The history of American law enforcement begins in Boston.
The people of the town of Boston established a Watch in 1631. Shortly thereafter, the Town Meeting assumed control of the Watch in 1636.Watchmen patrolled the streets of Boston at night to protect the public from criminals, wild animals, and fire.
The Watchmen’s responsibilities grew along with the town, which became the City of Boston in 1822. Less than twenty years later, the City founded a police force of six men under the supervision of a City Marshall. The Boston Watch of 120 men continued to operate separately.
In 1854, the City replaced the Watch organizations with the Boston Police Department, which consisted of 250 officers. Each officer received payment of $2 per shift, walked his own beat, and was forbidden to hold outside employment. Rather than use the billhook of the old Watch, officers began to carry a 14-inch club. In the proceeding years, the City annexed several neighboring towns and expanded police services to those areas.
The telephone greatly influenced means of communication at the BPD during the 1880s, as demonstrated by the replacement of the telegraph system with telephone lines at police stations, and the installation of police call boxes.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the BPD officers began providing charitable services, such as serving soup to the poor at police stations. Police stations also opened their doors to newcomers to the city, who could spend a night as a “lodger.” Additionally, police ambulances transported sick and injured individuals to the City Hospital. Some of the services founded during this time have continued into the present day, though some now under the management of external city agencies.
At the turn of the 20th century, the BPD grew to 1,000 patrolmen. At that time keeping the peace resulted in nearly 32,000 arrests annually. The role of the police also expanded, with the introduction of the automobile came new practices. Duties now included regulating motor vehicle traffic and removing unruly passengers from streetcars. The BPD purchased its first patrol car in 1903 and its first patrol wagon in 1912. In later years, police would use motorcycles to deal with ever-increasing traffic.
The Boston Police Strike of 1919 sought to improve wages and working conditions for patrolmen, and recognition for its trade union. This effort made national headlines and changed the BPD, as the Department eliminated nearly three-quarters of its force and filled the ranks with returning soldiers from World War I.
The 1920s served as an especially deadly time for the BPD, with 17 officers killed in the line of duty between 1920 and 1930 as the Department dealt with Prohibition and ensuing crime. The Great Depression cut police pay due to a smaller city budget. During World War II, many police officers left the Department to join the armed forces.
Similar to other police departments in the 1960s, the Boston police maintained order during periods of protest and unrest. With school desegregation in 1974, the BPD deployed officers throughout the city to escort school children and to ensure public safety.
To meet the demands of modern policy, the BPD built a state-of-the-art facility in 1997. While earlier police headquarters were located near the centers of government and commerce, the new BPD Headquarters is located in the Roxbury neighborhood in order to be near the geographic midpoint of Boston. One Schroeder Plaza is named in honor of brothers Walter and John Schroeder, two officers killed in the line of duty in the 1970s.
Over the last four decades, Boston has experienced a significant decrease in its overall crime rate. Throughout its history, the BPD has employed innovative strategies and partnerships in order to protect all those in Boston, and has served as a role model for police departments nationwide.