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Colonial Period - Policing The Colonies

sheriff juries death citizens

In the seventeenth century there was no professional police force. Ordinary citizens generally volunteered to enforce orderly conduct. Some communities such as the Dutch settlements in New York and in Boston tried paying "watchmen" in the mid-1600s to look after the behavior of their citizens, but the programs were dropped due to expenses. Nightwatchmen patrolled the streets looking for fires and disturbances. Constables, on duty during the day, apprehended offenders and enforced local ordinances (laws). The early colonial policing system proved loose and unreliable.

As the colonies became more established and populated, the governor in each colony began appointing sheriffs to enforce laws. The sheriff, running the jails, selecting juries, and managing prisoners, served as the top government agent in the county. Usually the community helped the sheriff to capture suspects. Sometimes a posse, a group of people assembled by a sheriff or other county official to help maintain order, was organized. A coroner (a public official who determined the cause of death when someone died unnaturally) was also appointed to look into violent or unexplained deaths, and to organize special juries to rule on cause of death cases.

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