Better In America

By December 1888, the Metropolitan Police had seen a major change at the top.

The much-maligned Chief Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, had resigned, and his position had been taken by James Monro, an officer who was interested in bringing several reforms to the police service, and was more intrigued by the idea of crime detection, as opposed to Warren’s stance that his men should be more involved with crime prevention.

Inevitably, the newspapers began looking at the methods being employed by the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and, given the massive failure of the police force in London to catch Jack the Ripper, questions were being asked about whether things could be done differently, and comparisons were being drawn between the policing of the Victorian metropolis and the way in which policing was carried out in other major cities around the world.

A portrait of James Monro.
James Monro. From The Illustrated London News, 8th December 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


On Wednesday, 26th December, 1888, The Pall Mall Gazette, published the following article in which the author compared the methods employed with the police department in Philadelphia with those used by the police in London, and put forward the view that, in many ways, the policing of American cities was done better than the policing of London.

The article read:-


“The morning journals report that a system of American police alarms is about to be tested in Islington.

Nearly a score of alarm posts have been fixed, in telegraphic communication with Upper-street station, and Chief -inspector Tyler has caused to be distributed 100 keys between police and civilians.

This announcement lends increased interest to a report which a correspondent, some time ago, rendered to us upon certain features in the police-system of American cities, particularly of Philadelphia.


The patrol-boxes to be seen at every few blocks in the principal thoroughfares (our correspondent wrote) are the secret of the efficiency of these systems. They don’t occupy much space on the footpath – just about as much, perhaps , as a tree-guard; but they are invaluable auxiliaries in the policing of the city.

By going to one of these boxes, the policeman on the beat, or, indeed, any citizen, can instantly put himself in telephonic communication with the police-station, fire-station, or hospital; the help needed in the quelling of a disturbance, or the transportation of a prisoner, in the extinguishing of a fire, or the careful carriage of an accident “case,” can be had without any great running to and fro, and with the least possible expenditure of time and worry.

What happens in our streets at home when a constable requires assistance will instantly present itself to the mind in the form of a very striking contrast to this picture of American methods.


The telephone, too, is the backbone of a very exacting system of inspection.

Last month I was in one of the many district police-stations of Philadelphia at midnight.

A sergeant sitting at his desk was every minute receiving, through a telephonic recorder, or species of phonograph, close at his hand, messages from constables on their beat, reporting themselves as being at such and such a spot at the time denoted by the police-station clock; and these reports, of course, were being carefully noted by the officer upon a police “slate” lying before him.

Shortly before I entered, a constable in a street some distance from the station had telephoned that he required a patrol waggon to bring two prisoners to the station.

The stable where the patrol-waggons for the division are horsed was at once communicated with by telephone.

Without any loss of time a waggon proceeded to the spot named in the “instruction” sent from the station; and in a very few minutes indeed from the original request being received from the constable, the waggon rattled into the yard of the station with him and his prisoners on board.


There exist also very stringent regulations under which the central police-depot is continually kept informed by telegraph as to the contents of all reports, whatever their character, which may be received at the divisional stations, and as a rule the representatives of the press, who are always on duty at the central station, are quickly made acquainted with the nature of these reports.


While at the divisional station I have mentioned, I was taken up to the quarters of the police matron, a middle-aged woman, well-fitted by knowledge and experience for the post she filled.

Every time a female is brought in as a prisoner, her attendance is ordered by the officer in charge of the station.

Only twice, it seemed, had she entertained doubts as to whether the woman was drunk or ill: in both cases, a smell at the breath enabled her to determine that it was a case of drunkenness pure and simple.

Occasionally, she meets with resistance when searching a prisoner, then she calls in a policeman, who is always close at hand; abuse is often her portion.

But even the most violent and abusive prisoner does not refuse the cup of tea which she generally tenders them early the next morning, and when a prisoner is once more “clothed and in her right mind,” she is usually profuse in her gratitude to the police matron.

Sometimes the matron, touched by the tale of some poor woman as told in the cell, intervenes in the course of the case so as to enlist magisterial sympathy for the innocent sufferer, and secure the adequate punishment of the really guilty.


In, yet another important particular Philadelphia is ahead of London.

A prisoner brought into a police-station there is offered three chances of procuring his release, always provided that he or she can suggest some show of innocence, within the twenty-four hours.

The lieutenant of police receiving the charge, who sits on a bench in the station-house in the position of a magistrate, has it in his power to discharge a prisoner; a magistrate holds a court at the station-house at six o’clock in the morning; and a second court is opened about ten o’clock in the forenoon.

Verily, a six-o clock-in-the-morning court would prove “a boon and a blessing” to many shame-faced men and worn women in this great metropolis of ours.


Such a court, there can be no question, serves the cause of innocence in the most satisfactory fashion imaginable.

It is, indeed, one of the best guarantees of public justice that can be conceived.

Why should it not be initiated at home?

Only in their police cells (adds our correspondent) did the Philadelphians fail to make me feel that they do these things better in America.”