night watch | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Policing

The night watch was a system of policing that emerged in medieval Europe and continued to be used in various forms in Europe and the United States until the 19th century.

The night watch was a community-based system of policing that relied on volunteers to patrol the streets and maintain order during the night hours.

The night watch was typically composed of able-bodied men who were appointed or volunteered to serve as watchmen. Watchmen were typically assigned to specific areas of the city or town and were responsible for ensuring that the peace was maintained during the night. Watchmen were usually unarmed and had limited powers of arrest. Their primary role was to deter criminal activity through their presence and to alert citizens in the event of a disturbance or emergency.

Over time, the night watch system evolved to include paid watchmen, who were typically appointed by local authorities and given more formal training and authority. In some cases, the night watch system was also supplemented by other forms of policing, such as constables or sheriffs, who were responsible for maintaining order during the day.

The night watch system was an important precursor to modern policing, and many of its features, such as community-based policing and citizen participation in law enforcement, continue to be important principles in contemporary policing. However, the night watch was also criticized for its lack of professionalization and its limited effectiveness in preventing and detecting crime.

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Last Modified: 03/10/2023


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