For roughly the first 200 years of its life, New York City had no police force — at least not one we’d describe as such by contemporary standards. It had a hodge-podge of watchmen and constables, sheriffs and court officers erratically making their rounds through the streets and lanes of what we now call lower Manhattan in what was then New Amsterdam.
The first eight of these proto-cops went on duty in the mid-1600s. Life was savage in those early days: they didn’t even have the internet. And policing was primitive. There were no squad cars — you were a macher if you had a horse — and no walkie-talkies. A constable called for backup by shaking the rattle on his stick.
That’s according to John DeCarlo, a former police chief and now director of the masters program in criminal justice at the University of New Haven. He said those first eight officers carried not only rattles but lanterns with tinted glass that caused them to glow green and identify them to the public at night in an era of no streetlights.
“Not the Green Lantern with the fancy superhero ring but actual green lanterns that patrolmen took on their rounds,” DeCarlo explained. “And when they returned to the watch house, they’d hang their green lantern on a hook outside.”
It’s a practice that carries on symbolically in the form of glowing green sconces that flank the front doors of all 77 of the city’s precinct houses, a sign that officers are inside and on duty.
DeCarlo said those constables also abide in the lives of New Yorkers as an obscure visual reference. “The eight points on police officers hats in the modern NYPD are an homage to the first eight members of the nightwatch,” he said.
Their duties gradually expanded to collecting fines, recovering stolen property and banging their sticks on the table when the proceedings in a courtroom got out of hand. But as one scholar of policing puts it, “Few paid any attention to them.” And there, embedded in that one line, are two of the larger themes in the story of New York law enforcement: the thanklessness of the job and chronic tensions with the public.
William Bratton, who has done two stints as the city’s police commissioner — 1994 to 1996 and 2014 to 2016 — gave a couple of reasons for that tension. “It’s a challenge from the beginning of time that people don’t like being told what to do or to have their behavior corrected, it’s human nature,” he observed. “But in a democracy, what we decide on is norms of behavior, and police support those norms of behavior.”
New York established its modern police force in 1845, in the midst of breakneck population growth, which came with rising crime and calls to fight it. City leaders modeled the department directly on London’s Metropolitan Police Service, which was designed as a civilian organization, not an army. New York cops wear uniforms that are blue because London’s cops wore blue — to distinguish them from Britain’s military, which wore red coats.
But as the late police historian Thomas Repetto told WNYC, that changed when veterans of the Civil War returned to New York and reorganized the department. “After the Civil War, a lot of police departments and other organizations began to adopt uniforms and the rank structure,” he said. They also started carrying deadly weapons. This is how John DeCarlo describes the result, which is with us to this day: “Cops aren’t military but we function in a paramilitary environment.”
In other words, police have a lot of power to “enforce norms of behavior.”
Bratton is fine with that. He’s been arguing for decades that when officers use their power wisely, crime goes down and the city thrives. But he’s quick to add that the power can be abused — first of all, by cops with their hands out. “There’s an issue with corruption,” he said. “Every twenty years, New York seems to have a corruption crisis.” Remember those early constables who’d recover stolen property? Sometimes they’d demand payment from the victim before handing it over.
DeCarlo says it took the NYPD until 1894 to officially call out the problem by sanctioning the first in a long line of investigative bodies, this one called the Lexow Committee. “Lexow formed to investigate corruption in the department,” he said. “They uncovered small stuff like taking free meals and taking payment for not ticketing the vehicles in front of a restaurant.” Big stuff, too, like “counterfeiting, extortion, election fraud and brutality.”
Then, in 1920, came Prohibition and its shadow industry of bootlegging, which required a lot of cops-on-the-take to function. By the time Fiorello LaGuardia became mayor in 1934, it was simply assumed that criminals would try to corrupt the police. LaGuardia found it necessary to advise new patrolmen at their swearing-in ceremony in 1942 on how to avoid temptation. With rising agitation, he told them, “You don’t have to be an experienced detective to recognize a punk or a tinhorn. Stay away from them. And if you see ’em on your beat, sock ‘em in the jaw!”
Bratton says that in 1994, when he first became commissioner, he tried a more subtle form of crime prevention that was no less controversial. “Policing through most of its history until the 1990s was focused on responding to crime and almost not dealing with disorder,” he said. “That was certainly the case in the 1970s and 1980s, and that’s why it got so bad. 1990 was the worst crime year in the history of the country and the history of New York.”
His department famously introduced “broken windows” policing — cracking down on crimes of disorder such as prostitution, public urination, and jumping subway turnstiles. He contends that a lot of New Yorkers were clamoring for just such improvements to the quality of street life. “Where, after all, do the calls for help come from?,” he asked before answering his own question. “They come from residents who want the police to come in and deal with the chaos around them.” Critics say the program’s excesses led to harassment, unjust arrests, and a stop-and-frisk regime that over time spun out of control. But the approach led to the city’s historic drop in crime.
Meanwhile, quietly, a small group of terrorists was putting New York at the top of their list of go-to targets. Their intentions were revealed with a bang in 1993, when a bomb blew up at the World Trade Center and killed six people. Bratton said that prior to the attack, the department hadn’t prioritized counter-terrorism. “The NYPD’s intelligence unit was largely a dignitary protection unit,” he said.
New York’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, a collaboration between the FBI and NYPD, caught the bombers and the courts sent them to prison. Bratton says that gave the department a false sense of security. “They basically solved the World Trade Center bombing and they thought that was it, that they had eliminated that problem,” he said.
Then came 9/11.
“On 9/11, you didn’t see police officers running the other way, they were rushing toward it,” Bratton said. “And time and again you will see that. Cops can be relied on to go toward the danger.” By any measure, the NYPD fulfilled its promise that day and served with distinction. In the process, twenty-three officers lost their lives.
And yet, as Bratton admits, the department is human and therefore flawed. “That doesn’t make all of them heroes because they do have those issues about corruption, certainly the concerns around racism, the concerns around brutality, oftentimes coupled with racism.” His formula for productive policing is to maintain order legally, compassionately, and consistently.
“By that I mean that you don’t police a white neighborhood in a black neighborhood, although the neighborhoods are oftentimes very different,” he said. “And that’s the challenge — sometimes we meet it and other times we don’t.”