The Evolution of a Police Force

By Wagner, Allen E. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 3, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of a Police Force


Wagner, Allen E., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The reason the St. Louis Police Department was first placed under state control in 1861 almost qualifies as an urban legend. The federal arsenal, which supplied the Army of the West, would be in jeopardy (so the story goes) if the Police Department remained under local control during the Civil War. The small arms, artillery and munitions would fall into the hands of the Confederacy. In fact, there were three reasons the Police Department went under the control of a Board of Police Commissioners appointed by the governor: inefficiency, a new model of policing, and politics. Only one of these was even remotely connected with the rebellion.

First, the Police Department of the 1850s was inefficient; some even claimed it was corrupt. The mayor and other city officials were elected for a one-year term. The mayor, in turn, appointed the members of the police force; a new mayor brought new police appointments. Much of the police force turned over every year. The new officers knew little, if anything, about police work. There was no formal training, and there were few veteran officers to provide on-the-job training. The pay was poor.

Second, a new police model was inaugurated in London in 1829. London Metropolitan Police officers were full-time, salaried, uniformed officers who held their jobs as long as they provided no cause for separation from the service. The key feature of the London department, however, was control of the department. The London Metropolitan Police force was headed by two civilian commissioners appointed by the home secretary; there were no direct links to elected officials. The department had selection procedures and a modicum of training for officers.

In 1856, with the reorganization of city government, the St. Louis Police Department took on the look and feel of the London Metropolitan Police. The department was now headed by a chief of police rather than a city marshal; it was full time, uniformed and even had five detectives. Yet, there was still no training, and there were still only one-year appointments. With the doubling of population from 1850 to 1860 (which again doubled by 1870), and the continuing expansion of the city limits, the Police Department could simply not keep up.

Such problems were common in the large cities of the United States, including New York. In 1857, that city took an additional step toward emulating the London Metropolitan model, and it became subject to the "metropolitan police bill. …

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