A History of Police in America

Before what we know now as the modern police, ancient policing differs between different civilizations. The ancient Chinese have “prefects” who did the policing for thousands of years. Under each prefect were subprefects who will be responsible for law enforcement in their area. The ancient Greeks used slaves to guard public meetings and do crowd control. During Roman times, it was the army, not the police, that provided the security.

The early modern policing was created in Paris, the largest city in Europe during that time. King Louis XIV created the office of ” lieutenant-general of police” who was the head of the new Paris police force. After the French revolution, in 1829, the first uniformed police in France was established known as city sergeants. The term “police” was originally a French word and was borrowed into the English language.

One might think that the United States police existed since the beginning of the nation’s civilization. However, it’s far from the case. In the United States, policing was earlier conducted by “watchers”. These are community volunteers whose primary duty was to warn others of impending dangers. The first known watch system was established in Boston in 1636, followed by New York in 1658, and Philadelphia in 1700. The biggest disadvantage of the watch system was its unsuccessful attempt to control the crime. Many of the watchers were not enthusiastic about being one. Some only signed up to evade military service, others are forced into service, or just performing the watch duties as a community punishment. Many of these watchers spent their time sleeping or drank on duty.

In the Southern states, the policing was done not to avoid crimes and maintain peace but rather to ensure that runaway Black slaves were chased, apprehended, and returned to their owners. The vigilante-style organization was called “slave patrol”. The use of slave patrol came to its end when the Civil War ended.

With urbanization happening quickly, was the modern organized police force established due to increased crimes, or was there another reason? The United States was not anymore a collection of small cities and rural towns. The population was growing and anecdotal reports suggest that urbanized cities experience more mob violence, prostitution, and violence against African Americans by white youths. Public disorder was more evident in urban centers rather than in rural towns. It emerged then that the main task of the police force during that time was not to combat crimes but instill public order.

In 1838, the first established American police force was created in Boston. Soon after, cities like New York, Chicago, Albany, New Orleans, and Philadelphia followed suit. In the 1880s, all major U.S. cities had set up their own municipal police force.

The modern police across these cities shared similar characteristics:

1. The police are not any more volunteers and are full-time employees
2. They are bureaucratic and publicly supported
3. Police follow rules and procedures
4. They are accountable to a central government authority

The main purpose of the police force during this time was not really to avoid or solve crimes. In the post-Civil War era, police tasks were more to break the strikes organized by labor unions. These strikes were considered as “riots” hence police intervention was requested by local economic elites. The use of the police force to break these strikes was considered cost-effective and politically useful. Today, this kind of police intervention will be considered anti-labor and won’t be tolerated but during those times, policing was pushed by local merchants and businesses to forcibly disperse demonstrating workers. Many businessmen were given keys to alarm boxes so they could call out police force at a moment’s notice.

By the end of the 19th century, the police department was highly connected to politicians and businesses, and police officers were regarded as corrupt and known to use brute force. The communities had a total distrust of the police department and they can’t be faulted because it was true. Merchants were known to support the development of bureaucratic policing institutions by ‘hiring’ the police force rather than someone from a private sector to protect their enterprises.

Police were also known to target “dangerous classes”. This underclass was easily identifiable because they were mostly poor, foreign immigrants, and Black people. Depending on what the “elite” required, the police will be there to do the tasks. For example, police might be called in to disperse labor-union protests or harass opponents of particular political parties. They can be paid to turn a blind eye to allow drinking, prostitution, and gambling.

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