Large, professional police forces are status quo for modern American cities, the result of a period in the late nineteenth century when every major northern U.S. city established its own organized police department. In The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850–1894, historian Sam Mitrani cogently examines the making of the police department in Chicago, which by the late 1800s had grown into the most violent, turbulent city in America. Chicago was roiling with political and economic conflict, much of it rooted in class tensions, and the city's lawmakers and business elite overcame many obstacles to build a force that could impose order–-and reinforce their ideals for the city.
As Chicago industrialized and grew explosively in the 1800s, the city became a center of the newly emerging wage labor economy that concentrated wealth and power in the hands of the business elite. The resulting class divisions and worker unrest often manifested themselves in violence and caused business leaders to fear for the future of capitalism. Mitrani shows how industrialists fostered the growth of a professional municipal police force to protect business interests and assets as well as their own positions in society. Together with city policymakers, the business elite united behind an ideology of order that would simultaneously justify the police force's existence and dictate its functions.
Tracing the Chicago police department's growth through events such as the 1855 Lager Beer riot, the Civil War, the May Day strikes, the 1877 railroad workers strike and riot, and the Haymarket violence in 1886, Mitrani demonstrates that the business elite both succeeded and failed in its aims regarding the police. The police department that emerged from these conflicts was powerful, professional, multiethnic, and committed to the maintenance of a new type of capitalist order. While the police force became powerful enough to break strikes and protect property, it was never able to control daily life in working-class neighborhoods and remained beset by corruption well into the twentieth century. Recasting late nineteenth-century Chicago in terms of the struggle over order, this insightful history uncovers the modern police department's role in reconciling democracy with industrial capitalism.
William Benton Whisenhunt
College of DuPage History Professor W. Ben Whisenhunt's book on the History of the College of DuPage.