The History of American Police

By: Olivia Tyler

The police system was born out of a necessity to maintain order. Disorder was largely regarded to be from the poor, prostitutes, and the African American and immigrant population. In the North, Boston created a night watch in 1636, New York followed suit in 1658 and Philadelphia in 1700. The night watch was not very effective, many slept and drank while on duty and others joined just to avoid doing military service.

Policing in southern states came from a slightly different origin. The creation of the modern police in the south was born from the slave patrol, alternatively known as “paddy rollers”. The first official slave patrol was created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. This patrol was born out of response to the Stono incident, the first major rebellion by slaves in South Carolina. Service in the patrol was required by law, and refusal to perform the duties resulted in a fine. Their main duties were to return runaway slaves, instill terror to deter slave revolts, and maintain a form of discipline. They were a means to control freed slaves and to enforce Jim Crow segregation laws. After the Civil War, the slave patrol evolved into modern Southern police departments.

The abuse towards people of color was not only local to the South. Connecticut, New York, and other colonies enforced laws to criminalize and control slaves. Congress passed fugitive Slave Laws that allowed the detention and return of escaped slaves in 1793 and 1850.

In regions of the United States, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, policing took on a new form: the vigilante. These committees of vigilance” formed in areas that lacked a formal justice system. They resisted the Reconstruction after the Civil War. These so-called regulators grouped together to combat crime and to introduce their system of order where none previously existed. This produced a socially constructed form of vigilantism, “lawlessness on behalf of lawfulness” was their motto. Sound familiar? That’s because it became the slogan for the most infamous American vigilante group, the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan, or KKK for short, started in the 1860s and became known for assaulting and lynching Black men for transgressions solely based on their race.

In the early 19th century, large numbers of immigrants from Germany and Ireland began to settle in urban parts of New York City and Boston. This growing population of immigrants was perceived as a threat to the foundation of American society. To combat this resulting unrest from the locals, the constable and night-watch system were tested as a form of enforcement. Additionally, volunteer-based groups were encouraged to step in.

The establishment of the modern police force altered the definition of police function that had been known before. The previous system consisted of groups that would be deployed in response to crime. The modern police force functioned as a way to prevent crime, establishing themselves into people’s daily lives to patrol for crime. This insertion gave police the opportunity to racially profile and target minority groups, justifying their actions by saying they wanted to protect the people.

State police began to establish many of the same goals. The Pennsylvania State Police Department was modeled after the Philippine Constabulary, an all-white force that occupied the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. The police department was created to break strikes in the coalfields of Pennsylvania and to control local towns with large immigrant populations. This force frequently engaged in anti-immigrant and anti-catholic violence. One of the most frequent actions of the department included attacking community social events on horseback with the intent of enforcing public order laws. Similarly, the Texas Rangers were a group of vigilantes and guerillas, with the main intent of suppressing the large Mexican communities in Texas. Guerilla tactics in this time were unarmed civilians that used military tactics including sabotage, ambushes, raids, hit-and-run tactics, and more in response to the large Mexican community.

By the end of the 19th century, police were a core factor in large city political machines. Police provided service to political allies, harassing, arresting, and interfering with the political activities of machine opponents. This was odd for what was supposed to be a crime control organization. Police were widely used as enforcers of the political machine, functioning and carrying out a corrupt policy. Doctor Gary Potter reflects on this time stating, “It is incorrect to say the late 19th and early 20th-century police were corrupt, they were in fact, primary instruments for the creation of corruption in the first place.” The police force has never been broken, it has been functioning correctly based on the way it was institutionally built.

The police force was also important to help keep track of infectious diseases and sheltering the homeless. Doctor Gary Potter states, “And while there is no doubt that these police services were of public value, they must be viewed as primarily political acts designed to curry public favor and ensure the continued dominance of their political patrons.” Police were known to take bribes to enforce the political agenda.

Later in the 1920s, prohibition prompted the creation of organized crime, underground and hidden bars were opened, and police raids were a regular occurrence. The continued corruption of the police system led to demands for reform that eventually started the conversation of professionalization. By the 1950s it was seen as a way to improve police effectiveness and a viable policy reformation opportunity. O. W. Wilson, a police officer at the time, set the standard for police professionalism with his publication of Police Administration. Wilson argued for the centralization of the police and emphasized military-style organization and discipline. Professionalism raised tension between police and the communities. New aggressive stop and frisk procedures were implemented, creating community resentment particularly from minority males that were frequently targeted. As Dr Gary Potter states, “Police professionalism and the military model of policing became synonymous with police repression.” Professionalism in turn did nothing to rid the police department of racist and sexist practices that had been created in the 1830s. Internalized police professionalism within the police department led to a tighter chain of command and contradictory rules and regulations. This authoritarian police system isolated itself not only from the public but the police it was trying to control. This led to widespread unionization campaigns in the mid-1960s, with nearly every large city police department having one by the 1970s. Unions were campaigned to include officers in discussions but in turn, failed. The group anonymity led to resistance to the projected increase of charges of police brutality, corruption, and other forms of misconduct.

The aforementioned professionalism, in turn, failed as seen by the economic recession that occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s, and fiscal mismanagement, which led to many layoffs of police and other municipal workers. Unions became an attractive scapegoat for municipal problems. Politicians, administration, and the media blamed demands by public workers for financial issues. This blame was despite the fact that the crisis had been caused by a larger social and economic trend. Blaming the police and other workers allowed for police administration to reorganize. This reorganization has come to be named “Taylorization of the Police” by Historian Sydney Harring. Under these “Taylorization” reforms, they served to isolate the police from citizens and separate the police directors from lower police.

Alongside police reform, technological and scientific advancements brought more in-depth investigations. There was a new focus on efficiency and crime-fighting, diminishing, and discouraging the social work aspects. The hope for these scientific-crime fighters was that they would be less susceptible to corruption.

By the 1960s, with the major uprising of Civil Rights forces, more police corruption came to light. The police were used to suppress the movement, often using brute force. From 1964 to 1968, widespread riots were started in response to police brutality and oppression towards African Americans. During this time, with major unrest within the country and a negative image of the police coming to the forefront, police hurried to protect their image. They did so first bypassing the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Street Acts, in 1968, whereby large amounts of federal money was focused on cosmetic police-community relations programs; these in large were media focused attempts to improve the police image. In the 1980s, police departments began to consider a new strategy: community policing. This strategy attempted to improve relations between the police and the community, decentralize the police, and due to the fact that police had no positive impact on crime, find a way to make citizens feel safer.

The police in America have never been built with the intent to serve all people. They protected white people and served the political machine. It is important to understand the history of the police to see that the system they were built on has and always will be corrupt unless a real change is made.


Harring, Sid. “Taylorization of Police Work: Prospects for the 1980s - Sid Harring, 1981.” SAGE Journals,

Ho, Ro. “Slave Patrols and the Origins of the Police in America.”, 25 Nov. 2014,

“The History of Policing in the United States, Part 4.” The History of Policing in the United States, Part 4 | Police Studies Online,

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