A Brief History of Police

A Brief History of Police

American Policing Discussion

The American police systems are largely founded in the English system of policing. Although policing seems ubiquitous today, formal public police services did not appear in the US until the late 1700s and 1800s. Prior to this period, policing efforts consisted of volunteer groups that were charged with a variety of responsibilities including: “social services, including lighting street lamps, running soup kitchens, recovering lost children, capturing runaway animals, and a variety of other services…” (Sagepub, 2014) As the country began to grow and populations increased during the 1700s, these watch groups were expanded to have daytime and nighttime groups. But as the country grew, problems such as riots and social unrest proved to be too much for these groups to handle. Watch groups were also highly ineffective at crime fighting and because they were comprised of volunteers, these groups were often irresponsible and remiss in their duties (Sagepub, 2014).

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, formal police departments were beginning to form (Sagepub, 2014). These were the first organized publically funded efforts to control crime. In 1829, Sir Robert Peel (Home Secretary of England) would introduce the Bill for Improving the Police in and Near the Metropolis (Metropolitan Police Act) to Parliament (Sagepub, 2014). This bill would become law and would establish the London Metropolitan Police. The London Metropolitan Police force is considered the first modern police department. Peel believed that the function of the police was to prevent crime rather than reacting to it. Peel would infuse this belief into the Metropolitan Police by designing the police force to work in an organized, coordinated, and centralized manner. This modern police force was characterized by several ideas including covering designated areas (beats), twenty-four-hour availability, practicing crime deterrence, holding legitimate authority, and providing protection (Sagepub, 2014).

By the mid-eighteen hundreds, formal police departments would begin emerging in the US. These police agencies would be splintered as a result of slavery. As a result of slavery, many police efforts developed primarily in the south known as Slave Patrols. These groups were responsible for tracking down runaway slaves and stopping congregations of slaves (Sagepub, 2014) Slave patrols were known for their brutality and cruelty. These groups would operate inside of formal police departments in the South. As a result of the formation of these groups alongside the formation of formal police agencies, at the end of the Civil War, the slave patrols would merge into other groups that would exert control over African Americans. These groups included federal militias, state militias, the Ku Klux Klan, as well as formal police agencies.

After the merging of police and slave patrols, it becomes apparent the policing in the US was still largely ineffective. By the mid-1800s, police departments would begin adopting some of the characteristics of the London Metropolitan Police as designated by Sir Robert Peel. These newly created police agencies adopted three distinct characteristics from their English counterparts: limited power prescribed by law, local government control, authority divided between police agencies (Sagepub, 2014).

These characteristics are still present in today’s police agencies. US police agencies would diverge somewhat from their London counterpart. As the US police agencies would grow, police would adopt uniforms but this happened after a large amount of controversy. As well, US police would also need to carry firearms, unlike the London Police.

Unique to American policing was the problem of corruption and political control. From the 1900s to the 1970s the police in America would experience several stages of reform. One of the major problems with policing in the US is that the government was too influential in police practices. This occurred as a result of politicians being in charge of who received police jobs. August Vollmer described this problem describing how police officials were appointed by politicians and lacked training and skill (Sagepub, 2014)

To bring this corruption under control would take decades and many of these reforms would not take hold until the 1970s and 80s. By the end of the 70’s and beginning of the 1980s police would emerge as a more professional institution. Despite there still being problems with corruption and politics with police, there is far more oversight today than there was in the past.


Sagepub. (2014). The History of Police. Retrieved from Sagepub:


Triola Vincent. Wed, Jan 06, 2021. A Brief History of Police Retrieved from

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