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.

In Medieval Europe, a novel system of law enforcement was created – the night watch. It was a method of policing where men from the community took turns patrolling the streets during the night. After all, the job of these watchmen was to maintain order and protect townsfolk from potential crimes or dangers. Also, they warned townspeople about any impending threats like fire, riots, or enemy attacks.

Roles of Night Watchmen

The night watchmen didn’t just patrol the streets. Rather, they took up various responsibilities, becoming crucial pillars of safety within their communities. Both in preventing crime and responding to it, their role was indispensable. They were responsible for detaining suspicious characters until daylight when formal justice could be administered. Furthermore, they reported crimes they couldn’t handle alone to the local sheriff or constable. After that, it was the sheriff’s job to investigate and bring the wrongdoers to justice.

Evolution of the Night Watch System

Initially, the night watch was a communal responsibility, and adult males in the community took turns serving. However, over time, this changed, especially in larger cities. Above all, it became increasingly difficult for citizens to dedicate their time to this duty. As a result, paid watchmen took over, and this shift marked the beginning of professional policing.

The Night Watch in the United States

The night watch system crossed the Atlantic and found its way into the American colonies. In the US, it was an essential part of the early policing system, especially in larger cities like New York and Boston. Afterward, it experienced a similar evolution as in Europe, transitioning from a communal duty to a role performed by paid professionals.

The End of the Night Watch Era

By the 19th century, the night watch system started to face criticism. First, it was believed that the system was too informal and unorganized to handle the growing population and increasing crime rates. Second, the watchmen were often seen as ineffective, corrupt, or drunk while on duty. Thus, the system fell out of favor. Afterward, a more formalized and professional system of policing took its place, marking the end of the night watch era.


All in all, the night watch was an integral part of medieval law enforcement, serving as the precursor to modern-day policing. Despite its eventual shortcomings and dissolution, it served its communities for centuries. Therefore, it holds a significant place in the history of criminal justice. Its legacy has shaped the systems we see today, underscoring the importance of constant vigilance and community involvement in maintaining law and order.

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Last Modified: 06/30/2023


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