watch and ward | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Policing

The Watch and Ward was a policing system used in Medieval English towns where community members were appointed to serve as guards during the day (the ward) and at night (the watch).

The Watch and Ward system was an early form of policing used in Medieval England to maintain order and security in towns and cities. The system originated in the 13th century and was enforced by local communities that appointed their own members to serve as guards or watchmen. The Watch and Ward system was essential in ensuring public safety in towns and cities, which were often overcrowded and prone to criminal activities.

Under the system, each community was responsible for maintaining a watch and ward, which was a group of men appointed to patrol the streets and keep watch for any signs of criminal activity. The watch was responsible for patrolling the town during the night, while the ward was responsible for maintaining order during the day. The watch and ward were both under the authority of a constable, who was responsible for coordinating their activities and ensuring that the town was safe.

The watchmen and wardens were typically local citizens who were appointed by the community to serve in these roles. They were not paid and were expected to provide their own weapons and equipment. They were also required to serve in these roles for a certain period of time, usually a year, after which they would be replaced by new members.

The Watch and Ward system was effective in maintaining public safety in towns and cities, but it also had its limitations. One of the main drawbacks of the system was that it relied heavily on the cooperation and vigilance of the local community. If the community failed to provide enough men for the watch and ward, or if the watchmen and wardens were not vigilant enough, criminals could easily escape detection and commit crimes.

Over time, the system evolved into more centralized forms of policing, with the establishment of professional police forces in the 19th century. However, the principles of community policing that underpinned the Watch and Ward system have endured and continue to be an important part of modern policing.

Today, many police departments around the world practice community policing, which involves working closely with the community to identify and address crime and disorder. Community policing emphasizes problem-solving and proactive approaches to policing rather than simply responding to calls for service.

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Last Modified: 04/10/2023

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