Policing | Section 1.2

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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Policing in Early America

Myths and errors in the history of policing in the United States abound.  For example, in the proclamation from President John F. Kennedy on the dedication of the week of May 15 as “National Police Week,” President Kennedy noted, “law-enforcement officers had been protecting Americans since the nation’s birth.”  In reality, formal police departments wouldn’t come around for nearly a century after the Nation’s birth. In this section, we will examine how laws were enforced during colonial times and get a glimpse of how modern policing really developed in the United States.

Colonial America

When the early colonists set up a system of laws and law enforcement in America, they brought the common law system of England with them.  In this early system, the county sheriff was the most important law enforcement official. The duties of the sheriff in those times were far more expansive than they are today.  Then the sheriff collected taxes, supervised elections, and so forth. As far as law enforcement goes, the role of the sheriff in colonial America was completely reactive. If a citizen complained, the sheriff would investigate the matter.  If evidence could be collected, an arrest would be made. There were no preventive efforts, and preventive patrol was not conducted.

The first night watch was instituted by the city of Boston in February of 1636, and was staffed by appointed citizens.  Soon after, night watches became common in American cities. The professionalization of policing in America began to take hold as early as 1749 when Philadelphia enacted a law that allowed the constable to hire as many guards as were needed.  A special tax was also enacted to pay these new officers. At this very early stage, salaries were very low, and graft and corruption were common.

Early efforts at policing in America let to problems similar to those in London.  The lack of formal social controls led to a host of problems. Incompetence and corruption were rampant.  It was against this backdrop that New York City instituted the first modern municipal police force in America.  Efforts at reform began in 1844 when the city was provided funds for both a day and night watch by the New York State Legislature.  A year later, these forces were consolidated. This was the first American agency that provided around the clock, centralized police services to its citizens.  For this reason, most policing scholars credit New York City as having the first modern police department. Most major American cities soon followed the examples of London and New York.

These early professional police forces faced many challenges and controversies.  There were debates over whether officers should wear uniforms, whether they should be armed, and what constituted the appropriate use of force.  During the 1840s, there was a dramatic rise in the number of officers shot in the line of duty. The following decade, many departments left it up to the individual officer to decide whether or not to carry a sidearm for self-defense.  Eventually, the carrying of firearms by police became mandatory in most jurisdictions within the United States.

Similar to England, Colonial America experienced an increase in population in major cities during the 1700s.   Some of these cities began to see an influx of immigrant groups moving in from various countries (including Germany, Ireland, Italy, and several Scandinavian countries), which directly contributed to the rapid increase in population. The growth in population also created an increase in social disorder and unrest. The sources of social tension varied across different regions of Colonial America; however, the introduction of new racial and ethnic groups was identified as a common source of discord.

Racial and ethnic conflict was a problem across Colonial America, including both the northern and southern regions of the country.28 Since the watch groups could no longer cope with this change in the social climate, more formalized means of policing began to take shape. Most of the historical literature describing the early development of policing in Colonial America focuses specifically on the northern regions of the country while neglecting events that took place in the southern region—specifically, the creation of slave patrols in the South.

Slave patrols first emerged in South Carolina in the early 1700s, but historical documents also identify the existence of slave patrols in most other parts of the southern region.  Samuel Walker identified slave patrols as the first publicly funded police agencies in the American South. Slave patrols were created to manage the race-based conflict occurring in the southern region of Colonial America; these patrols were created with the specific intent of maintaining control over slave populations. Interestingly, slave patrols would later extend their responsibilities to include control over White indentured servants. Salley Hadden identified three principal duties placed on slave patrols in the South during this time, including searches of slave lodges, keeping slaves off of roadways, and disassembling meetings organized by groups of slaves.

Slave patrols were known for their high level of brutality and ruthlessness as they maintained control over the slave population. The members of slave patrols were usually White males (occasionally a few women) from every echelon in the social strata, ranging from very poor individuals to plantation owners that wanted to ensure control over their slaves. Slave patrols remained in place during the Civil War and were not completely disbanded after slavery ended. During early Reconstruction, several groups merged with what was formerly known as slave patrols to maintain control over African American citizens. Groups such as the federal military, the state militia, and the Ku Klux Klan took over the responsibilities of earlier slave patrols and were known to be even more violent than their predecessors.

Over time, these groups began to resemble and operate similar to some of the newly established police departments in the United States. In fact, David Barlow and Melissa Barlow noted that

“by 1837, the Charleston Police Department had 100 officers and the primary function of this organization was slave patrol . . . these officers regulated the movements of slaves and free blacks, checking documents, enforcing slave codes, guarding against slave revolts and catching runaway slaves.”

Scholars and historians assert that the transition from slave patrols to publicly funded police agencies was seamless in the southern region of the United States.

While some regard slave patrol as the first formal attempt at policing in America, others identify the unification of police departments in several major cities in the early to mid-1800s as the beginning point in the development of modern policing in the United States. For example, the New York City Police Department was unified in 1845, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in 1846, the Chicago Police Department in 1854, and the Los Angeles Police Department in 1869.   

These newly created police agencies adopted three distinct characteristics from their English counterparts:

  • limited police authority—the powers of the police are defined by law;
  • local control—local governments bear the responsibility for providing police service; and
  • fragmented law enforcement authority—several agencies within a defined area share the responsibility for providing police services, which ultimately leads to problems with communication, cooperation, and control among these agencies.

It is important to note that these characteristics are still present in modern American police agencies.

Other issues that caused debate within the newly created American police departments at this time included whether police officers should be armed and wear uniforms and to what extent physical force should be used during interactions with citizens. Sir Robert Peel’s position on these matters was clear when he formed the London Metropolitan Police Department. He wanted his officers to wear distinguishable uniforms so that citizens could easily identify them. He did not want his officers armed, and he hired and trained his officers in a way that would allow them to use the appropriate type of response and force when interacting with citizens. 

American police officers felt that the uniforms would make them the target of mockery (resulting in less legitimacy with citizens) and that the level of violence occurring in the United States at that time warranted them carrying firearms and using force whenever necessary.  Despite their objections, police officers in cities were required to wear uniforms, and shortly after that, they were allowed to carry clubs and revolvers in the mid-1800s.  In contemporary American police agencies, the dispute concerning uniforms and firearms has long been resolved; however, the use of force by the police is still an issue that incites debate in police agencies today. 

Key Terms

References and Further Reading


Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  08/27/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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