American Policing 1900-1960: History & Influences

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  • 0:01 Changes in Policing
  • 0:27 Progressive Era
  • 2:26 Rise of Professionalism
  • 3:11 J. Edgar Hoover
  • 4:06 1950s Militaristic Style
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

American policing changed a great deal during the years 1900-1960. This lesson takes a look at these changes, specifically highlighting the Progressive Era and the move toward professionalism.

Changes in Policing

When it comes to American policing from the years 1900 to 1960, much more than officer uniforms underwent some serious change. These 60 years brought a whirlwind of restructuring and reform to police departments across the country. Today we'll discuss these changes as we take a look at how the Progressive Era and a move toward professionalism revamped policing in the first half or so of the 20th century.

Progressive Era

Around the turn of the century, the Progressive Era turned policing upside down. Defined as a period of social and political reform that lasted from the late 19th century to about the 1920s, the Progressive Era saw Americans demanding a better quality of life from their government. No longer willing to be pawns at the hands of big business and the uber-wealthy, citizens began yelling for reform. Many of these cries were leveled directly at the country's police force.

You see, up until the dawn of the Progressive Era, the American police force found itself often entwined in politics and greed. Rather than spending their time protecting citizens, police often carried out the whims of those at the top. If a strike broke out in a factory, factory owners sent in the police. If a political rally threatened the status quo, leaders unleashed the police, who used aggressive crowd control methods.

People were tired of this, and by the early 20th century, were demanding change. Progressives demanded a non-partisan police force free from political entrenchment.

Fortunately, America's police stepped up to the plate and were willing to play progressive ball. At the helm of this reform stood Richard Sylvester. Sylvester, head of the Washington, D.C., police department from 1898 - 1915, and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, pushed for and supported reform efforts across the country.

Sylvester sought to regulate police bureaucracy and to end the practice of police officers being puppets on strings. He created standards to be followed during arrests, interrogations, and even the transporting of prisoners. These standards, although slow in being adopted by many, eventually became the mandated administrative practices of law enforcement agencies across the country. For this, he is considered one of the Progressive Era's most influential proponents of police reform.

Rise of Professionalism

On the heels of the Progressive Era, the first half of the 20th century also saw American policing move toward professionalism. Continuing to rebuild their progressive image, men like August Vollmer, chief of the Berkeley, California police department from the early 1900s to the early 1930s, pushed for the hiring of college graduates.

Vollmer wanted to overturn the image of thugs in uniforms; instead, he wanted to hire intelligent and professionally trained men. After all, if doctors and lawyers had to go to school, why shouldn't police? To this end, Volmer developed one of the first collegiate courses in police science. The course took place at U.C. Berkeley, and like the reforms of Sylvester, helped define American policing during the first half of the 20th century.

J. Edgar Hoover

Following suit, the federal government also got into the police business. The 1930s saw J. Edgar Hoover become the Federal Bureau of Investigation's first director. Holding this post until his death in 1972, Hoover changed the face of American law enforcement and defined what it meant to be a police officer. To say he demanded professionalism just might be an understatement.

As director of the FBI, Hoover created a structure of accountability for American policing. He spearheaded a commanding administration that mandated federal principles be followed from the top down. His tenure as director saw the employment of mandated educational requirements and compulsory formal training for officers across the land. Under the reign of Hoover, individual police stations were prohibited from working under their own independent laws and procedures.

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