Did you know that today is Peace Officers Memorial Day? In honor of those who put their lives on the line to protect and serve their communities, here are some great vintage photos of law enforcement officers from the past 125 years. As always, you can find these police photos and more over on the Library of Congress’ Website.
Just like today, officers need to know the law and the basic operating standards of the job before they hit the streets.
Here are some (not so) eager students learning the ropes circa 1915.
Once they mastered the textbook side of things, students would then need to learn how to shoot. Here’s Alfred Plane teaching junior officers how to properly aim and fire at a target sometime around 1915.
Even after joining the force, officers need to practice their shooting skills now and then. Fortunately, for those in select forces in the Washington, D.C. area during the 1940s, the Treasury Department range built in the basement of the Treasury Building featured some of the best technological advances available in shooting ranges at the time, including soundproofing, electrically operated targets and more. Image by Harris & Ewing taken June 10, 1940.
On the Beat
Once an officer was fully trained, he would then be assigned to work in a specific neighborhood, or in certain cases a specific waterway, like these harbor police photographed in 1926.
Given how many giant guns are on this police patrol boat, I certainly wouldn’t mess with the harbor police.
Just like today, on-duty officers working in 1920 looked forward to taking a break and enjoying a hot cup of coffee. Of course, nowadays they’re more likely to quickly head over to a Starbucks than to sit around and wait for someone to bring them a cup.
If you’ve ever wondered what the American version of the British police call box (popularized by Doctor Who’s TARDIS) looks like, well here it is. A far cry from the iconic blue boxes of London, the American call boxes of the early 1900s looked almost exactly like the call boxes we still have on the side of the road for car emergencies.
Here’s a once-common police position that’s pretty rare to see these days –a traffic officer. Once stoplights were installed just about everywhere, the idea of putting a human in the middle of an intersection started to seem like a bad idea –although they do reappear in particularly bad traffic jams or during severe power outages.
Just like today’s police, some of the most thrilling and most newsworthy arrests were those involving a raid of some sort of illegal business enterprise. Here’s what a raid of an illegal gambling hall looked like back in 1925.
While car chases are fairly common news these days, they were pretty much unheard of only a hundred years ago. All of that changed during Prohibition though, when gangsters would do whatever they could to get away from the police and hold on to their precious hooch. As often as car chases end with accidents these days, just imagine speeding away from the police with even less stable vehicles that didn’t have power steering or anti-lock brakes. That’s why scenes like this were the usual outcome of car chases.
Even back in 1909, the arrest procedure was largely the same as it is today: the police would book you, take your mug shot, fingerprint you and then hold you until your arraignment. Of course, it’s a lot easier to take a mug shot these days than it was back then.
Of course, while enforcing the law, police aren’t always on the right side of history. Here are a few officers dragging off a young African American woman who was part of a civil rights protest in Brooklyn in 1963, as photographed by Dick DeMarsico.
At the Station
While the duties of a police officer have stayed largely the same, the inner workings of the police station have changed greatly as technology has improved.
Before we had computer databases recording people’s mug shots, fingerprints and DNA, and before the FBI Most Wanted list, it was up to individual police stations to organize and prioritize information on wanted criminals. Here is the New York Police Department’s Rogues’ Gallery from 1909.
When you wanted to call the police back in 1909, you’d have to ask the operator to connect you. You would then be connected to the police department’s operators who could connect you to a specific extension or record your request for help and issue it to an officer on duty. I don’t know about you guys, but this certainly makes me appreciate 911 (or 999 for our UK readers).
Things got a lot easier as police started having radios installed in their cars. In fact, here’s the Washington, D.C. police radio station as photographed by Harris & Ewing in 1938. While two-way radio systems were first used by the Boston police in 1934, it appears that this is a one-way radio, meaning any information needing to be relayed to the officers on duty would have to be given to the announcer first.
One thing remains the same these days: police stations still come equipped with jail cells like this one in Chicago, as shot by Jack Delano in 1934.
If you’d like to get a better idea of who the men and women working on the force were, then here are a few images of specific officers along with a bit about their stories.
Before the White House was protected exclusively by the Secret Service, it instead had its own police force. The officers weren’t only concerned with protecting the president and the house itself either. In fact, Sergeant McQuade was very intent to help this lost little girl find her mother again.
Being the chief of police can be pretty stressful, which is why it’s always important for people in the position to remember to relax. For the chief of police in Greendale, Wisconsin, this meant playing with toy cars whenever the pressure got to be too high. Image taken by John Vachon in 1939.
Most officers, particularly higher-ranking officers, were white males. When it came to working on Indian reservations though, the police were usually Native Americans. Here is Captain George Sword, the chief of police in the Pine Ridge Agency of South Dakota, along with some of the famous Indian actors from the Buffalo Bill show, as photographed by William R. Cross in 1891.
While women police officers were a rare sight one hundred years ago, they still did pop up here and there. Unfortunately, their duties were drastically limited. Still, having a woman (in this case Leola N. King) serve as a traffic officer in 1919 was better than nothing.
When women were hired in more dangerous roles, it was often as undercover officers working in vice. Mary A. Shanley was a rare exception, operating as a detective on the New York Police Department in 1937. Of course, she no doubt took advantage of the fact that people would never assume she was a cop.
By now you’ve no doubt had a good look at the work of a police officer, but you may have noticed only Americans were shown. While most police elsewhere operate in a similar manner, some of the uniforms are delightfully different than all the ones above. Here are some vintage photos of police officers from other countries for all you uniform-loving fashionistas.
Let’s start with a Palestinian traffic officer photographed in Jerusalem around 1936. Just look at that great cap/shrug combo.
Meanwhile in 1936 in Iran, the police dressed a lot more formally, although these outfits must have been extremely uncomfortable during the hot summer months. At least they look good though, right?
Down in South Africa, police were not only forced to wear preposterously silly hats, but they were also denied shoes as part of the uniform. Since these men were photographed sometime between 1890 and 1923, this wasn’t just some weird part of apartheid either –presumably all police officers went without shoes regardless of race.
Speaking of goofy hats, here are two mounted officers from Mexico City, photographed in 1913 by Harris & Ewing. Well, at least the rest of their uniform looks nice.
Sure these guys may look like cowboys, but they are actually an early incarnation of Canadian Mounties. These North West Mounted Police Scouts were photographed in 1917, when the area was still largely going through its post-gold-rush, wild-west phase.
Across the pond, the police may have dressed a little more fashionably, but they were still following the letter of the law –even if that meant arresting suffragettes for protesting in favor of their right to vote in 1913.
While this looks like a picture of hunters returning from a particularly savage trip, it was actually taken after six lions from a traveling circus escaped and threatened crew members and the public alike before the police of Leipzig, Germany took them down. While it can be hard to look past the dead beasts, it is worth noting that the police happened to be sporting the same spiked helmets soon to be made famous by the country’s soldiers fighting in WWI.
Over in Russia, the police uniforms had to be drastically different to protect officers from the freezing weather. Here is the chief of police from Blagoveshchensk wearing what has to be the thickest winter coat I’ve ever seen.