The History of Modern Policing

NYPD Cadets Attend Their Graduation

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Before the Industrial Revolution, policing in America and England was typically carried out voluntarily by individual citizens concerned with maintaining law and order in their communities. This part-time citizen volunteer model of policing worked well until the late 1700s and early 1800s, when exploding population growth resulted in more frequent incidents of crime and violent civil unrest in cities throughout England and the United States. It soon became clear that full-time, professional policing—sanctioned and endorsed by the government—had become a necessity.

Key Takeaways: History of Modern Policing

  • The era of modern policing began during the late 1700s and early 1800s, when the explosive population driven by the Industrial Revolution led to an equally explosive growth in crime and civil unrest.
  • Policing in colonial America was carried out by a combination of citizen volunteers along with elected sheriffs and local militias.
  • The first full-time, dedicated city police department in the United States was established in Boston in 1838.
  • Today, more than 420,000 officers in more than 18,000 U.S. police departments deal with about 8.25 million crimes and make over 10 million arrests a year.
  • Since the early 2000s, U.S. police departments have increasingly been criticized of unequal enforcement, racial profiling, militarization, and excessive use of force, especially against people of color.
  • Police have responded to this criticism by employing “community policing” reforms intended to gain the trust of the people they serve.

The Beginning of Modern Policing

Along with social scientists, experts in the newly evolving field of criminology began to advocate for centralized, professional, and well-trained police forces. Foremost among these advocates was Sir Robert Peel, former Prime Minister and Home Secretary of the United Kingdom from 1822 to 1846. 

Known as the "father of modern policing," Peel established the Metropolitan Police Services in London in 1829. Then as now, British police officers were called “Bobbies” in honor of his first name.

Sir Peel is credited with establishing the three core principles of policing, which remain as essential today as they were two centuries ago:

  • The goal of policing is preventing crime, not catching criminals. Effective police departments have low arrest rates because their communities have low crime rates.
  • To prevent crime, police must earn public support. If the community trusts and supports the police, all citizens will share the responsibility of preventing crime as if they were a volunteer police force.
  • To earn public support, the police must respect community principles. Police earn a good reputation by enforcing the laws impartially, hiring officers who reflect and represent the community, and using force only as a last resort.

History of Police in America

One of New York's then 105 policewomen stands with her gun and her target at the police firing range, New York, December 12, 1934.
One of New York's then 105 policewomen stands with her gun and her target at the police firing range, New York, December 12, 1934. FPG / Getty Images

During America’s colonial period, policing was most often provided by a combination of untrained part-time volunteers and elected sheriffs and local militias. The first sheriff's offices were created in Albany County and New York City in the early 1600s.

During the early 1700s, the Carolina Colony established “Night Watch” patrols dedicated to preventing enslaved persons from rebelling and escaping. Noted for maintaining social and economic order by helping plantation owners recover their freedom-seeking “human property,” some of the Night Watches evolved into regular town police forces.

After winning its independence from England in 1783, America’s need for professional policing grew rapidly. The first federal law enforcement agency, the United States Marshals Service, was established in 1789, followed shortly by the U.S. Parks Police in 1791 and the U.S. Mint Police in 1792.

Policing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

During the era of westward expansion, law enforcement in America’s “Wild West” was conducted by locally appointed sheriffs, deputies, militias, and constables, many of whom, like the former gunfighters and gamblers Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, had lived on both sides of the law.

The role and expectation of the police changed drastically during the 19th century as the definition of public order and the nature of crime changed. With the creation of labor unions and largely uncontrolled immigration during the 1880s, fears of the waves of Catholic, Irish, Italian, German, and Eastern European immigrants who looked and behaved “differently” drove increased demand for better-organized police forces.

The first dedicated, centralized, city police department was established in Boston in 1838. Similar police forces in New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia soon followed. By the turn of the century, most large American cities had formal police forces.

The era of city political machines during the late 19th century brought the first obvious cases of police corruption. Local political party ward leaders, many of whom owned bars or ran street gangs, often appointed and paid off high ranking police officials to allow illegal drinking, gambling, and prostitution in their precincts.

This corruption worsened during prohibition, prompting President Herbert Hoover to appoint the 1929 Wickersham Commission to investigate the procedures and practices of police departments nationwide. The Commission’s findings resulted in a drive to professionalize policing and redefine the role of the “career cop” that continues today.

Law Enforcement Today

Police face criticism for use of military weapons and tactics.
Police face criticism for use of military weapons and tactics. South Agency / Getty Images

According to the Charles Koch Institute, there are currently more than 18,000 local, state, and federal law police departments employing more than 420,000 officers—an average of 2.2 police officers for every 1,000 individuals in the United States. These police officers deal with about 8.25 million crimes and make over 10 million arrests per year.

Beginning in the early 2000s, however, many Americans came to criticize local police agencies as operating more like occupying soldiers than community protectors. After the 2014 Ferguson Riots in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement came to illustrate the public’s concern over the use of unnecessary, often excessive force by police. In May 2020, the killing of George Floyd—an unarmed black man—by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin set off over 450 major protests in cities and towns throughout the United States and several foreign countries.

Man protesting the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice displays a Black Lives Matter in Washington DC.
Man protesting the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice displays a Black Lives Matter in Washington DC. Coast-to-Coast / Getty Images

Confronted by accusations of selective enforcement through racial profiling, militarization, and excessive use of force, many police departments have responded by implementing practices and procedures intended to regain the trust and respect of the people they serve.

Community Policing

Collectively known as community-oriented policing (COP), or simply community policing, these reforms represent a strategy of policing that seeks to build ties by working more closely with members of the communities. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the three key elements of community policing are: developing community partnerships, engaging in problem solving, and implementing community policing organizational features. “The main idea is to allow police to feel like the public can trust them.”

Clark County, Nevada police host Policing and Race Summit on June 24, 2020
Clark County, Nevada police host Policing and Race Summit on June 24, 2020. Ethan Miller / Getty Images

As part of community policing, many police departments are now working to employ a more diverse pool of officers that better reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the community. Several departments also offer compensation incentives to encourage officers to live in the neighborhoods they patrol. Similarly, many departments now assign officers to specific areas, called “beats” within the community. Not only does this allow officers to become familiar with the types of crimes committed in their beats, but being seen daily in the neighborhood also helps them gain the trust of the residents.

In essence, community policing reflects the belief of law enforcement experts that policing should not just be about enforcing laws, it should also be about improving the quality of life for the residents of the community.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Kappeler, Victor E. Ph.D. “A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing.” Eastern Kentucky University, https://plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/brief-history-slavery-and-origins-american-policing.
  • Waxman, Olivia B. “How the U.S. Got Its Police Force.” Time Magazine, May 18, 2017, https://time.com/4779112/police-history-origins/.
  • Mosteller, Jeremiah. “The Role of Police in America.” Charles Koch Institute, https://www.charleskochinstitute.org/issue-areas/criminal-justice-policing-reform/role-of-police-in-america/.
  • “What Is Community Policing?” International Association of Chiefs of Police, https://www.discoverpolicing.org/explore-the-field/what-is-community-policing/.
  • “Advancing Diversity in Law Enforcement.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, https://www.eeoc.gov/advancing-diversity-law-enforcement.