The Philadelphia Police Department is among the oldest police forces in the nation, and today stands as the fourth largest. Before the department was formally established in 1854, the city relied on a semiprivate night-watch system that involved constables lighting lamps and patrolling the city. During the 1830s and 1840s, however, simmering religious and racial tensions spilled out in the streets, sparking concern among the city’s elite and a desire to police the city’s growing population of poor industrial workers.
Resentment between recently arrived Irish Catholics and Protestant residents resulted in street clashes and riots. In 1838, Pennsylvania ratified a constitution that relegated black citizens to a second-class status. As black intellectuals petitioned the government to alter its language and restore voting rights for black people, white Philadelphians lashed out, burning down a notable abolitionist center known as Pennsylvania Hall.
Advocates for expanded and centralized policing gained ground throughout this social upheaval. The Act of Consolidation in 1854 — which merged the city and county of Philadelphia — precipitated the formal creation of the Police Department. Presiding over a city of 500,000 residents, the newly minted police force accommodated the employment of up to 820 officers, featured a tiered pay system corresponding to rank, and also introduced uniforms.
While this new era ushered in a 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.
From 1870 through the first decades of the 20th century, the Republican Party operated a political machine that dominated city government. The police played a large role in this system, extracting protection money from various criminal enterprises, which officers would funnel into the party machine. This extensive corruption led the muckraker reporter Lincoln Steffens to assert that Philadelphia was “the most corrupt and the most contented” city in the United States in 1903.
Reform efforts — notably those of Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg, elected in 1911 — made some positive changes, such as forbidding police officers from engaging in politics on the job. Corruption, however, lived on. Prohibition provided new sources of revenue, with officers accepting bribes from bootleggers and politicians taking a cut. The federal government actually stepped in; Calvin Coolidge appointed Gen. Smedley Butler — a West Chester native — as the city’s director of Public Safety in 1924 to deal with the chaotic situation. Butler oversaw the closing of thousands of speakeasies, much to the dismay of city officials who took a financial hit as a result. Upon leaving the post one year later, Butler deemed Philadelphia a “cesspool.”
Technological advancements revolutionized the way that the police operated on a daily basis. The force had used horses regularly since 1889, but the introduction of cars fundamentally altered patrolling methods. This may also have contributed to police moving their families toward the outskirts of the city, as automobile culture seeped into police officers’ way of life and enabled them to live farther from the areas where they served.
Despite documented instances of abuse and a history of racism from the era (a study in 1926 concluded that the police targeted black residents to make illegal arrests), the department also did its part to protect key aspects of a pluralistic, democratic order.
Detective Sgt. Jacob H. Gomborow gathered a group of detectives from the “radical squad” on March 14, 1939, after being tipped off that Nazi sympathizers planned to disrupt a meeting of the Committee for Racial and Religious Tolerance, an interfaith organization. Gomborow directed the officers to attend the meeting in West Philly, which was interrupted by people handing out Nazi literature. One man,William J. Rigney, stood up and proclaimed, “Hitler is right in what he is doing to the Jews.”
The undercover officers arrested 11 of the agitators, all of whom received riot charges.
Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. email@example.com