As postrevolutionary New York became more densely populated and diverse into the nineteenth century, elites in the city began to push for a larger and more organized police force to protect their property, create a stable environment for investment, and control the city’s poor.

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Emily Brooks is a full-time curriculum writer at the New York Public Library’s Center for Educators and Schools. She received her PhD in history from the Graduate Center at the City University in New York.