A Brief History of the Philadelphia Police Department
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by Police Officer Phil Bowdren (Ret.)
history of the Philadelphia Police Department traces its origin
to Hans Block who, in 1663, established the first system of
patrol in the city's Swedish settlement.
By the year 1700, Philadelphia had increased its population
to 4,400. As a result of this growth, the citizenry established
a method of citizen participation known as "Town Watch."
This system remained the basic form of police protection until
1751. In 1751, the General Assembly, in response to the needs
of the citizenry, established the first paid police agency.
This agency, comprised of wardens and constables, patrolled
the city on a limited basis, usually stationed in "watch
boxes." These men faithfully served the people of Philadelphia
without losing a single officer to violence. Unfortunately,
in 1828, Watchman Steve Heimer was the first Philadelphia peace
officer to be killed in the line of duty.
Modern police history as we know it began in 1850 when steps
were taken to strengthen the force. A police marshal was appointed
who not only had control over the police in Philadelphia, but
also in outlying districts. Four years later, in 1854, a major
change in the structure of the entire city, its government and
police services was to be undertaken.
On February 2nd of that year, the Act of Consolidation was
passed by the General Assembly. This Act created the Philadelphia
of today. Up until that time, the actual city of Philadelphia
encompassed a very small area. The total land area had been
only 360 acres. Following the Act's passage, it expanded to
83,000 acres. In other terms, the city grew from two square
miles to over 129 square miles.
Philadelphia continued to grow in population and influence
and, by the latter half of the 19th Century was a major urban
area. The city was then involved in national and international
commerce. This commerce led to the development of increased
port facilities and to the formation of the Harbor Patrol in
1860. This time period also brought integration to the department.
The first black police officer was appointed to the department
in 1881. In 1886, the department hired its first women to serve
In 1887, a new city charter was passed called the "Bullitt
Bill", and a very important change in the police department
was made. The Department of Public Safety was created and the
police were put under the supervision of the Director of Public
Up until this time, all patrolling had been on foot and the
difficulties involved here were becoming more prevalent as the
city expanded. So, in 1889, 93 horses were purchased and the
city had its first mounted patrol. This mounted patrol served
the city until it was disbanded in 1951.
The 20th Century brought new technological advances to the
department. In 1906, the department purchased its first motorcycles
and by 1936, radio cars were in operation.
The "Roaring Twenties" and the "Thirties"
were relatively subdued in Philadelphia, thanks to the efforts
of the department under Director of Public Safety Smedley
Darlington Butler, then a Brigadier General on independent
duty from the Marine Corps and a two-time recipient of the Congressional
Medal of Honor. In the forties, the police auxiliaries who performed
order maintenance and civil defense duties assisted regular
The police department has continued to grow and improve since
its early beginning. Today, the department has over 6,600 officers,
approximately 405 patrol cars, 116 emergency wagons and numerous
auxiliary vehicles for police use.
The department is now equipped with a 13-channel radio network,
Station KGF587, that allows officers to maintain constant contact
with Police Headquarters and other policemen. The radio system
handled 3.4 million requests for police assistance in 1980.
Criminal Investigation and investigation has become a sophisticated
science and the department possesses an experienced, well-trained
detective bureau along with other specialized units. The department
has continued to be an innovative leader among agencies responsible
for major urban areas, and has continued Philadelphia's ranking
as having one of the lowest major crime rates of the ten largest
Today, the department enjoys the benefits of an increasing
number of advanced technologies. Resources like the facilities
of the crime laboratory, an automated fingerprint identification
system, computerized suspect library with digitized suspect
images, a computerized Philadelphia Crime Information Center
(P.C.I.C.), a helicopter unit, a digitized reporting system
that enables all branches of the criminal justice system access
to documents without delay (P.A.R.S.), a CCTV arraignment and
training system, LoJack tracking equipment and other innovations
continue to place the Philadelphia Police Department at the
forefront of hi-tech crime fighting.
Today, 900 School Crossing Guards, the Police Explorer Scouts,
and citizens who participate in the Town Watch Program join
the department in its efforts. Centers operated by the Police
Athletic League bring youth into contact with officers through
recreational activities. Police Week, observed annually since
1963, offers demonstrations of modern methods of police science.
Public support of the annual Hero Scholarship Thrill Show serves
the needs of the families of officers who have fallen in service
to their fellow citizens. Each member of the department is proud
of the continuing respect given to the ideals of Honor-Integrity-Service
that are the hallmarks of the Philadelphia Police Department.
listed here is believed to be current at the time of publication.
However, some of the material presented here may have expired
since it was posted. Persons should contact a Philadelphia Police
representative whenever relying on dated material or information
that is subject to change.
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