Crime and Policing Patterns

One key job of historians is to find patterns.  Most things in history are circular and come and go throughout time.  The majority of what I do with this column is to try to show that current events have happened before and that nothing is new.  Knowing this can help us make better decisions in the future.  One such circular event is crime and policing. 

Crime and policing in some way are as old as time itself, yet there have been periods in American history where crime was more common or at least thought to be.  The first period that comes to mind is the so-called “Wild West.”  Whether the cow towns were actually violent is debated, but Hollywood has engrained in our collective minds the wildness of towns like Dodge City, Tombstone, and Deadwood. What brought order to these towns were men as tough as iron.  These sheriffs were quick with a gun but sometimes were accused of being as violent as the men they arrested. To make the west safe, they had to enforce tough laws with a strong hand.  Hollywood has capitalized on men like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Bill Hickock.

Another period known for lawlessness was the 1920s.  Prohibition was the law of the land but that only opened the door to criminals who saw easy money in bootlegging.  Gangsters became household names like Al Capone, “Baby Face” Nelson, and John Dillinger.  There were also men like “Lucky” Luciano who helped organize the Five Families in New York.  Then there were crimes that are not as famous today but were know at the time like the Osage Murders in Oklahoma. The crimes of the 1920s helped turn the new and undermanned Bureau of Investigation into the modern trained and efficient Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The man responsible for the turnaround was the ruthless J. Edgar Hoover.  Before the 1920s, the public feared a national police force that could turn into secret police. However, the crime wave in the ’20s  and the inability or unwillingness of the local police to confront it, resulted in a public demand for help, even if some of the police tactics reminded some of a police state.  

The Osage murders are a good example.  As shown in David Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon, which is currently being turned into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Osage Indians were being murdered in 1921.  The local police were unable or possibly unwilling to find the murderers.  In one of their first big high-profile cases, the FBI solved the crime.  I don’t want to give away more, but it’s a book worth reading.

Hollywood has always taken advantage of these times to make a bit of cash and that is no different than with the next major crime wave.  In 1971 America was introduced to a new character and catch phrase, when Dirty Harry first asked the bad guy, “Do you feel lucky?” The movie about a crime-ridden city and an ineffective police force resonated with the public.  It took an old school cop, one not afraid to use violence, to finally catch a sniper terrorizing the city.  However, the sniper was released because Harry had not followed all the rules.  Harry eventually catches him again, this time killing him, then throwing his badge into the river in protest to how crime was being handled. 

Dirty Harry was not finished, however. His style of policing became so popular that he made four more movies and inspired several other similar movies.  Another standout was 1974’s “Death Wish.”  In this film, Charles Bronson’s character was a happy family man until thugs broke into his home and killed his wife and left his daughter barely alive.  After the police could not help, Bronson began walking the streets at night in Central Park hoping to get mugged so he could bring his own form of vigilante justice to the city. 

Movies like “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish” reverberated with people who were themselves afraid to walk in places like Central Park.  Crime rates had been on the rise since the 1960s but then started to fall in the 1990s.  The reasons for the decline in crime are still being debated today, but many give credit to men like New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who started controversial but effective policies to reduce crime. (Yes, he had a career before Trump.) One thing he did was to greatly increase the number of cops on the street.  Giuliani was attacked as a racist and his policies as Gestapo tactics, but people were able to walk the streets at night.  What we have seen in all these cases is that the population tolerated more policing for safety.  Yet over time, people became less tolerant, forcing less policing, and the cycle continued. 

We are watching this cycle currently play out again.  Not only are we seeing calls to defund the police, but in cities like New York, police officers retiring is up more than 400% from the previous year.  Most are citing anti-police attitudes for the cause.  It has become so bad that NYC now restricts the number of officers who can retire each month.  Look at some of the movies that started coming out in the 2000s –”Training Day”in 2001, “Crash “in 2004, “The Departed” in 2006. All these depict police as corrupt and violent.  Yet at the same time, starting in 2020, we have seen an increase in crime. 

Time will have to tell if crime on the rise is a matter of COVID or new attitudes towards policing.  Historically speaking, the attitudes towards policing and lower numbers of law enforcement will be followed by continuing higher crime rates until they get high enough that the next version of “Dirty Harry” will be required to clean up the streets.  Who knows how long that will take, but until then the only question to ask yourself is, “Do you feel lucky?” 

Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at or on Facebook.

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