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The Early Years of American Law

Professional Policing

Another major development in the criminal justice system in the early nineteenth century was the growth of professional police departments. Following the Revolutionary War many communities began electing constables and sheriffs. For several decades, however, many towns still relied on volunteer watchmen to patrol the streets. On the western frontier, policing was performed by the U.S. Army or federal marshals. Because of the still largely rural character of the nation immediately following the war, property and personal crime rates were low. Volunteer watchmen could serve the community needs. As the national economy changed and towns grew in the early nineteenth century, the public grew increasingly concerned over rising crime rates such as theft.

Despite the growth of state prison systems through the 1830s, crime rates continued to increase. Unruly or wild behavior increased and riots broke out in the 1830s and 1840s. Often violence was targeted at special social groups such as blacks and Catholics.

In 1829 Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850) created a London police force to address rising crime rates in England related to the growth of urban industrial or manufacturing areas. The force consisted of paid, full-time police complete with uniforms and strict discipline. This force, known as "bobbies" (derived from Peel's first name), became a model for policing in the United States.

The first U.S. city to establish a police force was naturally the most heavily populated: New York. The city faced growing slums, fighting over ethnic differences, and rising crime. The city replaced the mostly volunteer watchmen with a paid police force in 1844. Refusing to adopt uniforms for fear of a citizen backlash or negative reaction, the police wore copper badges on their chests. The badges led to the slang term "coppers," and the shorter "cops."

Other cities were feeling similar pressures. Fourteen people were killed in one anti-Catholic riot in Philadelphia in 1844. Philadelphia created a professional police force the following year. Other city police forces followed: New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1852; Boston in 1854; Chicago in 1855; and Baltimore in 1857. Like the London bobbies, the American departments adopted uniforms by the mid-nineteenth century and rules to enforce increased discipline. American police discipline still did not approach the level of the London police. The more rural areas of the young country continued to rely on volunteers. Groups organized to fight crime without the approval of the sheriff or county lawmen, known as vigilantes, were active in controlling crime in some areas One of the most famous U.S. marshals was Wyatt Earp, second from left in the bottom row. (AP/Wide World Photos)

like San Francisco, before it formed a city police force in the 1850s.

Federal policing through the first half of the nineteenth century was conducted by U.S. marshals, whose primary concern was counterfeiting. It was estimated that one-third of the new U.S. currency between 1815 and 1860 was counterfeit or fake. Congress finally created the Secret Service agency under the secretary of treasury in 1865 to target counterfeiting and free the marshals to tackle other crimes.

Women and minorities were limited to a small role in the growth of professional policing. The first full-time paid policewoman was Alice Stebbins Wells in 1910 for the Los Angeles Police Department. Until then women were only allowed to work in jails, normally tending to female inmates, but also doing chores such as cooking. In addition, black Americans made up less than 3 percent of the urban police forces in 1900. They were usually assigned to patrol black communities.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawThe Early Years of American Law - Colonial Freedom, Britain's Push For Greater Control, A New Start, A New Criminal Court System