America’s History of Turning Kids into Snitches: New at Reason

In May's issue of Reason magazine, Joshua Reeves explores how police have historically attempted to turn children into their volunteer "peacekeepers" and even try to get them to report on their friends and family:

At the turn of the 20th century, "Boy Police" patrols sprouted throughout the United States. As crime rose in many of the nation's cities, burgeoning urban police departments calculated that by recruiting a large number of young boys, they could maximize their forces' presence while also enticing youth to choose the side of law and order.

Consider the Des Moines Boy Police, formed in 1909 when the state of Iowa passed laws against shooting fireworks at Fourth of July celebrations. Because the Des Moines police were unable to enforce this new law over the entire city, they formed a company of Boy Police. Emphasizing "the sacred necessity of keeping the laws of the State," the chief organizer told her new recruits that if they ensured the other kids would keep the peace—and if they agreed to avoid early partying and shooting fireworks—they would be appointed "special policemen." A supporter of the project claimed that this "idea of authority captivated the boys at once.…With acumen which would have put to shame many a regular detective these little fellows went to work to track down every specimen of explosive which was being secreted for the big celebration. They told all their young friends that they would be obliged to obey the law, or else be arrested."

The patrols were also encouraged to "track down" other youthful offenses, even ones as petty as swearing, "defacing" sidewalks with chalk, placing obstructions on fire-escapes, or mixing ash and garbage. By policing their peers' conduct, one observer declared, the Boy Police would force youth to "absorb the lessons of integrity, uprightness, and obedience" that policing teaches, thus "promoting those qualities of manliness, self-reliance, and order."

View this article.