Police, Children and the

The police have often played ambiguous roles in the lives of children, acting both as agents of crime control and as unofficial providers of social welfare services. On the one hand, police have treated children and youths as potential criminals, seeking to regulate their behavior by intimidating them, arresting them, detaining them, referring them to courts, and sometimes using force on them. On the other hand, police have also treated children and youths as vulnerable urchins in need of protection. Police officers throughout the years have found lost children, safeguarded them from traffic, referred them to social agencies, and organized recreation for them.

Before the Police

Children and youths have always misbehaved and committed crimes, but in the early modern world, juvenile conduct was governed by families or by others acting in their stead rather than external agencies. In France, Italy, and other European countries between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, youths themselves sometimes regulated the behavior of others by parading publicly at night, mocking, harassing, and occasionally assaulting people who had violated moral or social norms. More commonly, parents or other adult authorities managed youthful misconduct. At the colleges and academies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, teachers did their best to manage student duels and mutinies against school authority. Most often in urban Europe, a system of APPRENTICESHIP governed youth. Masters fed, housed, and taught trades to their sons and other young men, and in return these youths accepted their masters' moral authority for as long as they remained in that household. And in both England and the American colonies, authorities depended directly on families to correct wrongdoing. In seventeenth-century Massachusetts, magistrates regularly returned young offenders to their families for court-mandated whippings or punishments.

In the eighteenth century, these familial and household controls began to break down. Migration brought increased poverty to the cities of Europe and America, while the apprenticeship system deteriorated as an increasingly commercial and manufacturing-oriented economy made older trades less viable. Commentators noted a rising number of poor and vagrant children and youths visible in the streets of urban centers such as London and Philadelphia, and worried that they were turning to petty theft to survive. By the early nineteenth century, traditional mechanisms of control no longer seemed adequate to restrain a rising tide of crime and disorder in European and American cities. In response, public agencies–both state authorities and private philanthropies–assumed responsibility for regulating misconduct. States created penitentiaries for adult criminals, but nineteenth-century reformers assumed a special responsibility for wayward young offenders and thus established separate Houses of Refuge for youths, first in New York in 1825 and subsequently in Boston in 1826 and in Philadelphia in 1828. The creation of the modern police in American cities in the mid-nineteenth century represents part of a larger process of building a criminal justice system.

The Nineteenth Century

Police departments are innovations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. London's Metropolitan Police, considered the first modern police department, was founded in 1829. Boston established the first police force in the United States in 1838. New York followed suit in 1845 and Chicago in 1855. According to historian Wilbur R. Miller, modern police organizations were defined by their efforts to prevent crime rather than to detect it after the fact, to establish a centralized administration, to conduct full-time day and night patrols, and to wear visible symbols of authority such as badges and uniforms.

In the nineteenth-century United States, police forces were primarily urban institutions, oriented more toward service than toward crime control. Police officers–all male, and usually working-class whites drawn from the same firstand second-generation immigrant neighborhoods that they policed–performed their jobs mainly by walking beats. Our most detailed understanding of what patrolmen actually did comes from the 1895 diary of one Boston officer, Stillman Wakeman. Rather than devoting his time to enforcing the law or making arrests, Wakeman more regularly mediated neighborhood disputes. In particular, he dealt with youth when local home owners and storekeepers complained to him about boys breaking windows, setting fires, and committing petty thefts. Wakeman gauged his response according to the circumstances. Sometimes he made boys cease misbehaving; at others he forced them to apologize to their victims; only in the most extreme cases did he arrest the boys and bring them to court.

When police interacted with younger children, they mainly provided social services. Policemen aided children hurt in accidents involving wagons, trains, and public transportation by investigating what caused the incidents and ensuring that injured children received medical aid. Police also recovered lost children. In large and impersonal late-nineteenth-century cities, families could easily lose track of young children whom they allowed to play unsupervised and often turned to the police for help. Every year, urban police departments recovered and returned home hundreds of children, generally under age ten.

Police monitored older children in ways that combined social service and law enforcement functions. Beginning in 1883, for example, the Detroit police assigned men to serve as truant officers to enforce Michigan's compulsory education law. The stated purpose for this work was to prevent boys lacking "proper control" from drifting into crime. Likewise, urban police supervised boys working in street trades. In the 1890s, police officials in Pittsburgh expressed concern that street employment–particularly work as messengers–forced boys to frequent pool halls and brothels, and exposed them to gambling, drinking, and vice. Similarly, police officials worried that girls engaged in street trades (such as selling newspapers) had taken the first step toward prostitution. In short, police sought to exercise control over street arabs because they regarded them as both potential victims of degradation and as potential perpetrators of crime.

Police often enforced the law in an extralegal, discretionary manner, with adolescents as well as with adults. Nineteenth-century police used violence as a means of control, even against youth. Making arrests required that police subdue suspects and transport them to the station, so officers sometimes preferred to simplify matters and punish offenders themselves. In particular, police used violence to reprimand youth, believing that it deterred teenagers from future crime. As late as the 1920s, Chicago policemen boasted that they routinely corrected young offenders by physically abusing them and letting them go.

At the turn of the century, urban police also acquired a reputation for arresting youth arbitrarily. In an 1884 study of Chicago law enforcement, future Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld reported that police detained hundreds of boys each year for sleeping in public, mainly to deter future mis-chief. Even so, children constituted a small portion of total arrests. In 1890s Detroit, for example, David Wolcott (2003) reports that boys and girls under age seventeen represented less than one in ten total arrests. Like urban populations as a whole, youths arrested were typically the children of working-class and immigrant parents. They were arrested for a mix of minor property crimes and offenses defined by their status as juveniles (such as truancy or curfew violations). When police did arrest children and youth, however, they sought to protect them by keeping them out of courts or jails, instead turning them over to their parents or social service agencies far more often than they did adults.

The Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century, police underwent a long-term process of professionalization that reshaped their interactions with children and youth. In the 1910s, police administrators such as Richard Sylvester in Washington, DC, and August Vollmer in Berkeley, California, began to encourage greater centralization, more officer training, greater specialization, recruitment of better-educated officers, and a new orientation toward legal norms. More generally, they sought to shift the function of urban police away from providing social services (such as finding lost children) in favor of more efficient crime control.

The creation of JUVENILE COURTS–first in Chicago in 1899 and subsequently in most major cities by 1910– changed the legal and institutional context in which police dealt with children. Early advocates of juvenile courts such as Chicago activists Julia Lathrop and Timothy Hurley based their arguments in part on criticism of urban police. They maintained that police and courts detained children in jails together with adults, tried them before unsympathetic magistrates, and unnecessarily exposed them to danger and corruption. Juvenile courts were designed to remove children from the criminal justice system and instead offer individualized treatment, either via probation or in reform schools. One purpose of juvenile courts was to reduce the influence that police exercised over youth.

In fact, the new juvenile courts did not fully remove the police from the emerging JUVENILE JUSTICE system. Police remained the primary source of complaints, arrests, and referrals to juvenile courts. Most big-city police departments designated specialized juvenile bureaus to investigate complaints about children and to work closely with juvenile courts. These officers determined which cases required hearings and which cases police could decide on their own. Essentially, they screened juvenile court caseloads (usually with the court officials' approval). In the early twentieth century, police juvenile bureaus resolved a majority of complaints without court hearings. Additionally, police exercised authority over youth by deciding whether to detain young offenders following arrests but prior to court hearings. Even in jurisdictions such as Los Angeles, where juvenile courts were legally in charge of detention decisions, police juvenile bureaus made recommendations that were almost always implemented.

Police departments also developed innovations aimed at addressing the distinctive needs of female juvenile offenders. Departments hired female officers whose primary duty was to safeguard girls from the perceived threat of urban vice. The first policewoman was appointed in Portland, Oregon, in 1905, but the 1910 appointment of social worker Alice Stebbins Wells to the Los Angeles Police Department began a national movement for women police. Wells and police-women like her, hired at the insistence of women's civic organizations, sought to appropriate police authority to expose immorality, to regulate commercial amusements, and to rescue girls whom they viewed as sexually vulnerable. Most big-city police departments hired policewomen by 1920, but until the 1970s usually defined their roles merely as supervising teenage girls and young children, thus marginalizing women within policing.

In the 1920s and 1930s, however, a number of departments did seek to professionalize the traditional connection between social services and crime control by establishing new "crime prevention" programs for youth. Berkeley's Vollmer proposed that authorities should intervene aggressively into the lives of "predelinquent" youth. Police, Vollmer argued in 1919, should not only enforce laws, but also act as social workers in order to prevent children from becoming delinquents and criminals. By monitoring everyday behavior, police could identify troubled youth and refer them to treatment agencies. To implement these ideas, Vollmer established a "coordinating council" of police, court officials, educators, and social workers to share information about at-risk youth and to determine the most efficient means of intervention. These plans achieved their fullest implementation in Los Angeles in the 1930s, where the police established large-scale recreation and mentoring programs and participated in a county-wide coordinating council. Similarly, the New York Police Department established its well-known Police Athletic League in 1932 to organize SPORTS and activities. These crime prevention programs were directed mainly at boys, seeking to establish masculine bonds between police and youth.

In the 1930s, police also emphasized fighting crime among youth. In light of highly publicized crime sprees by well-known bandits and strong rhetoric from law enforcement officials such as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, public concerns over serious crime surged in the Depression-era United States. In response, police priorities de-emphasized providing social services in favor of arresting and punishing offenders, even if they were juveniles. In addition, as African Americans migrated to northern industrial cities and Hispanics migrated to the urban West, police increasingly blamed these groups for crime and delinquency, and increasingly targeted them for arrest. In 1930s Los Angeles, police shifted from arresting juveniles mainly for minor property crimes and status offenses to arresting them for felonies. In addition, they disproportionately arrested African Americans and Hispanics, rounding up groups of young men or pulling over youths in automobiles on the suspicion that the vehicle had been stolen.

In the decades following World War II, the social service and crime control functions of policing youth coexisted in an uneasy balance. Police departments maintained separate juvenile divisions and continued to offer character-building programs, mainly for boys. Filtering young offenders out of juvenile courts and referring them to social service agencies had become a standard duty for police within the juvenile justice system. Participant-observer studies such as those of Donald Black and Albert Reiss and of Robert Lundman found that, in the postwar decades, complaints about mis-chief and petty theft remained the main cause of police interaction with youth, much as they had in the 1890s. At the same time, juvenile crimes began to be perceived as more like those of adults. In the postwar decades, both boys and girls increasingly participated in gangs, took DRUGS, and committed violent offenses. Although police continued to incorporate social service functions into their work with children, the demands of crime control more and more determined the nature of police interactions with youth in the latter half of the twentieth century.

See also: Delinquency; ; Law, Children and the; School Shootings and School Violence; Street Arabs and Street Urchins; Teen Drinking; Youth Gangs.


Appier, Janis. 1998. Policing Women: The Sexual Politics of Law Enforcement and the LAPD. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Ariès, Philippe. 1962. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. New York: Knopf.

Black, Donald J., and Albert J. Reiss, Jr. 1970. "Police Control of Juveniles." American Sociological Review 35: 63-77.

Escobar, Edward J. 1999. Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haller, Mark H. 1976. "Historical Roots of Police Behavior: Chicago, 1890-1925." Law and Society Review 10: 303-323.

Kelling, George L. 1987. "Juveniles and the Police: The End of the Nightstick." In From Children to Citizens, Volume II: The Role of the Juvenile Court, ed. Francis X. Hartmann. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Liss, Julia, and Steven Schlossman. 1984. "The Contours of Crime Prevention in August Vollmer's Berkeley." Research in Law, Deviance, and Social Control 16: 79-107.

Lundman, Robert J., Richard E. Sykes, and John P. Clark. 1979. "Police Control of Juveniles: A Replication." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 18: 74-91.

Mennel, Robert M. 1973. Thorns and Thistles: Juvenile Delinquents in the United States, 1825-1940. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Miller, Wilbur R. 1999 [1973]. Cops and Bobbies: Police Authority in New York and London, 1830-1870. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Monkkonen, Eric H. 1981. Police in Urban America, 1850-1920. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Von Hoffman, Alexander. 1992. "An Officer of the Neighborhood: A Boston Patrolman on the Beat in 1895." Journal of Social History 26: 309-330.

Walker, Samuel. 1977. A Critical History of Police Reform. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.

Wolcott, David. 2001. "'The Cop Will Get You': The Police and Discretionary Juvenile Justice, 1890-1940." Journal of Social History 35: 349-371.

Wolcott, David. 2003. "Juvenile Justice before Juvenile Court: Cops, Courts, and Kids in Turn-of-the-Century Detroit." Social Science History 27: 111-138.