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Back to Archives | Back to May 2006 Contents 

The Boston Police Department

By Donna M. Wells

The 1800s
On December 12, 1825, Watchman Jonathan Houghton became the first Boston law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty. John Halloran, who was hung for the crime in March 1826, killed him on State Street. Watchman Houghton's name, along with that of David Estes, who was killed in 1848, was recently sponsored by the department for inclusion on the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C.

In 1838, the Day Police was formed; it had no connection with the Night Watch. The Day Police operated under the city marshal and was composed of six officers. In 1846, the force was reorganized, with 22 officers on the day shift and eight night officers.

In 1852 the office of the city marshal was abolished and the office of chief of police was created. Francis Tukey, previously the city marshal, was then appointed the first chief of police.

In 1853 the Harbor Police was created in response to the increase in robberies of occupied vessels in the waters of Boston Harbor. They were furnished with rowboats and armed with Colt revolvers becoming the first unit furnished with firearms.

Police in a vehicle
In May of 1854 the Night Watch and Day Police disbanded, and the Boston Police Department was created. Robert Taylor was appointed chief of police. On the very first evening of the reorganization, the entire force was called out to suppress the riot caused by the arrest of fugitive slave, Anthony Burns. At this time, the 14-inch club replaced the old hook and bill, which had been in use for 154 years. The Central Office, as headquarters was known, was located at the Old Courthouse in Court Square. There were eight station houses, located at the following locations: Old Hancock School at 209 Hanover Street in the North End; 21 Court Square at Williams Court; Leverett Street in the West End; the rear of Boylston Market at the intersection of Washington Street and Boylston Street; Canton Street Place in the South End; 194 West Broadway in South Boston; Paris Street in East Boston; and Lincoln's Wharf, home of the Harbor Police.

In 1858 Boston officers were required to wear uniforms for the first time. The chief wore a blue dress coat with tails, black pants, a buff marino vest, and a black top hat adorned with a gold star in rosette. The deputy chief wore a blue frock coat, blue or black pants, a light buff vest, black top hat with a gold star or enameled leather. Captains wore blue dress coats with tails, a buff Marseilles vest, black pants, and a black top hat. Lieutenants and patrolmen wore double-breasted dark blue frock coats, dark blue pants, black silk, and a satin or cotton vest, depending on the season. Lieutenants wore black top hats and patrolmen wore black-billed caps.

Barney McGinniskin, was the first Irishman appointed to the force; he joined around 1862. He was assigned to Division 4, but Marshall Tukey refused to assign him street duty. McGinniskin worked inside the station for about three years before Tukey fired him. He was later rehired.

In 1863 the officers were supplied with 24-inch clubs. At this time, the officers did not officially carry firearms.

In 1865 upon the completion of New City Hall, the central office moved from the Old Courthouse in Court Square and into New City Hall. In 1871 the Central Office was connected to all the station houses by telegraph. Prior to this, the only communication was by messenger.

Police in a vehicle
At approximately 7:30 p.m., on November 9, 1872, the Great Boston Fire started. Patrolman Page of Division 4, who was chasing some boys on Lincoln Street, reportedly discovered the flames. He witnessed the fire at a building at 83-85 Summer Street and sounded the alarm at Box 52, Bedford and Lincoln Streets. The entire force was called out to prevent looting and maintain order. The fire covered about 60 acres, destroying property valued at $100 million, including approximately 1,500 places of business.

In 1873 one mounted officer was assigned to patrol Mill-Dam Road, present-day Beacon Street. This was so successful that by 1874 there were 28 mounted officers on duty in the city. In 1874 the Protector, the department's first steam-powered vessel, was put into service, after the department's sailboat was sold in 1870.

In 1875 station houses began distributing free soup to the poor and turkeys for Thanks giving. These charitable activities continued until 1888. In addition, station houses had been offering simple lodging to indigent persons since at least 1858.

In 1878 the office of chief of police was abolished and the Board of Police Commissioners was created. The mayor appointed the three commissioners. The superintendent of police was the executive officer. In 1878 the first telephones were also installed into the department.

In his book Boston Events, Edward Savage records that in 1879 the first "colored" officer was appointed. Sadly, he did not record the individual's name and it remains unknown. The first documented African-American Boston police officer was Harvey B. Yates, who was hired after the strike in October 1919. He served until 1956.

In 1883 the central office moved into new quarters at 37 Pemberton Square. The steam launch, named Patrol, was also put into service.

In 1884 the city council voted to provide the officers with firearms. Seven hundred Smith & Wesson .38 double-action break-open auto-ejector revolvers were purchased at a cost of $9 each and distributed to the officers. The guns had 3.25-inch barrels with black hard rubber grips marked "BPD" on the back.

In 1885 the power to appoint the Board of Police Commissioners was transferred from the mayor to the governor.

In 1886 after approximately five years of trials at various divisions, all the divisions were equipped with signal boxes by the Municipal Signal Company. These signal boxes allowed patrol officers to contact the station houses.

In 1887 matrons were appointed at station houses, under the Acts of 1887, chapter 234, which provided for the appointment of police matrons in cities and established a house of detention for women in the city of Boston. These were the first women employed in a law enforcement capacity by the department. They had no powers of arrest but served as guards for women and juvenile prisoners.

In 1896 four park police officers were equipped with bicycles, beginning a long tradition of Boston officers on two wheels. In addition, the new harbor patrol vessel, the Guardian, was commissioned.

Photo of Division 15
The Early 1900s
A new uniform was introduced around 1900. It consisted of high-necked frock coats, above which protruded a winged collar, with a polished leather belt adorned with a buckle bearing the city seal. The officers wore high domed helmets, grey in the summer and navy blue in the winter.

In 1903 the nation's first motor patrol was established in Boston. A Stanley Steamer automobile was purchased. Driven by a civilian chauffeur, the officer sat on a higher seat so that he could look over the high backyard fences in the Back Bay. By 1906 the department owned five automobiles, four one-seaters and a larger one for department officials.

In 1906 the Board of Commissioners was abolished. There was now a single commissioner appointed by the governor.

In 1919 Boston's police officers had formed a social club, since forming a union was forbidden by department rules. Unhappy with their pay and general working conditions, the members of the social club petitioned the department for a raise. Rebuffed, they joined the American Federation of Labor, becoming Boston Police Union Number 16,807. Commissioner Edwin Curtis dismissed John F. McInnes, the president of the union, and 18 other leaders of the union. In response, on September 9, more than 1,100 of the department's 1,500 officers went on strike. Those officers were judged by the commissioner to have abandoned their duty and were dismissed. They were never reinstated. In order to protect the city, volunteer police officers were recruited, the metropolitan police were called to duty, and eventually the Massachusetts State Guard was called in to restore order. After the strike, the newly hired officers received all the benefits the strikers had sought to gain, with the exception of forming a union.

In 1921 the department hired its first female police officers. They worked with women and juveniles and did not have powers of arrest. In 1926 a new headquarters building at 154 Berkeley Street was occupied. In 1931 the first Boston Police School was established.

By 1934 there was a one-way radio system in service, with cars being equipped with receivers only. All dispatching was done from headquarters. By 1936 cars were equipped with receivers and transmitters. The signal service system was retained until 1968.

Police old picture
In 1943 the Crime Prevention Bureau was created. The main objective of the Bureau was to "meet the pressing problems of juvenile delinquency." The women who were hired in 1921 were transferred to this bureau and given powers of arrest. In 1948 Margaret McHugh became the department's first female detective. She retired in 1959.

In 1962 the Tactical Patrol Force was established in response to student and racial unrest and to respond to unusual or sudden emergencies. The power to appoint the police commissioner was transferred back to the mayor.

In 1964 the K-9 Unit was created. This unit was begun with six dogs donated by German reporters grateful for the cooperation they had received from Boston officers in their coverage of the Boston Strangler murders. They also paid for the chief dog trainer of the Berlin Police Department to teach Boston's officers how to work with the dogs.

In 1965 the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association was founded. Thirty-three years later the BPPA would receive American Federation of Labor Charter Number 16,807, the very one that was issued to the Boston Social Club in 1919. Superior officers and detectives later formed separate unions.

In 1972 the Boston Police Academy began admitting women.

In 1974, with the advent of court-ordered school busing, the Mobile Operations Patrol was created. The squad was composed of officers on motorcycles, able to respond quickly to disturbances and restore order.

The Modern-Day Boston Police Department: 1990 to Today
In 1992 Boston became one of the first cities to embrace the community policing philosophy department-wide. In Boston, community policing means a three-pronged approach of prevention, intervention, and enforcement. This philosophy remains the foundation of the department to this day.

In 1997 the department moved its headquarters into One Schroeder Plaza, a new, state-of-the-art facility named in memory of brothers Walter and John Schroeder, two Boston officers who were killed in the line of duty.

In 1998 the department'scrime lab becomes the first nationally accredited public forensic DNA analysis laboratory in New England.

On February 19, 2004, Kathleen M. O'Toole became Boston's first female police commissioner.

In 2004 the department was the lead agency in securing the 2004 Democratic National Convention. While past conventions have seen large, sometimes violent protests, the 2004 DNC was a safe and peaceful event, resulting in only four arrests and no episodes of serious disorder.

Also in 2004 the department adopted a new set of eyewitness identification procedures, including sequential presentation of photo arrays and blind administration of photo arrays and lineups. In doing so, Boston became one of the first major metropolitan police departments in the United States to commit so strongly to improving the reliability of eyewitness evidence.

In 2005 the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) is launched. The BRIC combines sworn intelligence officers and civilian crime analysts to provide Boston and other regional law enforcement partners with up-to-date information pertaining to crimes, crime trends, and the people perpetrating those crimes.

Today's Boston Police Department is different from that of 150 years ago or even that of just 20 years ago. Today's officers use advanced forensic, identification, and communication technologies. But the mission of the Boston Police Department is the same as it was in those early days, when officers carried only lanterns and hooks and called the hours. The Boston Police Department dedicates itself to work in partnership with the community to fight crime, reduce fear, and improve the quality of life in the neighborhoods. Its continuing mission is community policing. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 5, May 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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