The police are arguably the most visible and contested apparatus of legal authority and urban power in American history. The navy blue uniform, badge, and utility belt of armaments of varying lethal potential have simultaneously been the symbols of justice, order, and security, while also representing the trappings of a virtual standing army of punitive state coercion, eliciting equal amounts of fear and admiration among the most vulnerable members of society. The traditional law enforcement historiography dictates that urban policing in its present form saw its origins in London in the first half of the nineteenth century. I contend, however, that a diverse array of social classes and communities in the American city from the mid-nineteenth century onward formed and continuously reformed the municipal police departments into their current form. This process can best be observed in the experimental process of law enforcement in San Francisco, where a diversity of political ordering and community visions competed for dominance in policing methods and ideology. The sudden convergence of a multitude of classes and ethnicities on the small peninsula of San Francisco from the late 1840s onward shaped the institution of urban policing in ways that would have national ramifications.

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