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Early Policing

Though societies have had codes of behavior for thousands of years since ancient Babylon and the later civilizations of Rome and Greece, the existence of professional police forces to enforce the codes has a much shorter history. The term "police" comes from a Greek word politeia meaning business concerning the order of the state.

France established police including constables and night watchmen over a thousand years ago but did not create a central police force until much later in the seventeenth century. Similarly, the English had created policing roles in the eleventh century. The constable position is considered the first formal type of police officer. Next came sheriffs, who policed county-like areas of England. By the early fourteenth century a justice of the peace position was established in England to serve judicial duties and support policing activities.

During the American colonial period prior to the American Revolution the first type of police in the colonies were county sheriffs. The sheriffs not only kept the peace and fought crime, but also performed various legal functions such as serving court papers, collecting taxes, maintaining jails, and supervising elections. To assist sheriffs were undersheriffs, jailers, county clerks, and deputy sheriffs. The towns, still small in size, had volunteer constables and night watchmen.

Night watchman in London, England, 1608. (The Granger Collection)

Colonial governors often appointed the sheriffs and constables. Boston was the first colonial settlement to use night watchmen beginning in the 1630s. Besides watching for crime and spotting fires, night watchmen would also announce the time and weather conditions. Constables delivered warrants, supervised the night watchmen, and carried out the routine local government functions of the community. Over time, cities added town marshals, city councils, and justices to backup the constables and watchmen.

The southern colonies, where slavery was a key part of the region's economy, created slave patrols by the 1740s to police the black slave populations. They protected white citizens from slaves, fought slave uprisings, and captured runaway slaves. All capable men between eighteen and fifty years of age were expected to serve for a certain time. Historians consider the slave patrols the first modern police force in the United States.

Few changes occurred in colonial policing until later in the eighteenth century. Following the French and Indian War (1756–63), in which the British defeated the French on the American frontier to seal their control of North America, an economic depression hit the colonies. A major rise in crime followed, primarily involving property and street crimes. Each colony and settlement responded individually to needs for improved policing with little or no coordination of efforts.

Even the new U.S. Constitution adopted in 1787 following victory over British forces did not specifically mention policing. The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution adopted in 1791, known as the Bill of Rights, did set important limitations on governmental police powers.

Founding Father and future U.S. president James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17) powerfully argued for the adoption of these criminal justice protections. For example, the Fourth Amendment guarded against unreasonable search and seizure. It required search and arrest warrants issued by a magistrate (judge) before police could conduct a search or make an arrest. The warrants had to be based on probable cause (sufficient evidence to support an arrest) identifying where the police could search and had to define what they were looking for.

The Fifth Amendment stated that an official could not force a person to be a witness against him or herself. This rule limited what police could do during an interrogation or questioning of a suspect. It also grants due process of law, meaning everyone must be treated fairly and their civil liberties respected regarding interrogations, undercover operations, and identification procedures that in modern days includes the use of fingerprinting, lineups, blood types, and DNA testing. Due process means the police cannot use torture, threats against family members, or deprive suspects of basic needs. The Sixth Amendment guaranteed a person the right to have an attorney present during any questioning and court proceedings.

Immediately following adoption of the new U.S. Constitution, the first U.S. Congress passed the first laws of the new nation. One act created federal marshals, the first federal police officers. The marshal was responsible for seeing that federal court orders were carried out and to enforce the first few criminal laws created in 1790. Communities still relied on volunteer constables and night watchmen.

On the western frontier, few federal or local police could be found. Order was maintained by groups of citizens, called vigilantes, beginning in the 1790s. As the frontier moved westward toward the Pacific Ocean over the next sixty years, vigilantism moved with it.

Policing developments that developed in Europe in the early 1800s eventually influenced America. Napoleon Bonaparte, leader of France from 1799 to 1815, expanded the duties of the French national police force to gather intelligence information. By the 1820s the growing industrialized city of London, England, was facing increased social and economic problems. With high unemployment, crime was on the rise. In 1829 under the direction of Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850), the city established its first professional police department, the Metropolitan Police Force of London, to keep order.

The London police, called "bobbies" after Robert Peel's first name (Bobby, short for Robert), wore uniforms and had military-like discipline. They considered themselves full-time civil servants. Their main responsibility was to conduct "preventive patrols" to discourage crime simply by their presence or being seen around their communities.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPolicing - Early Policing, Professional Policing, Private Police, Seeking Reform, National Crime Spree, Counterterrorism