Attitudes toward police in the '50s varied widely.
Attitudes toward police in the '50s varied widely.

The first metropolitan police departments emerged in the 19th century in response to the new challenges of urbanization. The structure of American society was quickly changing from small agrarian communities to large industrial cities. Since then, police forces grew and evolved. In the 1950s, the police were looked on both favorably and unfavorably by various segments of the population.

Resentment

Many communities strongly resented the police in the 1950s. In the South before the Civil Rights movement, the police systematically abused people -- especially minorities -- with virtual impunity. In small communities as well as larger cities in the South, this generated animosity. In major cities in all regions of the U.S., including the Northeast and California, hostility also existed toward the police. Citizens resented police departments for physical brutality and abuse of power. They also mistrusted the police as a protective institution.

Support

Elsewhere, the police enjoyed wide support. Americans had more faith in government at all levels in the 1950s, before Vietnam, Watergate and other events helped erode their trust. Generally, citizens in the suburbs and middle- or upper-class white citizens in the cities regarded the police favorably. Among these groups, police offers were considered dutiful public servants who carried out their responsibility to serve and protect.

Diversity

In the 1950s, most police forces were mostly white and almost exclusively male. This was also true in diverse cities such as New York and Chicago. People regarded the police as a racially monolithic unit that did not reflect the true diversity of the U.S. It was, in both the South and the North, a largely "white" organization. This attitude has significantly changed in many places in the U.S., where racial minorities now make up a much larger percentage of law enforcement officers.

Power

In certain ways, the police were regarded as more powerful in the 1950s. In the 1960s and in subsequent decades, landmark Supreme Court cases, such as Mapp v. Ohio and Miranda v. Arizona, imposed limitations on what the police could constitutionally do. Mapp v. Ohio, for example, restricted the police's ability to arbitrarily enter homes and search one's private property. Recent decades have also seen the growth of civilian review boards, in which citizens are empowered to scrutinize police behavior and even hand out discipline. Such institutions were mostly absent in the 1950s, when the police were regarded as more untouchable and unaccountable.