Police Life

The American Police Force – History of Law Enforcement

Today American citizens could not imagine a society in which the police would not come to their rescue in an emergency. The police force as we know it, however, is a relatively new establishment. During the 1600s and 1700s citizens would rely on the ‘night watch’ to protect them, which consisted of volunteers. At the time, their main jobs were to ensure that there was no gambling or prostitution taking place. The first night watch established was in Boston in 1636, followed by New York in 1658 and Philadelphia in 1700. These watches weren’t very successful because many of the volunteers became drunk while on duty, and other members were assigned to the watch as a form of punishment.

As cities grew, the service that the watchmen offered was no longer sufficient to keep the citizens under control. The first publicly funded police force was founded in Boston in 1838. The city was a large shipping centre, and the merchants would hire people to safeguard their property during transport. Over time, the cost was transferred to the citizens, because the patrols proved to be for the overall good of the community. In the southern states, the police force began as a means of preserving slavery. Slave owners needed to maintain order and a force was created to prevent revolts and return runaway slaves. The first formal ‘slave patrol’ was established in the Carolina colonies in 1704.

In the 1850s, a private detective agency was formed by wealthy business owners who desired more control over the public. Originally called the North-Western Police Agency, this establishment later became known as the Pinkerton Agency. They were hired by both private and government agencies to uphold the law. The agency is reported to have stopped a plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln, which increased its popularity at the time. This resulted in the government regularly giving Pinkerton contracts to uphold the law. The Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893 put a stop to this, however, and law enforcement was turned over to the police force.

By the late 1880s, all the major cities in the United States had established their own forces. One of the main reasons for this was to preserve law and order, which had declined further with the influx of 19th century immigrants. Different ways of life had begun where people were drinking in public places, which led to increased violence and disruption. The citizens that were most concerned about this change were the wealthy business owners and politicians. These industries began to regulate the police force, and captains were often chosen by politicians to help intimidate their opponents.

During the 1920s, the ineffectiveness of law enforcement in the country was investigated. The map of police precincts was subsequently changed to ensure that the officers were no longer associated with political wards. The entire force became more professional, and law enforcement gradually evolved into the establishment that it is today.

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