explore the MPDC history


The District of Columbia as we know it, was created on July 16, 1790 as a ten-mile square forming the nation’s new capital. Included in the new capital was a portion of Montgomery County, including the port city of Georgetown, portions of Prince George’s County, Maryland as well as the port city of Alexandria, Virginia, which was the county seat of Fairfax County, Virginia.
On April 15, 1791, the first boundary stone of the district was laid at Jones’ Point [Alexandria, Virginia], which is still visible to this day. They named the district, “The Territory of Columbia” and decided that the federal city should be named, “The City of Washington.” Congress maintained the ultimate authority over the District, but it delegated limited local jurisdiction to the municipal government. So, from its beginning, the District of Columbia operated as a unique entity in law enforcement. For the first ten years of its existence, a constable appointed by the Prince George’s Court served as the peace officer for the greater Washington area, while county constables appointed by Montgomery patrolled Georgetown and county constables appointed by the Circuit Court of Alexandria patrolled that section of the city. The constables operated under the laws of either Maryland or Virginia, depending upon where they were in the city.
On May 3, 1802, Congress passed the Acts of the Corporation of the City of Washington which provided a charter consisting of an elected twelve-member city council with two chambers and a mayor appointed by the President. Among the powers of the new city was the authority to establish night watches or patrols, the imposition of fines and penalties recoverable as debts.

On September 20, 1803, the position of “Superintendent (sic) of Police” was created and on Wednesday, September 28, 1803, Mayor Robert Brant [1802 – 1812], appointed John Willis as the Superintendent (sic) of Police with an annual salary of $200. Less than a year later, on Monday, July 9, 1804, John Willis resigned, and Robert Brant appointed Cornelius Coningham as the Superintendent (sic) of Police.
On October 13, 1804, the Council authorized the Mayor to appoint up to four constables whose duty it would be “to give information of any violation of the acts of the council” to the proper officer and enforce their provisions.

On May 2, 1805, the office of the Superintendent of Police was abolished and was replaced with “the high Constable of the city”. Additionally, the pay of the High Constable was dropped to $150 per year.

Richard Spalding was appointed the High Constable of the city and James B. Heard, Jacob Crawford, Clement Venable and Zephaniah Wade were appointed constables to the four wards of the city.

On May 30, 1807, the Council assigned the duties of the High Constable to four City Commissioners, one for each ward, who were charged with the execution of all laws and the supervision of the constables. The City Commissioner was also to determine the pay of the constable “over and above his legal fees and emoluments…for their vigilance and good conduct.” The extra compensation was not to be over $200.
[In an interesting side note, some histories list Cornelius Cunningham as the first Superintendent of Police. Former Major and Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police Department, Richard Sylvester, in his book, District of Columbia Police – A Retrospect of the Police Organizations of the Cities of Washington and Georgetown and the District of Columbia, with Biographical Sketches, Illustrations, and Historic Cases, Gibson Bros., Printers and Bookbinders. 1894, names Cornelius Conningham as having been appointed Superintendent after the creation of the position.

The National Intelligencer reported in their editions on the dates listed here of the appointment of John Willis and Cornelius Coningham.]
On December 6, 1808, the Council passed an act creating two “Officers of Police” as well as dividing the city into two Districts. The First District comprised “all parts of the city west of Fourth Street, West” and the Second District comprised “all parts of the city east of Fourth Street, West.” The act provided that each Officer of Police was to be paid $100 semi-annually.

On May 31, 1811, the Council disbanded the “Officers of Police” and placed their duties back onto the constables of the city.

On March 30, 1813, the Council authorized the building of watch-houses in each of the wards of the city.
The War of 1812 was devastating to Washington. The militia had denied the British access to the city by destroying the bridges over the Anacostia river. The British then marched around the city and entered from Bladensburg. The militia set up barricades, but the British advanced into the city on August 24, 1814, burning many of the buildings in the city and then left the next night.

During the burning of Washington, the Constables were not present, all having been called up for military duty. One of the concerns after the burning of Washington was whether the seat of the government would remain in Washington. In February 1815 Congress acted and authorized funds for the rebuilding of the federal buildings in Washington. The Constables returned to Washington and the city began to grow.
In June 1817, Mayor Benjamin G. Orr [1817 – 1819] went to the City Council and recommended doubling the number of Constables to eight, the Council responded by adding one additional Constable. The City Council tried a financial incentive system to reduce crime by increasing the fees associated with various crimes allowing the Constables to earn more money by taking individuals to workhouses.

The 16th Congress in 1820, authorized a new charter for the city of Washington which allowed for “night watches or patrols”. The City Council then divided the city into six wards and fired all five Constables replacing them with six City Commissioners.

It wasn’t long before the city leaders realized that the City Commissioner system of policing wasn’t working and in 1821, the system was changed again. The City Council authorized the Mayor to hire six Constables, one for each ward of the city, for $100 a year and the Constables were directly responsible to the Mayor.
One of the unique aspects of policing Washington, D.C., is the inauguration every four years. The 1824 elections were contentious. Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and William Crawford had all run for President but no one had garnered a plurality of the Electoral College votes [131] needed to be elected.

John C. Calhoun had been comfortably elected Vice President but with none of the Presidential candidates winning enough votes, under the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment, the election was moved to the U.S. House of Representatives.

During the election, Jackson and Adams had both run with Calhoun as their Vice-Presidential choice while Crawford ran with Nathaniel Macon as the Vice-Presidential candidate and Clay ran with Nathan Sanford as the Vice-Presidential candidate. Jackson carried 11 states, had the most electoral college votes and accumulated the most popular votes. Adams had carried 7 states [84 electoral college votes] while Crawford [41 electoral college votes] and Clay [37 electoral college votes] had each carried 3 states.
The Twelfth Amendment restricted the list of candidates to three which the House could consider so Henry Clay was eliminated. Each state delegation had a single vote. There were 24 states at the time, so 13 votes were required for victory.

Speaker of the House Clay, who detested Jackson, threw his support behind Adams and convinced not only the Kentucky delegation to ignore the advice of the state legislature but other states as well to vote for Adams.

Adams won on the first ballot.

During the 1825 Inauguration, the city Constables helped with crowds at the Capitol but since the Inauguration went off without problems, the assistance was a mere footnote to the event.
1825 also saw a fire break out in the Congressional Library one night which highlighted the need for not only nighttime patrols but a police force for the Capitol grounds as well. This led to the creation of the city’s first regular night police force, although the two-man force was limited to guarding the Capitol.

The 1828 election was a grudge match of Jackson versus Adams. In fact, the Tennessee legislature nominated Jackson in 1825, the earliest any candidate had ever been nominated. The campaign was bitterly personal, with Jackson’s wife, Rachel a frequent target of attacks.

Adams ran strong in the Northeast, but Jackson carried the rest of the country. Shortly after the election, Jackson’s wife Rachel died and he forever blamed Adams and his supporters for her death.
Adams ended up boycotting Jackson’s Inauguration, leaving town before the festivities began. Before Adams left town, he had one more slight for Jackson. He refused to let the military participate in Jackson’s parade. Jackson’s old veterans formed their own militia and escorted Jackson for his swearing in.

The 1829 Inauguration was unique in that it was the first time that the east portico was used. Jackson delivered a short crisp speech at the Capitol and was sworn in by the Chief Justice John Marshall. Jackson had intended to skip the evening’s inaugural balls and wanted to keep the other ceremonies to a minimum, but things began to get out of hand.

“Thousands and thousands of people, without distinction of rank, collected in an immense mass round the Capitol,” Margaret Bayard Smith, a Washington socialite, wrote to a friend. Many were determined to follow Jackson to the White House along then-unpaved Pennsylvania Avenue. Jobseekers wanted to button-hole him. Others wanted to join an open house that was to be held there.
“Country men, farmers, gentlemen, mounted and dismounted, boys, women and children, black and white, carriages, wagons all pursuing him to the President’s house,” Smith wrote.

It was what Representative James Hamilton Jr. called in a letter to Martin Van Buren a “Saturnalia.”

Members of Washington’s high society shuddered at what the Inauguration had descended into and many wondered why “no police officers had been placed on duty.” The fact was that plans had been made.

The United States Marshal for the District of Columbia had requested the tiny force to assist him at the Capitol however the size and enthusiasm of the crowd had quickly overwhelmed the small force. From that time forward, the police in the District of Columbia took greater emphasis in dealing with Inauguration crowds.

As the city of Washington grew, so did crime. In 1832, the City Council increased the size of the force from six men to ten but that still wasn’t enough to keep pace. In the twenty-five years prior to the start of the Civil War, Washington nearly tripled in size.
In May 1842, the House Committee for the District of Columbia issued a report favoring the establishment of a night guard and Congress debated the topic before passing an Act on August 24, 1842, creating an Auxiliary Guard.

The Guard would be supervised by a Captain, who was appointed by the Mayor of Washington and the Captain would appoint a force of 15 men. The Captain would be paid $1000 and five of the members of the Guard would earn $35 a month and the remaining ten members of the Guard would earn $30 a month.

John H. Goddard, a member of the Board of Alderman from the Third Ward was appointed Captain. He was armed with a revolver while the other 15 men of the Guard were armed with clubs. The uniform of the Guard was of gray with brass buttons as well as a gray cap. On the brass buttons were the letters A. G., and their gray caps also bore the same letters. Instead of a whistle, the members of the Guard used a rattle. The Guard began operations on September 5, 1842, with half of the Guard working 9:00 P.M. to midnight and the other half of the Guard working until 4:00 A.M.
A dual operating police system was normal before the Civil War. New York did not unify their night and day police forces until 1844 and Boston consolidated their forces in 1854.

The Guard, although a small force, initially proved to be very capable. Still as the city’s population increased so did the crime. The City Council reacted by authorizing the Mayor to appoint Special Policemen and to designate regular policemen to supplement the Auxiliary Guard.

The 1848 elections saw Mexican–American War, General Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party defeat Senator Lewis Cass of the Democratic Party in the Presidential elections. The contest was the first presidential election that took place on the same day in every state, and it was the first time that Election Day was statutorily a Tuesday.
For the 1849 Inauguration, pick pockets and other thieves began to flood Washington. The services of the Special Police were retained, and Captain Goddard took the unprecedented step of contacting the police from New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore to obtain descriptions of known pickpockets. Three detectives from New York traveled to Washington to assist Goddard.

In 1849, Mayor William Seaton requested the City Council to reform the pay of the police in the city, moving away from a fee system to a more standard pay. Many of the 14 police constables held other jobs and at least eight constables served as constables for Washington, County, a separate jurisdiction.
On March 11, 1851, the City Council approved a police re-organizational plan. Seven police districts were created which mirrored the seven wards of the city. The Mayor would appoint a “Chief of Police of the city of Washington” as well as with the advice and consent of the Board of Alderman, two police officers for each District with the exception of the Fourth District, where three officers would be appointed. Outside employment was banned and officers were required to be on duty until the Auxiliary Guard came on duty. The Mayor also had the authority to have the police officers act as a night watch.

Around the same time, Congress doubled the size of the Auxiliary Guard.

Mayor Walter Lennox named John Goddard as the Chief of Police while Goddard still also was Captain of the Auxiliary Guard.

By act of October 15, 1852, the appointment was authorized of an officer to do duty at the B. and O. depot, then the only railway station in the city, corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Second Street, NW.
The 1852 Presidential election was rather uneventful in that neither candidate, former General Winfield Scott of the Whig Party and Franklin Pierce a Democrat had no major policy differences. Scott carried 44% of the popular vote but only carried 4 states, allowing Pierce to carry the highest share of the Electoral College vote since James Monroe’s uncontested 1820 election.

For the 1853 Inauguration, the City Council authorized the Mayor to employ as many special officers as he might deem necessary at $1.50 per day. In April 1853, the Mayor was authorized by the City Council to employ two extra policemen in each ward for the suppression of fire.

For the first six months of 1857, Washington was relatively peaceful. The 1857 inauguration of James Buchanan had attracted the usual number of pickpockets and other criminals to the city, but the regular and special police hired for the inauguration kept the peace and there were relatively few complaints.
The situation had changed by the fall of 1857 as the City Councils authorized the Mayor to appoint twenty-five special police officers at $2.00 per night under the captain of the auxiliary guard. The city spent $2,872 on the special police officers.

The final months of 1857 were dangerous times as at least ten policemen were injured in the line of duty. Those injuries ranged from being shot in the left eye to an Auxiliary Guardsman who was injured from a blow across his face while quelling a riot.

On January 7, 1858, Mayor William Magruder approved an act to reorganize the police system in Washington. The city was divided into ten police districts. Four officers were authorized for the first, eighth, and tenth districts; two for each of the other districts, and one for the B. and O. depot, who were required to remain on duty until the commencement of the night-watch. The compensation of the officer at the depot was fixed at $390 per annum; that of the others at $630, and they were allowed to receive rewards publicly offered by corporations, States, or the United States. The same act prescribed a uniform for the force—blue frock coat and pants, white stripes on pants, and cloth cap with badge marked “City Police.” Police headquarters were at the office of the chief, in the City Hall.
In April 1858, Mayor Magruder was authorized to appoint a temporary police force of one hundred men, twenty-one of them to be mounted. A joint committee was also selected to report to Congress “the inability of the corporation to maintain permanently such a police force as is necessary for the preservation of order under existing circumstances,” and to urge the establishment of a permanent force and municipal court.

1860 wasn’t only a turning point in the country’s history, the city of Washington was coming closer to the creation of the Metropolitan Police Department.

The election of Abraham Lincoln led to the secession of seven states in the South before the inauguration and four more when the Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter. Washington was a border town, but it had strong sympathies for the South. Many of the city’s police force began slipping away to the south. Others were dismissed when it became obvious where their loyalties were. The City Council hoped that the government would assume responsibility for maintaining order in the Capitol and in May of 1861, a Provost Guard began patrolling Washington streets at night. Later when the city police force was further reduced, the Provost Guard began patrolling at night.
President Abraham Lincoln recognized that the District of Columbia was in desperate need of a regular police force. Upon his recommendation, Congress approved an act on August 6, 1861, merging Washington, the corporation of Georgetown and the County of Washington into the Metropolitan Police District of the District of Columbia. Even after Congress established the Metropolitan Police Department, Lincoln continued to stay involved.

On August 13, 1861, President Lincoln personally requested Zenas C. Robbins, Esq., a member of the newly created Board of Metropolitan Police Commissioners, to take the first railroad train to New York and, upon arrival, to thoroughly familiarize himself with the features of the New York Police System and the experiences of its leadership. The New York Police System had been modeled after the famous Metropolitan Police of London. This latter force was then recognized as the world’s most outstanding police organization. It was upon the results of Mr. Robbins’ study of the New York Police System that the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia was modeled.
In September 1861, William B. Webb was appointed the first superintendent of police of the District of Columbia. At that time, the authorized strength of this force consisted of a superintendent, 10 sergeants, and enough patrolmen as might be necessary, but not to exceed 150. Up to 10 precincts were authorized.

Upon assuming office, Webb began the task of investigating and qualifying applicants for the authorized positions. Although speed was essential, finding good men was equally important. This was not easy because as the Civil War was moving forward, the military was also looking to fill their ranks with able-bodied men.

In 1861, a police applicant had to meet several prerequisites. He had to be a U.S. citizen who was able to read and write the English language as well as having been a resident of the District of Columbia for 2 years, as well as having never been convicted of a crime. Each applicant also had to be at least 5 feet 6 inches tall and be between the ages of 25 and 45 years old. They were required to be in good health, of sound mind, and possessing good character and an upright reputation. Superintendent Webb made it his policy to interview each candidate personally, working an average of 20 hours a day to fill out the department. Local physicians volunteered to give the required physical examinations to applicants, although seem to have been rather perfunctory in nature.
The superintendent of police’s salary was $1,500 annually, with sergeants earning $600 and patrolmen $480 a year.

On September 11, 1861, the sergeants and most of the personnel for staffing two precincts had qualified for duty and on September 12, 1861, the bond for William B. Webb was approved and he was officially appointed by the Board of Police Commissioners to be the Metropolitan Police Department’s first “Major and Superintendent.” The swearing-in ceremony was performed in the Senate wing of the Capitol Building. The men immediately went to work–or at least half of them did, because the force was divided into two 12-hour tours of duty. These tours were from midnight to noon and noon to midnight. The men on the force worked 7 days a week with no days off and no provisions for any vacation. They were issued no equipment. Members were supposed to supply their own handguns and were prohibited from carrying shotguns and rifles. Additionally, they were not allowed to carry canes or umbrellas.
By the morning of September 11, 1861, the sergeants and most of the personnel for staffing two precincts had qualified for duty and were sworn in. The swearing-in ceremony was performed in the Senate wing of the Capitol Building. The men immediately went to work–or at least half of them did, because the force was divided into two 12-hour tours of duty. These tours were from midnight to noon and noon to midnight. The men on the force worked 7 days a week with no days off and no provisions for any vacation. They were issued no equipment. Badges were unobtainable and members were supposed to supply their own handguns. (When badges were later distributed, the U.S. Capitol was used as the shield’s background–a situation that still exists today.) Officers were prohibited from carrying shotguns and rifles and were not allowed to carry canes or umbrellas.

The newly formed police force not having any insignia to display for their authority, Webb’s first act was to procure temporary badges for the Metropolitan Police Department. In doing so, Major and Superintendent Webb was given a budget of twenty dollars to provide a badge for 9 Sergeants and 110 patrolmen and those numbers were climbing as more men were added to the rolls.

Henry Polkinhorn was given the contract to print the first badges for the Metropolitan Police Department at a cost of fifteen dollars.

The uniforms adopted in the early days were not as gorgeous as those that have since taken their place. The Superintendent wore a frock coat with police- buttons, the sergeants, double-breasted frock coats and blue pants, while the patrolmen were attired in navy-blue coats with rolling collars and nine buttons, two fastened at the hips and two on the skirt, blue waistcoats, and pants with white cords down the seams. The coats were to be always buttoned when officers were on duty, and hats were the official headgear for all members of the force.

On September 23, 1861, the Capitol building of the United States was selected as the emphasis for the patrolmen’s badge. The Superintendent’s badge was adorned with a shield of gilt or gold, surmounted with an eagle, while for the Sergeant’s badge was chosen to be a silver plate with an eagle and a number.

The badges were supplied by Lamb Seal & Stencil Co. and after 1895 by the Bastian Brothers Company of Rochester, New York.