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Early Policing, Professional Policing, Private Police, Seeking Reform, National Crime Spree, Counterterrorism

Policing in the United States is highly decentralized, meaning the legal authority to police is split among federal, state, and local forces. Most police forces largely operate independently, unlike policing in other countries. Many nations including European countries have strong national police forces. In the United States, a number of federal agencies have their own police powers. At the beginning of the twenty-first century some seventeen thousand police organizations existed in the United States, all operating with some degree of independence.

The U.S. policing system is highly decentralized, meaning its forces are widely spread throughout the states and each with varying amounts of power and independence. This kind of policing system was created by early American colonists who opposed having an authoritarian (highly centralized government power) police force, the kind they had while under British rule. The decentralized structure of the U.S. system, however, meant it evolved very slowly for the next century and beyond.

For much of U.S. history, few rules existed to guide policing. Not until the early twentieth century did police reformers A fingerprint seen on a wireless device that can send the print via a wireless connection to be immediately checked against a database. (AP/Wide World Photos) and the courts begin setting strict rules about police procedures. In the 1960s, the most active period during which courts established guidelines, new rules guided key police activities such as identifying suspects, arrest procedures, searching for evidence, and interrogation. Much of this court activity resulted from minorities seeking protection from police abuse.

Police in modern society look after the health, safety, welfare, and general morals of society. They maintain social order in communities and protect people's civil liberties (protections from unreasonable government actions). Police are responsible for solving crimes; enforcing traffic, drug, and firearms laws; carrying out routine patrols; and working with communities to prevent crime of all kinds.

For More Information


Conser, James A., and Gregory D. Russell. Law Enforcement in the United States. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen, 2000.

Gaines, Larry K., Victor E. Kappeler, and J. B. Vaughn. Policing in America. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson, 1994.

Miller, Wilbur R. Cops and Bobbies: Police Authority in New York and London, 1830–1870. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Morn, Frank. "The Eye That Never Sleeps": A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Oliver, Willard M. Community-Oriented Policing: A Systematic Approach to Policing. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Walker, Samuel. The Police in America: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.

Web Sites

Court TV's Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods. http://www.crimelibrary.com (accessed on August 19, 2004).

"LAPD Had the Nation's First Police Woman." Los Angeles Almanac. http://www.losangelesalmanac.com/topics/Crime/cr73b.htm (accessed on August 19, 2004)

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law