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Police: History

Early Policing In Colonial America

The development of law enforcement in colonial America was similar to that of England during the same time period. Law enforcement in colonial America was considered a local responsibility. As in England, the colonies established a system of night watch to guard cities against fire, crime, and disorder. In addition to night watch systems, there were sheriffs appointed by the governor and constables elected by the people. These individuals were responsible for maintaining order and providing other services. Nalla and Newman have described the following as problems plaguing colonial cities that were considered the responsibility of police: controlling slaves and Indians; maintaining order; regulating specialized functions such as selling in the market and delivering goods; maintaining health and sanitation; managing pests and other animals; ensuring the orderly use of streets by vehicles; controlling liquor, gambling, vice, and weapons; and keeping watch for fires.

While night watch groups were established in the northern colonies, groups of white men organized into slave patrols in the southern colonies. These slave patrols were responsible for controlling, returning, and punishing runaway slaves. The slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order in the southern colonies. These slave patrols are generally considered to be the first "modern" police organizations in this country. In 1837, Charleston, South Carolina, had a slave patrol with over one hundred officers, which was far larger than any northern city police force at that time (Walker, 1999).

Policing on the western frontier varied widely. According to Langworthy and Travis, settlers originally from northern colonies created marshals and police forces similar to those in northern colonies, while settlers from southern colonies developed systems with sheriffs and posses. In many western settlements, however, there was no formal organized law enforcement. In these areas, groups of vigilantes were formed by volunteer citizens to combat any threat to the order of the settlements. These groups of self-appointed law enforcers had a significant influence on collective social norms, including the lack of respect for the law, which had been haphazardly enforced primarily through vigilante violence.

In the 1800s, changes in American society forced changes in law enforcement. Specifically, the processes of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration changed this country from a primarily homogenous, agrarian society to a heterogeneous, urban one. Citizens left rural areas and flocked to the cities in search of employment. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to reside in America. Unsanitary living conditions and poverty characterized American cities. The poor, predominantly immigrant urban areas were plagued with increases in crime and disorder. As a direct result, a series of riots occurred throughout the 1830s in numerous American cities. Many of these riots were the result of poor living conditions, poverty, and conflicts between ethnic groups. These riots directly illustrated the need for larger and better organized law enforcement. Both the watch systems in the north and the slave patrols in the south began to evolve into modern police organizations that were heavily influenced by modern departments developing in England during the same time (Walker, 1999).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPolice: History - Early Policing In England, The Beginning Of "modern" Policing In England, Early Policing In Colonial America