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The Evolution of Policing in the United States

February 16, 2017 by CopsPlus

Since the foundation of the United States, America's law enforcers have undergone an incredible evolution. Whereas the early law enforcement systems of the Thirteen Colonies were informal, loosely organized and simple, policing the modern United States is an extremely complex undertaking carried out by over a million sworn officers and civilian staff. The changing nature of law enforcement in the United States was shaped by a multitude of factors, including political and economic forces, the emergence of new threats such as terrorism and drug traffickers, and the development of important new technologies that revolutionized police supplies and the practice of law enforcement. It was also influenced by specific events and people: scandals that demanded investigations and justice, crimes that police departments found themselves ill-equipped to cope with, and reformers who revolutionized the American attitude to law enforcement.

Policing before police departments

Policing, both before and immediately after the War of Independence, was a local and informal affair and an evolution of the system that had existed in England for centuries before. Before formal, centralized police departments began to emerge around the 1830s, communities were protected by nightwatchmen. Their primary duty was to rouse the community in the event of a fire or an attack on the town by blowing whistles, swinging wooden rattles or shouting, but they would also enforce an informal curfew and keep an eye out for suspicious activity after dark.

In theory, nightwatchmen were community-spirited volunteers. In practice, however, nightwatchman duty was unpopular and their ranks were often filled with conscripts, volunteers attempting to avoid military conscription and even petty criminals forced into nightwatchman duty as a form of community service punishment. This lead to nightwatchmen being regarded as not only non-professional, but also unprofessional and unfit to holster a gun. They were often lampooned by contemporary writers as being drunks and sleepers on the job.

In addition to the nightwatchmen, communities in the colonies and the early United States employed constables or sheriffs. While more professional than the watchmen, and often charged with overseeing them, these officers were not strictly analogous to modern police officers. First, they often had a range of civic duties to perform, far beyond simply apprehending criminals. Constables could be responsible for surveying land and overseeing sanitation while, in sparsely populated rural areas, sheriffs were often tasked with collecting taxes. Second, these were not salaried positions. Constables and sheriffs were typically paid according to a fee system for each task they performed, or even by commission on the amount of tax that they collected. Despite this, the work was not without its dangers. In January 1791, Constable Darius Quimby became the first American law enforcement officer to be killed in the line of duty, murdered while attempting to arrest a suspect for trespassing.

In the slaveholding states of the American South, the policing system took a different evolutionary path. While communities faced many of the same problems of law and order as those in New York or Boston, they also faced an additional threat: slave escapes and insurrections. The first slave patrol was formed in North Carolina in 1704 and the concept quickly spread throughout the South. Slave patrols were organizations of white men, typically either recruited on a volunteer basis or legally required to participate, who would stop slaves on the road in order to make sure that they were out on legal business. Runaway slaves would be captured, placed in handcuffs and returned to their owners. The slave patrols were also a tool of social control, breaking up meetings of slaves, raiding slave quarters and delivering harsh punishments for breaking plantation rules in order to dissuade uprisings and revolts.

These slave patrols are often pointed to by historians as one of the major precursors of later, more formal police departments, at least in terms of organization. Some slave patrol organizations were extremely large and well-organized, often consisting of more people than the developing police departments in northern states. In many ways, they operated more like modern police departments than the northern constables. Whereas the northern law enforcement systems were largely reactive and summoned to crimes in progress, the slave patrols' purpose was to actively ferret out crime amongst the slave population: theft, sabotage and insurrection. Although formally ended after the Civil War, the patrol system continued on an informal basis, either through bands of white citizens or through southern police departments, both urban and rural.

The early years of the United States also saw the foundation of its first federal law enforcement agency. In September 1789, President George Washington signed into law the Judiciary Act, which, among other things, founded the U.S. Marshals. Marshals were charged with enforcing federal laws, and given extensive powers to enforce the orders of federal judges. They were also responsible for serving federal writs, organizing courtrooms and, until 1870, administering the Census. Effectively, they served as agents of the federal government. In fact, throughout the nineteenth century, they were one of the sole sources of formal law enforcement on the Western frontier.

The rise of centralized policing

In the year 1790, around one American in every 20 lived in a city. By 1870, that figure had risen to one in four. In the fifty years after 1790, New York grew almost tenfold, Philadelphia more than tripled, and Cincinnati went from a freshly-established settlement to the sixth largest population center in the United States. Urbanization was particularly acute in the Northeast, with Massachusetts becoming majority-urban even before 1850, a status not reached in the South until a century later. As cities became larger, denser and more complex, the old system of nightwatchmen and constables became less and less adequate for the task.

Waves of immigration from Europe brought not only more people but also new ethnic tensions, tensions that often spilled over into violence. Mob violence, often carried out against immigrants and African American communities, became increasingly common. In Cincinnati, a week of rioting in August 1829 saw African Americans attacked by gangs of white men looking to drive them out of the city. In the end, over a thousand fled to Canada. In New York in 1834, an anti-abolitionist riot, inflamed by tensions between black and white communities, was eventually put down by the state militia after two days of violence. Anti-Catholic or anti-Irish riots were also common, as in the Philadelphia Nativist Riots of 1844, in which native-born Protestants, fearing the rise of the Catholic population, burned down Catholic churches and attacked homes and businesses. Local constables and watchmen were powerless to prevent the violence, which eventually required militia intervention.

It should therefore be no surprise that the first centralized police departments were formed in major cities, primarily in the north-east. Boston lead the way, forming the Day Police in 1838, an organization that would eventually be replaced by the Boston Police Department in 1854. New York City followed in 1845, Chicago in 1851, and Philadelphia in 1855. By the 1880s, every major urban center had a full-time police department. Centralized policing was a response to the new complexities brought about by increasing urban populations and population density.

These new urban police forces differed significantly from the systems that preceded them in several ways. Whereas watchmen were volunteers or conscripts and constables could be paid on a fee system, the new breed of police officers were full-time employees, carrying badges and were supported by and accountable to central government authorities. Furthermore, they were bound by set rules and procedures, unlike the less formal organizations that preceded them.

They also differed in terms of their purpose. The nightwatch was almost entirely a reactive force, responding to crimes in progress and immediate threats to their communities. The police departments that replaced them were intended to not merely pursue criminals but also to deter crime, whereas nightwatchmen would often wait for victims of crime to come to them. Modernizing police forces made proactive patrols a cornerstone of their operations. These new police departments were charged with not only deterring crime but also maintaining social order. Urbanization lead to changing economic realities. In the years immediately after the War of Independence, the social and economic elite in the United States had been primarily wealthy landowners and farmers. As cities grew, a new mercantile and industrial elite emerged, with wealth and influence based on commerce. This new elite required a stable and orderly environment in which to pursue their commercial interests, a well-organized workforce, and protection for their businesses. Their political influence was a major factor in shaping American police departments during the 19th century.

As industry and commerce became the dominant sources of wealth in America's urban communities, inequality grew. The relatively egalitarian society of 1776 gave way to one in which income distribution was more skewed towards the wealthy. In addition to growing inequality, urban workers faced low pay, dangerous working environments, poor living conditions and local governments dominated by economic elites, exacerbating tensions between workers and owners. With little power to change political or economic conditions, disgruntled laborers turned to rioting, and later to union strikes. The creation of formalized, rule-bound police departments created a way to deter and confront these threats to commercial interests under the rule of law, with the perceived legitimacy that that entailed. The idea of the police as protectors of commercial interests was not merely theoretical, either. Businessmen were routinely given keys to alarm boxes, allowing them to summon police officers when needed.

Alongside the new model of policing came a new model of crime. Police action was intended to control and suppress "dangerous classes", the sources of crime, public disorder, rioting and protests. This underclass was thought of as uneducated, morally underdeveloped and often drunken, and typically made up of free African Americans, foreign immigrants and the poor. As the supposed sources of crimes, these individuals were targeted for observation and surveillance by the new, more proactive police forces in American cities.

In fact, throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, one of the chief activities of urban police departments was strikebreaking, particularly after the Civil War. While owners often used private police forces such as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to end strikes, state and city police forces were also deployed against demonstrating workers. Police officers were frequently used to forcibly disperse striking workers under their remit to perform riot control activities, often using officers mounted on horseback. Police were also deployed to escort non-striking workers through picket lines. Less dramatically, police departments targeted organized workers under public order offences as a campaign of harassment.

Policemen, politicians and personal profit

The great cities of 19th century America, particularly in the latter half of the city, were hotbeds of political corruption. Political machines like New York's Tammany Hall wielded vast influence over municipal politics, enriching their members and extending their power through patronage and graft. Police departments were not exempt from this system. In most cities, police executives were political appointees chosen by ward leaders, and appointments to the police department were often used to reward loyal operatives. The Lexow Committee investigation of 1894 and 1895 into the New York Police Department found that new recruits were actually paying bribes to local political operatives in order to become police officers: $300 to $500 to join the department, a further $1500 to $1600 to be be promoted to sergeant, and more for higher ranks. While the police were in theory responsible for the maintenance of public order and the suppression of vice, the very same ward leaders that appointed their officers frequently either directly ran or profited from alcohol, gambling, prostitution and the drug trade. Urban political bosses were often indistinguishable from organized criminals, using paid gangs of youths to extort political contributions, harass potential rivals, and get people to the polls on election day.

Police departments did not simply avoid taking on corrupt municipal politicians, they were an essential piece of the political machine. As political appointees, police officers were responsible for election fraud and ballot-stuffing. Police departments also offered a range of community services unrelated to law enforcement, including sheltering the homeless population of New York and Boston. Like other branches of local government under the political machines, police services were traded for votes and political donations.

When Prohibition was enacted in 1919, corruption, already entrenched in police forces, became even deeper. Collaboration between police officers and organized criminals was nothing new, as demonstrated by the 1912 Rosenthal-Becker trial in which New York City Police Department Lieutenant Charles Becker was convicted for organizing the murder by gangsters of illegal casino operator Herman Rosenthal. However, while plenty of police officers had always been willing to ignore gambling and prostitution for the right price, the sheer blatancy of illegal alcohol sales in major metropolitan centers required extreme levels of police corruption. Tens of thousands of illegal speakeasies operated across the country, a state of affairs that could not have existed without police complicity.

Prohibition also changed the nature of police corruption as well as its depth. Many urban political machines had already been damaged by investigations and anti-corruption movements, and the money directed into criminal organizations by the trade in illegal alcohol made them vastly wealthy and politically powerful in their own right. Rather than dealing with police through political intermediaries, gangsters and policemen could work together directly, with police officers acting as watchmen and enforcers for criminal gangs in exchange for potentially massive bribes. In Chicago, gangsters like Al Capone spent millions of dollars paying off police and local politicians in order to persuade them to leave their liquor operations untouched. Even Prohibition agents, employed specifically to enforce the anti-liquor laws, were notorious for accepting bribes, leading Eliot Ness to create his team of Untouchables that numbered just 11 men.


By the end of the nineteenth century, reform and anti-corruption movements were gathering steam, and the police, serving as they often did as agents of corrupt political organizations, were inevitably swept up in their investigations. In 1895, the Lexow Committee's investigation into corruption in New York City's police force produced a damning report on the links between police officers and organized crime, an action sometimes pointed to as the beginning of America's Progressive Era. In five volumes totalling over 10000 pages of evidence, it exposed a police department that lived and breathed corruption. Throughout the department, officers extorted money, took bribes, rigged elections, intimidated voters, and handed out promotions in exchange for money. Attention at the time swirled around the corrupt police captain William Devery for his colorful testimony before committee hearings. The immediate impact was limited: although Devery was dismissed after an 1897 conviction for bribery, he was quickly reinstated, and served briefly as Chief of Police and then Deputy Commissioner, before being finally driven out in 1902 upon the election of graft-busting mayor Seth Low.

Investigative grand juries and commissions, typically formed in response to specific incidents, became a feature of the law enforcement landscape in the United States. However, the impact was often limited. Once a committee reported and dissolved and the scandal left the news, reform-resistant police departments could often ignore their findings. However, police departments also underwent reform from within, driven by police chiefs and commissioners. Much of this reform was intended to limit political control of police departments. Movement towards a merit-based selection and promotion process limited the ability of municipal politicians to hand out positions within departments to reward loyal followers, as well as the ability of higher-ranking figures within the departments to award promotions in exchange for bribes.

Police departments also began to employ more mid-ranking officers, placing another link in the chain of command between political appointees and rank-and-file officers, as well as delegating some of the more corruption-prone duties to specially selected and centralized special squads, such as gambling or narcotics units. This particular reform was a partial success, but it also meant that criminals operating in those areas could focus their bribery attempts on a single unit rather than an entire police department.

Whereas police departments had once been made up of volunteers, the 20th century saw an influential movement towards police professionalism. A key figure in this movement was August Vollmer, often referred to as "the father of modern policing", who became the police chief of Berkeley, California in 1909. Vollmer pioneered a more scientific approach to policing, based on European research into criminology and criminal psychology. In turn, he encouraged greater interest in and understanding of criminology in the United States, persuading the University of California to open the country's first criminal justice program at UC Berkeley, that he himself headed. Vollmer spearheaded the introduction of a motorized police force, reducing foot patrols by officers in favour of police cars and motorcycles, and introduced the first centralized police records system in order to streamline investigations. He also introduced the lie detector to American policing. In recognition of his pioneering work in the field of criminal justice, he was appointed to President Herbert Hoover's Wickersham Commission investigation into the failure of police departments to enforce Prohibition, serving as the primary author of the final report released in 1931. The report was deeply critical of the police and recommended increased professionalization to create a force of well-trained, well-educated and well-funded officers.

In 1943, Orlando Winfield Wilson, one of August Vollmer's former pupils and at the time Professor of Police Administration at Berkeley, released his book Police Administration. Wilson had served as Chief of Police in several American cities and advised European law enforcement agencies in the wake of the Second World War before his time in academia, and his book quickly became popular in the law enforcement community. He was one of the leading lights of a movement towards police professionalism, having pioneered his ideas while serving as chief of the Wichita Police Department during the 1930s. In addition to a widespread anti-corruption drive, he, like his mentor, required new recruits to have a college education, and introduced new technology: patrol cars and two-way police radios to speed up the ability of officers to react to crimes in progress, as well as a mobile crime laboratory.

When he was later appointed as police commissioner in Chicago during the 1960s in the wake of a damaging corruption scandal, he once again brought a modernizing approach. In an attempt to sever the ties between politicians and police officers, he moved the Superintendent's office from City Hall to Police Headquarters, redrew police district boundaries so as to cut across political boundaries, introduced strict merit-based promotions within the department, and demanded the establishment of a non-partisan police board to oversee policing. As in Wichita, he also introduced a more technological approach to policing: greater use of patrol cars over foot patrols, improved communications systems, and the adoption of computer record-keeping.

Professionalism was not an unvarnished good. While its pioneers were able to point to improved reaction times as a benefit of motorization, the removal of foot patrols from the streets created a less personal police force, with less attachment to the communities that it served. The public's perception of the police often suffered, as did police officers' perception of the public. Policing became more reactive: while motorization meant that they could respond quickly to 911 calls While the ability of more professional, more technologically advanced police departments to fight crime undoubtedly increased, it could also lead to bureaucratic, inward-looking organizations. However, both Vollmer and Wilson aimed to improve community relations. Both men encouraged the employment and promotion of African American officers, and Vollmer in particular was in favor of leniency towards petty offenders and drug addicts, a viewpoint for which he was widely criticized.

Community policing

The 1960s were a time of great social and political change in the United States, and the nation's police departments were not spared from the upheaval. Incidents of police brutality against Civil Rights protestors and demonstrators against the Vietnam War damaged police departments' reputations severely, as did widely-publicised urban riots such as the ones that rocked the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965. Restoring the image of the nation's police officers became a political priority at both the local and federal levels, for police departments and politicians alike.

By the 1980s, the solution settled upon was community policing. In many ways, this new paradigm was a rejection of the policing professionalism model that prioritised rapid reaction to crimes. It stressed a decentralized model of policing, as well as a return to predictable foot patrols by officers instead of random vehicular routes. The movement towards professionalism had severed the link between police officers and specific communities in order to reduce corruption; now, community policing was restoring it. Furthermore, criminology research began to undermine the scientific basis of the old style of policing, finding that rapid response was only rarely a deterrent to crime. While it could increase the chances of an on-the-spot arrest, speed of reporting was a far larger factor than reaction time, and when trust in police officers was low, people were less likely to report crimes.

One pioneering study was carried out in the 1970s by the San Diego Police Department. During their experiment with community-oriented policing, they required their officers to become familiar with the demographics and call histories of the areas that they patrolled, and to develop tailored patrol strategies that took into account local issues by consulting with local people. While the COP program was only temporary, it demonstrated the need to re-evaluate shift rotation and assign officers to permanent beats in order to build closer relationships with their communities. A separate study in Newark found, too, that visible foot patrols made residents feel safer, particularly when they were regular and carried out by officers well-known in the community.

Under the community policing model, law enforcement took on a less reactive role, instead setting out to solve the root causes of crime hotspots. Without undermining the authority of the police or their role in guaranteeing law and order, community policing initiatives sought to share responsibility for crime prevention and pool resources with local stakeholders: social agencies, businesses, local government officials and so on. While one of the primary objectives of police professionalism had been to guarantee the independence of the police, community policing sought to deepen their interdependence. It also forced police departments to expand their role not only as guardians of the community, but also as mediators between competing interests. Police departments embraced a wider social remit that included resolving neighborhood conflicts, providing emergency social services, and improving neighborhood conditions alongside residents. These new roles were dependent upon, and helped to develop, trust between the police and communities. Officers were also encouraged to find solutions to problems beyond simply arresting suspects. Identifying and solving the problems that lead to crime was equally important.

One major influence on community policing was the "broken windows" theory put forward by social scientists James Q Wilson and George L Kelling in 1982. The theory hinged on the idea that low-level crimes, like the broken windows that gave it its name, lead to more low-level crimes being committed, and eventually to major crimes. The unfixed windows act as a signal of an uncontrolled, non-cohesive community, one in which criminals can expect to have free rein. One of the aims of community policing was to work with the community to solve these relatively minor problems in order to prevent greater ones from occurring.

Greater threats

Another trend in policing also became more apparent in the latter half of the 20th century, one often at odds with community policing. As threats to police officers increased, police departments began to arm their officers with military-style equipment. The movement towards an increasingly well-armed police force has often been driven by officers themselves. Indeed, in the 19th century when formal police forces were first being established, a debate raged over whether or not officers should be equipped with firearms. That debate was effectively settled by officers arming themselves with their own, privately-held weapons, with or without the official backing of departments. In more recent times, police unions have been major backers of campaigns for a more heavily equipped police force. When President Barack Obama announced in 2015 that transfers of military equipment to police departments would be limited, the Fraternal Order of Police hit back, accusing him of denying officers the equipment that they needed to be safe in disturbance situations, including helmets and shields.

The increasingly well-armed nature of America's police departments has come about in response to mounting threats from well-funded, well-equipped criminals. During the Prohibition era and the Great Depression, police increasingly faced gangsters and bank robbers armed with submachine guns and automatic rifles and wearing primitive body armor. In response, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies began carrying submachine guns of their own, as well as handguns firing more powerful ammunition.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the increasing frequency of riots in urban centers once again lead police chiefs to procure more advanced armaments for their officers. During the 1965 Watts Riots, Los Angeles police chief William Parker called for a "paramilitary" response, mobilizing thousands of officers onto the streets with orders to use deadly force if necessary. The perceived success of this action, backed by units from the California Army National Guard, lead more cities to adopt increasingly militarized methods of riot control. President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act earmarked millions of dollars to assist local police departments in building up their riot control capabilities. In Los Angeles, and soon afterwards in other cities across the United States, police departments began to introduce SWAT teams, equipped with military hardware such as assault rifles, advanced body armor and night vision devices, and trained in military-style tactics.

President Richard Nixon's declaration of a War on Drugs marked another uptick in the increasingly militarized nature of police forces. As during the Prohibition era, police faced extremely dangerous and well-equipped criminals, backed by millions of dollars earned through the sale of narcotics. The War on Drugs in the United States resulted in a massive increase in incarcerations, as well as increasing use of SWAT teams in narcotics raids. In 1972, SWAT teams were deployed around 300 times in drug raids. In 1996, they carried out 100 times that figure. In 2005, around 80 percent of SWAT operations were in order to serve search warrants, most often due to suspected narcotics.

In 1981, police militarization took a literal turn when President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act, promoted as an essential act in the War on Drugs and justified by its supporters on the grounds that drug trafficking was not merely a crime, but also a threat to national security. Under this law, the United States military was authorized to assist law enforcement with certain dangerous operations, including counter-terrorism, anti-drug operations, and explosive ordnance disposal. The act also authorized the military to provide law enforcement with access to its bases and equipment. Under President Bill Clinton, this transfer of military equipment to police departments was extended by the 1033 Program enacted in 1996, which allowed the military to hand over excess equipment to law enforcement agencies. By 2014, around $5.1 billion of military equipment had been delivered to police departments across the United States, including firearms, aircraft, and armored vehicles.

The increased armament of police officers has not been confined to SWAT teams. Ordinary patrol officers have also been outfitted with more powerful weapons and more advanced equipment, typically in response to high-profile engagements with criminals. In the 1997 North Hollywood Shootout, bank robbers Larry Phillips, Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu were engaged by LAPD officers as they attempted to flee from the North Hollywood branch of Bank of America that they had just robbed. The officers, armed with 9mm pistols, .38 caliber revolvers and a 12 gauge shotgun, found themselves outgunned by the robbers, who were equipped with assault rifles with high-capacity drum magazines and wore body armor that the officers' own guns could not penetrate. During the shootout, several of the police officers commandeered semi-automatic rifles from a nearby gun store in order to level the playing field. During the gun battle, the robbers were able to fire around 1100 rounds at police officers and civilians, miraculously failing to kill anyone before being shot dead themselves by SWAT team officers.

The incident lead to a review of patrol officers' armament by the LAPD, who began issuing patrol sergeants with surplus M16 rifles donated by the Department of Defense, and installing an AR-15 rifle as standard issue in each patrol car. Patrol officers were also authorized to carry .45 ACP pistols, which had previously only been available to SWAT officers.

The militarization of police forces has been highly controversial. While police departments and their supporters have justified it on the grounds of officer and public safety against increasingly heavily-armed criminals, it has also lead to widespread public perception of police departments not as protectors of the public, but as an occupying force. The long-standing War on Drugs particularly damaged relationships between police departments and the African American community, whose members, more than any other ethnic group in the United States, were arrested, prosecuted and jailed. The police response to recent periods of urban unrest, such as that experienced in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, also brought police militarization into the public spotlight again as the police department controversially deployed teams In tactical gear, with expandable batons, tear gas and armored vehicles against the rioters.

With the ongoing threat of domestic terrorist attacks and heavily-armed criminals, and officer safety a natural priority, the deployment of heavily-equipped police officers looks set to continue, despite criticism from ACLU and other pressure groups. However, militarization of the police also potentially jeopardizes the close relationships with communities built up under the community policing model. Police departments will need to strike a fine balance in order to maintain the level of equipment that they require to face down threats to the public, while also ensuring that that same public remains on their side.

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