When the Dutch settled in what was then called “New Amsterdam,” a man named Johann Lampo patrolled the trails and paths of the area, keeping the peace and watching for fires. Little did Lampo know that he was the first in a long, honored line of law enforcement officers of New York City.
The NYPD currently has 36,400 male and female officers on the force, according to Walter Burnes, an NYPD detective who works in the offices of Paul J. Browne, the deputy commissioner of public information for the NYPD. “In addition, there are approximately 1,100-2,500 trainees, depending on the needs of the police department at any given time,” says Burnes. Those numbers are significant, considering that Johann Lampo was able to police the entire colony himself over four hundred years ago. Technological advances, population booms and the nature of crime have all changed the face of the NYPD over the years, but the goals of the organization have remained consistent.
Rattle Watches and Leatherheads
Even though Lampo was recognized as a patrolman, New York wouldn’t have an official police department until 1845. Between Lampo and the start of the NYPD we recognize today, a corps of men called the “Rattle Watch” was in charge of keeping the peace. From 1609 to 1664, eight Dutch colonists carried lanterns and wooden rattles as they watched over the streets of their colony. The rattles were pre-whistle noisemakers that would alert members of the community to crime, fires or other threatening situations. The lanterns the men carried were made of green glass—this helped identify them to citizens. The green light became synonymous with aide and assistance and to this day, green lights are lit outside the entrances to Police Precincts in homage to the men of the Rattle Watch and to reassure citizens that the police are on duty. It would be over 150 years before the NYPD was officially created, but many of the traditions started by the Rattle Watch remain today.
After the English wrested control of New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York, law enforcement was still carried out in much the same way as it was done under the Rattle Watch. As the population of the city exploded, however, it became clear that the homespun model of law enforcement practiced in the early colonial days wasn’t going to cut it. The combination of crushing poverty, massive immigration, and desperate crowding made Manhattan a hotbed of crime and vice. It was said that in the notorious Five Points neighborhood in what is now Manhattan’s Lower East Side, there was a murder a night—along with a symphony of prostitution, drunkenness, pick-pocketing, and riots.