History of American Policing Essay

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 problems plaguing colonial cities that were considered the responsibility of the 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 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 (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. Especially, the process 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 period (Walker, 1999).

The first modern police forces in America borrowed heavily from those established in England. In particular, American law enforcement agencies adopted the mission of crime prevention and control, the strategy of preventive patrol, and the quasi-military organizational design of the first modern police department established in London. In addition to these three elements, American policing borrowed other features from the British system, for example, the tradition that police have limitations on their authority (Walker, 1999). The protection of individual liberties was highly emphasized in both England and America, therefore limits were placed on governmental and police authority. This was not the case in other European countries, where, as Walker notes, police agencies were given broader powers and citizens had fewer individual liberties. Another feature borrowed from the English heritage is that of local control of police agencies. Although many other countries have one centralized, national law enforcement agency, the English and American systems do not. In the American system of law enforcement, police are controlled at the local, state, and federal level, although the majority of departments are local municipalities. A related defining feature of American policing adopted from English heritage is that of highly decentralized and fragmented system of law enforcement. According to 1993 figures, there are nearly twenty thousand different law enforcement agencies within the United States (Maguire et al.). Lack of coordination and cooperation among local law enforcement agencies is generally characteristic of the American system of law enforcement. These three elements (limited police power, lack of centralized control, and a decentralized and fragmented structure), combined with the quasi-military organizational structure of modern departments in England, describe the Anglo-Saxon model of policing.

There were differences, however, between the British and American systems of law enforcement. One of the most significant differences is the absence of strong political influences over police organizations in England, compared to the strong relationship between politics and policing that existed in American policing (Walker, 1999). While police administrators in England were protected from political influence, politics heavily influenced American police agencies. In fact, policing during the nineteenth century in America has been described as inefficient, ineffective, lacking professionalism, and highly corrupt (Walker, 1999).

Numerous scholars have described the evolution of policing in America. Although the historical facts are generally not disputed, the interpretation of these vents does raise some debate. Within this entry, the evolution of policing in America will be presented loosely following the framework devised by Kelling and Moore, which describes three distinct eras (political, reform, and community).

As previously noted, American policing in the late nineteenth century was plagued with political influence. Local politicians used positions on the police force to reward their supporters after an election. Therefore the ethnic and religious composition of police forces often reflected the groups who had local political influence. In addition, positions and promotions on local police forces could be bought. For example, Walker (1999) notes that in New York City, “a $300 payment to the Tammany Hall political machine was the only requirement for appointment to the force”. There was little or no training given to officers, no recruitment standards to speak of, and no job security because officers could be hired or fired at will. Corruption was a major characteristic of policing during this time period. Low-ranking officers, high-ranking police officials, and sometimes even entire departments were involved in corruption and misconduct. Patrol officers often accepted bribes to not enforce laws controlling moral crimes (e.g., drinking, gambling, and prostitution). This type of corruption was well known and pervasive.

Police work during this time period has been described as hopelessly inefficient due to officers’ reliance on foot patrol with no effective communication system and little direct supervision. Officers often evaded work due to the lack of official oversight and citizens had difficulty contacting the police because the officers could not be located on their beats. However, police did provide a variety of social services to citizens, including feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. For example, Whitehouse reports that the Boston Police Department during the 1800s was responsible for a variety of public services, which included lodging the homeless, removing dirt and garbage, and checking every household daily for cases of cholera. Other urban departments also routinely housed the homeless and looked after wayward youths.

Walker, however, cautions against the “myth that officers were friendly, knowledgeable about the neighborhood, and helpful” (1999). He suggests that due to the high turnover of police officers and residential mobility, officers were unlikely to have close relations with people in their neighborhood. Furthermore, he suggests that police frequently used physical force and enjoyed little citizen respect. During this time period, increases in citizen violence finally led to the adoption of weapons carried by police officers. The nostalgic interpretation of police as friendly neighborhood characters walking the beat has led some scholars to caution that the good old days were not that good (Walker,1984).

Surprisingly, the daily duties of patrol officers during this time did not differ significantly from activities performed by patrol officers today. The diary of a patrol officer from the Boston Police Department in 1895 describes most of his time spent responding to minor problems in the neighborhood and handling many problems informally (von Hoffman, 1992). It appears that officers during the political era spent little time handling major problems or serious incidents and rarely invoked the legal system. This is also true of patrol officers today.

Police in America changed dramatically during the twentieth century. According to Walker (1999), three principle forces were underlying this change: the police professionalism movement, modern technologies, and the civil rights movement. Other scholars suggest that police reform was the result of investigative commissions, reform initiated by police administrators, and political reform in general (Gaines et al).

In the early 1900s, a broad social and political movement in America, progressivism, was bringing attention demanding reform across a broad spectrum of social problems. Progressives believed it was the government’s responsibility to improve the living conditions of citizens. They called for the regulation of big business and corrupt local politics, changes in labor laws, and improvements across all social welfare services. Included in this larger reform effort was the professionalization of police forces. The professionalization movement sought to reform the inefficient and corrupt police agencies that had developed during the nineteenth century. During this reform era, there was a total restructuring of police departments and a redefinition of the police role due to the perceived failure of police to enforce the law (Walker, 1977). Reformers sought to eliminate political influences, hire qualified leaders, and raise personnel standards. In addition, the reform agenda called for a mission of nonpartisan public service and restructuring of police organizations through the use of the principles of scientific management and the development of specialized units (Walker, 1999).

Several prominent police reforms had a significant influence on policing during this time period. Richard Sylvester, superintendent of the Washington, D.C., Police Department from 1898 to 1915, became the national voice for police reform. He served as president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and had a significant impact on the acceptance of the reform agenda across numerous departments. Similarly, August Vollmer, police chief in Berkeley, California, from 1905 to 1932, advocated the hiring of college graduates and offered the first collegiate course in police science at the University of California. Vollmer is also famous for the development of the principles of modern police administration. Advocates of the concepts of administrative efficiency sought to “centralize the authority within the police departments” and to “rationalize the procedures of command control” (Walker, 1977).

The reform of police agencies during the first part of the twentieth century was very slow to develop, and in some cities the impact of early reform efforts was nonexistent. Although considerable gains were made in agencies of cities such as Cincinnati and Berkeley, reform efforts were largely ineffective in other agencies, such as those of Los Angeles and Chicago (Walker, 1977). Efforts to professionalize the police increased after the 1931 reports by the Wickersham Commission, which contained vivid descriptions of police misconduct and use of force. The Wickersham Commission Report was the first national study of the criminal justice system in America and had a significant impact on the revitalization of the reform movement.

Professionalization continued under the direction of O.W. Wilson, one of Vollmer’s protégés. Wilson was chief of police in Wichita, Kansas, from 1928 to 1935, a professor of criminology at the University of California, and chief of the Chicago Police Department in the 1960s. Wilson had a significant impact on organizational changes within police departments during this time, largely through his textbook Police Administration (1950). Utilizing scientific principles of management, Wilson emphasized workload distribution based on calls for service and efficient management of personnel through bureaucratic design. Wilson also encouraged departments to gauge their success through measurable outcomes (numbers of arrests, citations, etc.) and rapid response to calls for service.

Also influential during this time period was J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (F.B.I.). Hoover’s leadership of the F.B.I. had a direct influence on local agencies because of his portrayal of agents under his command as highly trained and educated, professional, and honest. In addition, he instituted the Bureau’s Top Ten Most Wanted List, controlled the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) system, and effectively communicated to citizens that his organization was involved in a “war on crime”. Most local departments wanted to emulate the professional F.B.I. agents and thus perpetuated the “crime fighter” image.

New technologies also had a significant influence on policing in the early to mid-twentieth century. Three technologies, in particular, have revolutionized policing: the two-way radio, the patrol car, and the telephone. As previously noted, policing in the nineteenth century was characterized as ineffective and inefficient, in part because officers could not be contacted on their beats. With the advent of the two-way radio, officers could be notified about calls for service and police supervisors could contact their officers directly. This change in technology had a significant impact on the provision of services to the public and the supervision of police personnel. Likewise, the use of patrol cars in the 1920s greatly enhanced the mobility of police officers and significantly reduced their response time to calls for service from citizens. Finally, the use of the telephone allowed citizens to have direct contact with the police department. Citizens were encouraged to call the police for any type of situation and the police promised a rapid response.

These new technologies also had unintended consequences on policing, the effect of which was not fully understood until much later. For example, the patrol car served to isolate patrol officers from the community. Previously, when officers patrolled on foot, they had an opportunity to engage citizens in conversations and had a familiarity with the neighborhood that was lost once officers patrolled in cars. When officers drove through neighborhoods with their windows rolled up, citizens perceived officers as outsiders in their communities. Encouraging citizens to call the police for service and promising a rapid response dramatically increased the workload of officers. Citizens began to call the police for minor problems and the police continued to respond. In addition, police were called to handle private matters that they had not been responsible for in the past. The interactions between citizens and police took on a more personal nature as police responded to citizens’ homes rather than simply patrolling and engaging citizens on the street. As described by Walker, the result of these new technologies “was a complex and contradictory change in police-citizen contacts. Whereas the patrol car isolated the police from the people on the streets, the telephone brought police officers into peoples’ living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. There, officers became involved in the most intimate domestic problems” (1999).

The 1960s were a period characterized by much civil unrest. Citizens were dissatisfied with the social and political conditions, and particularly with the treatment of minorities. During this time, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a series of landmark cases that limited the investigative techniques used by the police officers. For example, the court decided in Mapp v. Ohio (367 U.S. 643 (1961), that evidence obtained during a search and seizure that violated citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights could not be used against them in a court of law. Dubbed the exclusionary rule, Mapp guaranteed that the fruits of an unconstitutional search could not be used during prosecution. In 1966, the court ruled in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, that a suspect must be advised of his or her right against self-incrimination (protected by the Fifth Amendment) and the right to council (protected by the Sixth Amendment) before police can interrogate that suspect. Any admission of guilt obtained prior to giving the Miranda warnings cannot be used against the suspect during prosecution. Critics of these and other decisions claimed that the Supreme Court was “handcuffing” police. Most studies have shown, however, that these rulings did not have the substantial influence that either side believed would result (Leo).

During this time, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum and becoming more militant. Protestors gathered to demonstrate against race discrimination and injustice within the criminal justice system. White male police officers became the symbol of all the political and social ills of American society. Police officers across the country responded to protestors with physical brutality, which served to increase the tension between minority groups and the police. This tension exploded in the form of riots and civil disobedience, often sparked by incidents involving the police (Walker, 1999).

In response, a series of presidential commissions were ordered to investigate these issues. The most famous, the Kerner Commission investigated the causes of the nearly two hundred disorders that had taken place in 1967. The Kerner Commission reported that there was deep hostility and distrust between minorities and the police. The report recommended the hiring of more minority officers and that police practices be changed significantly. Interestingly, the commission reported that those departments that were believed to be the most “professional” were, in fact, those that had the most serious disturbances and civil unrest. This challenged many of the assumptions of the professionalism movement (National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders).

Findings from social-scientific research further raised concern about the effectiveness of “professional” police departments. The American Bar Foundation’s (AFB) field observation of police in 1956-1957 reported that officers exercised large amounts of discretion during encounters with citizens. Contrary to the popular conception of police officers as “crime fighters’, studies found that officers spent most of the time maintaining order, providing services, and performing administrative tasks (Wilson; Bittner). The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment found that increasing the level of preventive patrol within an area did not have a significant influence on the level of crime or reduce citizens’ fear of crime ( Kellin et al). A study examining the effectiveness of criminal investigations reported that the percentage of crimes cleared by arrest is relatively low, that follow-up work is often unproductive, and that most detective work involves mundane tasks and paperwork (Greenwood and Petersilia). Another study showed that increases in the response time of officers did not increase the likelihood of obtaining an arrest (Pate et al.). Evaluations of the effects of team policing ( a police tactic that involves the creation of specialized teams responsible for policing particular geographic areas) showed no influence on the level of crime (Sherman, Milton, and Kelly). Collectively, these studies suggested that current police practices were not effective in preventing crime or satisfying citizens.

The 1960s police-citizen crisis, coupled with research findings from the 1970s, questioned the core philosophies underlying policing in America. In a seminal article on policing, Wilson and Kelling proposed the broken windows thesis. They argued that a broken window in an abandoned building or car is a symbol that no one cares about the property, making it ripe for criminal activity. Wilson and Kelling stressed the importance of controlling minor crimes and disorders in an effort to curb more serious crime. Making citizens feel safer and improving their quality of life should be the goal of the police. This idea sparked the development of a number of different police strategies and tactics designed to improve police-community relations. The philosophy of community policing is built upon the premise that reducing citizens’ fear of crime while forming a partnership between the police and the community is a worthwhile goal of police organizations. Particular tactics utilized in this philosophy include foot patrol, problem-solving, police substations, and community groups, among others. These tactics stress citizen satisfaction and improvements in citizens’ quality of life. In addition to changes in tactics, changes in organizational design must also accompany community policing. Police organizations are to become decentralized, flatter hierarchies with less bureaucratic control. Patrol officers at the lowest level are encouraged to be creative in their responses to problems and are given more discretion to advance their problem-solving efforts.

Kelling and Moore have described the 1970s and 1980s as an era in which a shift toward community policing occurred. They suggest that community policing is a strategic change complete with changes in organizational structures, tactics, and outcomes. However, changes in organizational design appear to be more theoretical than practical. Maguire’s examination of organizational change in a sample of large departments shows that there were no significant changes in the bureaucratic structures of police agencies practicing community policing in the 1990s compared to those who were not.

Although community policing and problem-solving have been popular policing strategies, some departments are utilizing zero-tolerance policies. Zero-tolerance policies encourage the use of aggressive police tactics and full enforcement of minor offenses. For example, the New York Police Department instituted zero-tolerance policies in the mid-1990s in an effort to reduce minor disorders and control crime. Based on the “broken windows” hypothesis, aggressive enforcement of minor crimes is predicted to produce the same outcomes of increasing citizen satisfaction and improving quality of life that are sought under the models of community policing. However, the tactics are very different. Community policing encourages partnership development, less frequent use of arrest, and more creative responses to particular problems. Zero-tolerance policies encourage the use of arrest and other get-tough policies. Furthermore, trends in the militarization of police have been well documented. The number of police agencies that use police paramilitary units and special weapons and tactics teams (SWAT) has increased by over 80 percent since 1970 (Kraska and Kappeler).

It is clear that the idea of the existence of a “community era” in policing is not without critics. Walker (1984) claims that scholars have misinterpreted and misused history in their descriptions of the “community era”. Williams and Murphy suggest that scholars have not attended to the obvious influences of slavery, segregation, and discrimination on policing throughout history. Somewhat surprisingly, the description and interpretation of the history of police continues to be a matter of great debate. Perhaps this is due to our need to fully understand the events of the past to effectively guide the events of the future.


BITTNER, EGON. The Functions of the Police in Modern Society. Rockville, Md,: New York: Bobbs-Merill, 1963.

GAINES, LARRY K.; KAPPELER, VICTOR E,; and VAUGHN, JOSEPH B. Policing in America. Cincinnatti, Ohio: Anderson Publishing, 1999.

GREENWOOD, PETER W., and PETERSILIA, JOAN. The Criminal Investigation Process, Vol. 1, Summary and Policy Implications. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1975.

KELLING, GEORGE L., et al. Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment: A Summary Report. Washington, D.C.: The Police Foundation, 1974.

KRASHA, PETER B., and KAPPELER, VICTOR E. “Militarizing American Police: The Rise and Normalization of Paramilitary Units,” Social Problems 44, no.1 (1997):1-18.

LANGWHORTHY, ROBERT H., and TRAVIS, LAWRENCE P., III. Policing in America: A Balance of Forces. 2d ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1999.