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Brief history of the Boston Police

Last updated: 6/29/17

Brief history of the Boston Police

The history of American law enforcement begins in Boston.

The people of the town of Boston established a Watch in 1631. Shortly after that, 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.

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Boston Police Headquarters
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First official police force

The Watchmen’s responsibilities grew along with the town, which became the City of Boston in 1822. Less than 20 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. The original department was made up 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 previous years, the City had annexed several neighboring towns. Officials expanded police services to those areas.

Expanding services

The telephone had a huge impact in communications for Boston Police during the 1880s. The department replace the telegraph system with telephone lines at police stations. They also installed police call boxes around the City.

Toward the end of the 19th century, officers began providing charitable services. They even served soup to the poor at police stations. Stations also opened their doors to newcomers to the City. These newcomers could spend a night as a “lodger.” Police ambulances carried the sick and injured to the City Hospital. Some of the services founded during this time have continued into the present day. But, some of these services are now under the management of outside City agencies.

Growth of the department

At the turn of the 20th century, the Boston Police grew to 1,000 patrolmen. At that time, keeping the peace resulted in nearly 32,000 arrests every year.

The role of the police expanded with the introduction of the automobile. Duties now included regulating motor vehicle traffic. Officers would also remove unruly passengers from streetcars. The department bought 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.

Today, the Boston Police Department looks to be a reflection of the diverse and culturally rich environments it serves with:

  • 12 district stations
  • special operations units
  • school police, and
  • teams of community service officers.

The Boston Police Department is committed to neighborhood policing. We know that officers and the community share responsibility to ensure safe, secure, and livable neighborhoods.