The Rise of the Chicago Police Department

The Rise of the Chicago Police Department

By Jonathan Luevanos

The Rise of the Chicago Police Department (2013) by Sam Mitrani is a book that fills in a gap in Chicago’s working-class history and shows how and why police departments were started in the United States. The book is appropriate for those interested in examining the history of law enforcement in Chicago and cities across the country.

The book first gains momentum through its investigation of ethnicity and class in the city of Chicago in the early 1850s, which consisted of native-born Whites and Irish and German immigrants. Native-born White Protestant elites were employers in the wage-labor economy and made up the city’s politics. Working-class immigrants sustained themselves through wage labor and accounted for most of the lower class in Chicago. There was a strong class division, which was also perpetuated by race.

Class Conflict

The book successfully points out that the Chicago Police Department was created because of the need to ensure order and protect the interests of the upper-class elite. Many business elites embraced the free-labor ideology of American values and invested their time and resources into building large corporations focused on maximum production, while at the same time securing profit in the exploitation of thousands of immigrant wage laborers who flooded the urban makeup of 19th century Chicago. The industrial tycoons of the day invested into creating railroad corporations, lumber businesses and large scale meat-packing and agricultural machinery, which created monopolies that reinforced classism.

Mitrani does an excellent job in noting that continuous class conflict is responsible for the evolution of the Chicago Police Department. Before the 1850s, there was no police department but only a Cook County Sheriff’s Department. In the 1850s and 1860s, immigrants started to flood the city of Chicago in large numbers.

By the 1870s, the electoral government as well as the mayoralty of Chicago, who represented the interests of the elites, saw it necessary to create a police department. The department quickly developed into a permanent bureaucratic force based on rank. By the end of the 19th century, the police became stronger because of their independence from electoral influence and because of the hierarchies established of captain, lieutenant, sergeant, etc., in the department, which created more permanence in the department over time.

The elites used law enforcement to maintain order in a city that was divided because of the large influx of immigrants. Immigrants had their own culture; they did certain leisurely things that were not in accord with the dominant culture of White Protestant elites. The enacting of Sunday drinking laws, which prohibited the consumption of alcohol on Sundays, discriminated against the culture of immigrants. The city used the police department to enforce the culture of Protestant elites and protect their interests.

Most arrests by the Chicago police throughout the latter half of the century mainly consisted of charges such as disorderly conduct and behavior induced by drunkenness. The control of leisurely activities had a major influence on the evolution of the department but labor strikes such as the May Day strike for the eight-hour work day in the 1870s, the McCormick strike, the Haymarket bombing, the Pullman strike of 1894 and the development of a socialist and anarchist class of intellectuals in Chicago created strong tension between the economic interests of the elites and the interests of the working class. This initiated a history of violence in Chicago.

The relationship between the anarchists and the Chicago police in the 1870s and 1880s clearly denotes that the police department was created and developed to protect the interests of the elites. The anarchist organization mainly consisted of German immigrants who were sympathetic to the ideas of Karl Marx. The anarchists were unique because unlike any other radical or leftist political group in Chicago, they criticized all levels of the state; they were against the police, all of the branches of government (including local and state) and the military.

The anarchists protested economic injustices and helped create strong social organizations and an alternative consciousness to the hegemonic hold on the city. Anarchists held massive protests, strikes and picketed for labor rights. They held meetings and distributed their own newspaper, which held that the elites and police were politically aligned against the workers. The business elites and local government aligned themselves against the anarchists and the workers of Chicago. They used the police to suppress the largest labor upheavals in American history.

Overall, the book achieves its purpose in its intricate analysis of the origin of the Chicago Police Department and its rigorous conclusion that there is no moral justification for the creation of the department. Instead, the police department was created from class conflict and the need to ensure order and protect the interests of the upper-class elite.

Local Relevancy

The Rise of the Chicago Police Department is strongly relevant to the city of Fresno because the Central Valley has a history of working-class immigration and class conflict. From 1910 to 1911 in Fresno, the Industrial Workers of the World engaged in free speech fights over labor issues. The workers were met with opposition from the local government and especially business leaders.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the United Farm Workers movement also engaged in political mobilization in the Central Valley. The United Farm Workers’ fight for labor rights was also met with opposition from local governments and business leaders. Today, May Day is celebrated in Fresno every year by immigrants from the city and around the area. A march takes place every May 1 to honor the workers of Fresno.

Protests and free speech are important to the city of Fresno. But protests in Fresno such as the May Day protest, the Black Lives Matter protest and protests against police brutality were contained or shut down by the Fresno Police Department in 2015. The city of Fresno engages in this kind of behavior to protect the interests of the elites who live in the upper-class suburbs of Fresno.

Law enforcement in Fresno not only prevents political mobilization against the status-quo but also is concerned with controlling the culture of Fresno. For example, the city of Fresno has signs installed at certain intersections on Kings Canyon Road in southeast Fresno that prohibit people from making U-turns on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. This is because the local government stands against the culture of cruising of many people of color.

It does not become difficult to conceive that Fresno has a history of class conflict. In consideration of the history of working-class immigration and class conflict, the problems facing law enforcement today, as well as the deep social and economic divisions that exist in Fresno, one must think that it is necessary to examine the extent to which labor history and class conflict in Fresno are connected to the development of a law enforcement apparatus such as the Fresno Police Department.


Jonathan Luevanos is an independent journalist. Contact Jonathan at jluevanosfelix@


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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