Saturday, September 14, 2019

The brief history of Chicago's 19th century public police force.

In 1825, prior to the creation of Cook County was in Putnam County. 
1825 Illinois County Map
Archibald Clybourn was appointed to be Constable of the area between the DuPage River and Lake Michigan. Clybourn went on to become an important citizen of the city, and the diagonal Clybourn Avenue is named after him. When the town of Chicago was incorporated to become a city in 1837, provisions were made to elect an officer called the High Constable. He, in turn, would appoint a Common Constable from each of the six city wards.

Before Chicago ever became a city, the town of Chicago was authorized by the General Assembly of Illinois to establish its own police force, which was set up a constabulary. Men wore civilian clothes adorned with a leather badge. They carried heavy canes by day and batons by night and were provided with “creakers,” a noisemaker device, with which to call for assistance in case of distress. The first “officers” were unpaid citizen volunteers that would patrol the urban city streets looking for drunkards and watching for fires.
Chicago Constable Star (Replica). In-Service; 1828 to about 1900.
After the town was incorporated as a City in 1837, the city Charter authorized the hiring of two constables who were paid through a fee system that was based on the number of warrants served, but citizens were largely responsible for protecting their own property.  Constables had a variety of non-law enforcement functions that they performed, including lighting and extinguishing street lamps, serving as land surveyors, and verifying the accuracy of weights and measures.
Chicago Leather Police Star (Replica). In-Service; March 10, 1857, to March 1, 1858. Then police used a Chicago Plain Brass Star from March 2, 1858 – March 5, 1860. Back to the Chicago Leather Police Star used from  March 6, 1860, to March 25, 1861.
If a crime was committed, the citizen would notify the constable who would obtain a warrant from the magistrate or justice of the peace and serve the criminal with a summons to appear before the court to answer the citizen's complaint. There was no organized system of crime detection or prevention. A Sheriff was the officer in charge of the court’s business and responsible for enforcement of criminal laws. But the sheriff and his deputies did not patrol or serve as night watchmen.

In 1839, Chicago established a night watch system, and a marshal was appointed to oversee them.  Though the general duties of the watchman were straightforward: They preserved order, which was broadly defined, and raised the “hue and cry” [1] if they discovered criminal offenses or discovered a fire; and, on occasion, they detained suspicious and disorderly persons, the implementation of those duties often proved unsatisfactory. The whole constabulary watch system was viewed as fragmented, inefficient, incompetent and corrupted. Moreover, the public police lacked the training and ability to prevent disorder, particularly civil unrest and riots, or control crime.
Patrolman Star. In-Service; March 26, 1861, to 1904
In 1855, the newly elected city council passed ordinances to formally establish the Chicago Police Department. Chicago was divided into three police precincts, each served by a station house. Station No. 1 was located in a building on State Street between Lake and Randolph streets. Station No. 2 was on West Randolph Street near Des Plaines Street. Station No. 3 was on Michigan Street (since then renamed Hubbard Street) near Clark Street. Political connections were important to joining the force; formal requirements were few, until 1895. After 1856, the department hired many foreign-born recruits, especially unskilled, but English-speaking, Irish immigrants.

In 1860, the detective forces were established to investigate and solve crimes. In 1861, the Illinois General Assembly passed a law creating a police board to become an executive department of Chicago autonomous of the mayor. The mayor was effectively stripped of his power to control the Chicago Police Department. Authority was given to three police commissioners. The commissioners created the office of the superintendent to be the chief of police. The title is again in use today.

The first African American officer was appointed in 1872, but black police were assigned to duty in plain clothes only, mainly in largely black neighborhoods. In 1875, the Illinois General Assembly found that the police commissioners were unable to control rampant corruption within the Chicago Police Department. The legislature passed a new law returning power over the police to the mayor. The mayor was allowed to appoint a single police commissioner with the advice and consent of the city council.

In 1896, the Lumière Bros. filmed one of the first Chicago films ever shot in Chicago. (Watch this 45 second Film.)

Women entered the force in 1885, as matrons, caring for female prisoners. Marie Connolly Owens is believed to have been the first female police officer in the U.S., joining the Chicago Police Department in 1891, retiring in 1923. Holding the rank of Sergeant, Owens enforced child labor and welfare laws.

Despite centralized policies and practices, the captains who ran the precincts or districts were relatively independent of headquarters, owing their jobs to neighborhood politicians. Decentralization meant that police could respond to local concerns, but graft often determined which concerns got the most attention. In 1895, Chicago adopted civil service procedures, and written tests became the basis for hiring and promotion. Standards for recruits rose, though policing remained political.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


[1] "Hue and cry" (adopted from England common law) is a process by which bystanders are summoned to assist in the apprehension of a criminal.

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