Section 4.1: Early History of Policing

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The United States has a legal system based on England’s common law. This means that the laws and legal practices influenced the US legal system. These laws were enforced by a criminal justice system that evolved over a long period.

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In England, the Magna Carta was an important document that helped to establish protections against the abuse of police power. The Magna Carta is considered one of history’s most important legal documents. It established principles such as the rule of law, the right to a fair trial, and the right to be protected from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. These principles were later incorporated into the US Constitution and have become fundamental rights for Americans.

One of the essential features of modern American policing that can be traced back to its English colonial past is the concept of legally limited police authority. This means that the police in the US are limited in their powers and cannot act arbitrarily or without justification. The police must have a legal basis for their actions, such as probable cause, and must adhere to certain procedural safeguards, such as obtaining a warrant before conducting a search.

Another essential feature of American policing is that it is rooted in English colonial law.  This resulted in the decentralized organizational structure of law enforcement agencies. In the US, law enforcement is primarily a local responsibility, with each state, county, and city having its own police department or sheriff’s office. This decentralized structure helps to ensure that law enforcement is accountable to the local community and that the police can respond effectively to local concerns and needs.

Ancient Policing 

Historians and anthropologists have traced the origins of law enforcement to the concept of kin policing, practiced in primitive societies where members of a clan or tribe enforced the group’s rules on rogue members. The fundamental principle of this informal system was that an attack on one group member was an attack on the entire group, and behavioral expectations were derived from group norms and customs (Kelling, 1981).

As formal written laws emerged, the need for law enforcement arose concurrently. King Hammurabi of Babylon is credited with creating the first written criminal code in the tenth century B.C. His Code of Hammurabi was carved into large stones and detailed specific punishments for various crimes (Van De Mieroop, 2015). Ancient Greece and Rome also had codes of law that impacted Western law, as did the Mosaic Code of the Hebrew Bible.

One of the earliest Western systems of law and law enforcement was the mutual pledge system, which consisted of groups of ten families bound to uphold the law, bring violators to court, and keep the peace. These groups, known as tithings, were governed by a tithingman. All men over twelve were required to raise the hue and cry when a crime was detected and pursue the criminal with all the men of the tithing. 

A group of ten tithings was called the hundred, and the constable’s office developed out of this organizational unit. The Crown could fine the entire hundred if a criminal could not be produced in court. In other words, every man was responsible for the conduct of every other man (Fletcher, 1998).

Hundreds were combined into administrative units known as shires (or counties) under the jurisdiction of the shire-reeve, who was responsible for maintaining the King’s peace in the shire. The term “sheriff” derives from the shire-reeve, and the sheriff has the power to raise all able-bodied men in the county to pursue a criminal. This power was known by the Latin phrase posse comitatus (Johnson, 2018).

In 1066, the Normans invaded England and seized the throne. The Norman King, William the Conqueror, quickly modified the mutual pledge system to aid in consolidating his power. The modified system, known as the frankpledge system, was a tightening of the existing system. By the end of the thirteenth century, the constable system had evolved into the system of rural law enforcement common to all of England. The constable’s office was filled by yearly elections within each parish (a religious division similar to a county). The constable had the same responsibility as the tithingman, with the additional duties of being a royal officer. 

In urban areas, the watch and ward system developed along similar lines. Officers of the watch would guard the town gates at night, conduct patrols to prevent burglary, arrest strangers appearing at night, and put out fires. By 1361 A.D., the old system had given way to constables working under justices of the peace, and this system remained in place until the industrial revolution (Cox, 2009).

🔍 Reflect

How did early systems of policing, such as the mutual pledge and frankpledge systems, shape the development of modern law enforcement, and why is understanding these historical roots important for contemporary policing practices?

Policing Colonial America

When the early colonists established a system of laws and law enforcement in America, they brought with them the common law system of England. In this early system, the county sheriff was the most important law enforcement official (Bessler, 2017). The sheriff’s duties in colonial America were far more expansive than today. The sheriff collected taxes, supervised elections, and performed other duties besides law enforcement (Barlow & Barlow, 2002).

As far as law enforcement goes, the role of the sheriff in colonial America was completely reactive (Langbein, 1974). 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 idea of preventive patrol did not even exist in the colonial period (Wilson & Boland, 1978).

In the early colonial period, the responsibility for law enforcement was not centralized (Morn, 1986). Each colony had its own system, and the laws and enforcement methods varied considerably. For example, in Virginia, the governor had the power to appoint a sheriff for each county. In Massachusetts, the governor appointed a constable for each town. In New York, the sheriff was elected by the people of the county. Despite these variations, the sheriff’s office was the most important law enforcement office in each colony (Bessler, 2017).

The sheriff in colonial America was not a full-time law enforcement officer. Instead, the sheriff was a part-time official appointed or elected. The sheriff usually had another job and was paid only when he performed law enforcement duties. As a result, the sheriff’s time was divided between his law enforcement duties and his other job (Langbein, 1974).

In the colonial period, the sheriff had limited resources for law enforcement. There were no modern crime labs, forensic experts, or sophisticated methods of investigation. If a citizen reported a crime, the sheriff would investigate the matter and try to collect evidence. However, this was often difficult to do without modern investigative tools (Barlow & Barlow, 2002).

Furthermore, in the colonial period, law enforcement was often conducted brutally and arbitrarily (Wilson & Boland, 1978). Punishments for even minor offenses were severe, and there was little concern for the rights of accused individuals. For example, in Virginia, the punishment for stealing a hog (Morn, 1986).

Despite these limitations, law enforcement in colonial America was effective to some degree. The sheriff was a respected community member with the power to enforce the law (Bessler, 2017). Crime rates were relatively low, and the community was generally safe (Wilson & Boland, 1978).

🔍 Reflect

How did the role and structure of law enforcement in colonial America differ from modern policing, and why is it important to understand these historical differences in the context of contemporary law enforcement?

The Rise of Modern Policing

The United States has followed a different path than many other countries in terms of policing (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). Whereas many Western nations have national police forces, the United States is still very fragmented (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). Policing is done mostly locally (Skolnick & Bayley, 1988). One term for this decentralized system of policing is “local control” (Bayley & Mendelsohn, 1969). 

While there are some rather abstract political advantages to a decentralized system of law enforcement, it is not without cost (Bayley & Mendelsohn, 1969). Many critics call for the amalgamation and centralization of police forces, citing a wide variety of reasons, such as preventing wasted effort and wasted resources (Skolnick & Bayley, 1988). The decentralized nature of modern American policing stems from its roots in the English past.

In 1829, Home Secretary Robert Peel convinced the Parliament in England to pass the Metropolitan Police Act. The primary purpose of the Act was to do away with the ineffectual patchwork of policing measures then practiced in London and establish an around-the-clock, uniformed police force charged with preventing disorder and crime (Bayley & Mendelsohn, 1969). 

Peel is credited with many innovations that became standard police practice worldwide. A significant shift was an effort at crime prevention rather than “raising the hue and cry” after a crime was committed (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). In other words, the focus of policing efforts shifted from reactive to proactive. This shift meant that the new police force was tasked with preventing crime before it occurred rather than responding to it after the fact (Bayley & Mendelsohn, 1969). 

Police constables became known as “Bobbies” after Robert Peel. London was divided into beats, and the Bobbies were ordered to patrol their beats on foot. The idea was that these uniformed officers on the streets would deter crime (Bayley & Mendelsohn, 1969). Preventive patrol was a vital element of this proactive strategy (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).

The militaristic nature of most modern police forces was also one of Peel’s innovations. He used a military-style organizational structure with ranks like sergeant, lieutenant, and captain. While commonplace now, military-style uniforms were an innovation. Command and discipline were also conducted along military lines (Bayley & Mendelsohn, 1969).

It was only a short time before the value of such police forces was noted by America’s largest cities, and the idea was selectively imported (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). The main element of the British model that Americans rejected was the nationalization of police services (Bayley & Mendelsohn, 1969; Skolnick & Bayley, 1988). Americans at the time were still fearful of strong central authority and elected to establish police forces on a local level. 

While arguably more democratic, decentralized police forces organized locally were not nearly as well insulated from local politics as their British counterparts. Political leaders exerted much influence over police hiring, policymaking, and field practices (Bayley & Mendelsohn, 1969; Skolnick & Bayley, 1988).

There is some debate amongst the concerned departments as to whether Boston or New York City was the first modern police force in the United States. Boston’s day watch was established in 1838, and many credit this as the first modern police force. New York City formed its police force in 1844. Most other large cities soon followed suit, and full-time, salaried officers became the norm.

🔍 Reflect

How did the establishment of modern police forces, inspired by Sir Robert Peel’s innovations, transform policing practices in the United States, and what are the advantages and challenges of maintaining a decentralized system of law enforcement?

Early Problems with Police

The political era of policing in America, which lasted from 1840 to 1920, was characterized by widespread corruption and graft within police forces. During this period, politicians significantly influenced the selection, appointment, and promotion of police officers, creating a patronage system where officers were selected based on their loyalty to political parties rather than their qualifications (Maguire, 2003). This system led to recruiting officers from specific ethnic groups, who were expected to secure votes for particular politicians.

The corrupt system allowed criminals to pay off police officers to ignore their illegal activities. Police officers were also bribed to target political opponents of those in power, making policing a tool for political advantage rather than serving the needs of the public in many neighborhoods. The political influence on policing also created a culture of impunity among police officers, as they felt protected by the politicians who appointed them (Maguire, 2003).

Attempts to curb corruption during the political era of policing were often futile, as the very politicians who benefited from the system were also tasked with rooting out corruption. In many cases, politicians not only protected corrupt police officers but also used them to intimidate their political opponents. This collusion between politicians and police officers made it difficult to bring about meaningful change (Maguire, 2003).

The corrupt practices of the political era of policing profoundly impacted communities. The lack of police accountability and widespread corruption led to a breakdown of trust between police officers and the public. Many people in marginalized communities felt neglected and victimized by the police, as officers were often more focused on maintaining the status quo and serving the interests of politicians than protecting the public. This breakdown in trust between the police and the community is still felt today in many communities across America, where the effects of past corrupt practices are still being felt.

🔍 Reflect

How did the political era of policing, marked by widespread corruption and political influence, affect public trust in law enforcement, and why is it important to address these historical issues to build better community relations today?

The Reform Era

In the late 1800s, many people in the United States were unhappy with how things were. They believed that society needed to change to improve ordinary people’s lives. These people were called “progressive thinkers,” They worked to make positive changes in many areas of society, including politics, labor, education, and law enforcement (Parker & Khey, 2013). This period is known as the reform era

The police were a particular target of the progressives because they believed that the police were corrupt and too closely connected to local politicians. This meant that the police often did not do their job properly and sometimes even worked against the interests of ordinary people. For example, politicians might use the police to break up strikes or intimidate people protesting against them (Carter & Carter, 2010).

To try and fix this problem, the progressives introduced a new system called civil service.  The civil service was a way of selecting and promoting police officers based on their skills and performance rather than on political connections. This meant that people who were good at their jobs could advance in their careers, and the police force would be more professional and less corrupt (Baldwin, 2011).

Professionalizing policing meant creating police departments that were highly efficient and staffed by experts. This was important because it meant the police could do their job better and more effectively. For example, if the police had access to the latest technology and scientific methods, they could catch criminals more easily (McMahon & Hogan, 2019).

August Vollmer was one of the most important police reformers of this time. He believed that police professionalism was achieved through effective crime control, educated officers, and nonpolitical public service (Baldwin, 2011). Vollmer was a visionary who introduced many new ideas to policing, including academic degree programs in law enforcement, forensic science, and the use of automobiles (Maguire, 1997). Additionally, he established a code of ethics for police officers that prohibited them from accepting gifts and favors (Hess & Orthmann, 2019).

One of Vollmer’s students, O. W. Wilson, introduced scientific management principles into policing to increase efficiency. This meant that police officers were trained to work more systematically and organized way, making them more effective at their jobs. Wilson was also a strong advocate for single-officer patrols, meaning each officer was responsible for a specific city area. This made tracking crime and responding quickly to emergencies easier (Maguire, 1997).

🔍 Reflect

How did the reforms introduced during the Progressive Era, such as the civil service system and professionalization of the police, aim to address corruption and improve policing, and why are these reforms still relevant today?

Law Enforcement Jobs Outlook

In 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median income for police officers and detectives in the United States was $67,290 per year (or $32.34 per hour) (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022). As of 2021, there were approximately 840,000 such jobs in the country, and it is projected that the number of jobs will increase by around 5% from 2020 to 2030 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022).

However, the decision to hire new officers depends on various factors, including local political and economic conditions. In 2021, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the average starting salary for entry-level local police officers was $47,450 per year, with salaries ranging from $30,950 in the smallest jurisdictions to $67,170 in the largest (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2021).

It is expected that local police agencies will continue to do most of the new hiring, while federal jobs in law enforcement will remain highly competitive (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022). In 2016, over 90% of local police departments serving 25,000 or more residents were using in-field computers (Reaves, 2019). This suggests that having computer skills may be beneficial for those interested in a career in law enforcement.

🔍 Reflect

Why is it important for individuals considering a career in law enforcement to understand the job outlook and salary expectations, and how might technological skills, such as computer proficiency, impact their career prospects?

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Last Updated: 07/13/2024


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Cite This Page (APA)

McKee, A. J. (2024). Early history of policing. In Criminal justice: An overview of the system (Section 4.1). Retrieved July 18, 2024, from

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2 thoughts on “Section 4.1: Early History of Policing

  1. Professor McKee,

    In the paragraph on Early Problems With Police, I believe the year range should be “1840 to 1920.”

    Thank you for all of your good work on this textbook.

  2. This article had me visualize how law enforcement was different and how much it has changed until now. Law enforcement has been very useful throughout centuries. This helps us manage all criminal activities or almost every criminal act that comes to light. We still have a lot of things to work on ,but for the most part laws do help the country, counties ,and states be more safe than without any law.

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