Policing in the US: Tactics and Philosophies


Regardless of the particular stage of societal development, whether the primitive community or the high-tech era, law and order and security preservation are essential. There is no doubt that a civilization devoid of law enforcement structures will ultimately lead to anarchy, chaos, crime, and disorder in social relations. In this regard, it should be recognized that the police system plays a grandiose role in modern society since it allows to maintain harmony and law and order and structure institutional relationships within social systems. Thus, a discussion of the history and evolution of police structures, their philosophy, and significance in the civil rights era is an important research area of social and legislative history.

History of the Police System in the US

Of primary importance for studying the US police system’s phenomenon is to determine the possible etymology of the term. It is worth recalling that before independence, the US was a colonized part of the British monarchy, where the king was in charge. Thus, according to dictionaries, “police” comes from the Greek word “polis,” literally meaning city or civilization (Banton, 2020). Historically, the first police structures began to form in what is now the US during the imperial rule, so the police’s role was initially identified with the monarch’s protection. In this regard, it seems surprising that in a country where the monarchical system was defeated, the police could reach incredible heights.

In general, it is a mistake to assume that the modern image of the police as fair, impartial, and disloyal was characteristic of the early US. On the contrary, even during the British Empire’s colonial subjugation, in the seventeenth century, police officers’ role was performed by hired hands, responsible mainly for controlling prostitution, hooliganism, or gambling (Waxman, 2017). It is worth acknowledging that in those days, the police system was formed along the lines of private service, with part-time employees serving.

Indeed, such a system could hardly demonstrate high efficiency, for the reason that the freelance and mercenary nature of law enforcement duties could be associated with shirking, abuse of power, and a lack of basic principles of fairness and tolerance. However, as cities grew and developed, and as the US achieved statehood as an independent state, the police’s role could not help but grow and become more structured.

Subsequent changes in the organization of the police system were laws primarily responsive to the demands of society. For example, whereas in the early eighteenth century, the primary role of law enforcement in the southern regions of colonized America was to capture runaway slaves and impose physical sanctions on them, as early as 1838, with the incredible expansion of agglomerations, the first police patrol was established in Boston to ensure the safety and smoothness of shipping traffic (Headen, 2020). Other independent states, inspired by Boston’s successful example, decided to introduce their city police.

Therefore, by 1860 most American cities already had their resources for law enforcement: in 1844, police were established in New York City, and 1854 in Philadelphia (Lepore, 2020). Furthermore, organizational control was structured so that the heads of police departments were often local politicians. This, in turn, intensified problems of corruption and unwarranted brutality in the police force hierarchy. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, as the social order became more integrated into the industrial environment, the police had the role of suppressing and eradicating potential social uprisings provoked by a discontented workforce.

However, some semblance of police systems, whose officers performed the law enforcement duties familiar to the modern citizen, can be seen in a detailed study of the US’ public and state security systems. As early as 1789, for example, the US Marshals Service was created to ensure courts’ operation, supervise the execution of sentences, search for and arrest suspects, supervise criminals, and combat terrorism and mass disorder (“US marshal,” 2020). Similar services soon became part of everyday practice and were structured for specific tasks: for example, the US Park Police or the US Mint Police, created in the late 18th century.

The police force’s reform toward a modern image was accompanied by high-profile precedents that largely determined legislative policy and ethics. Even modern lawyering is guided by court cases that took place decades ago. For example, one such event was the court case of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (Pasley, 2019). As a result of this case, the court held that any testimony, whether confession or acquittal, could only be used at trial if the prosecution could prove that the suspect had been informed of the right to counsel and the right not to testify against themselves before questioning.

Nevertheless, the formation of American law has been related with other landmark court cases, such as the US v. Nixon, Terry v. Ohio, or Lawrence v. Texas (Pasley, 2019). As a consequence of all of the cases mentioned, the police’s role has been markedly limited and circumscribed in ways that are the norm in the 21st century.

Evolution of the Police System

Summarizing the above-mentioned significant milestones in police development, it is difficult not to notice some regularities that shape the structure of these bodies’ evolution. In particular, throughout the history of law enforcement resources, the police have experienced three successive phases, at different times defining and limiting the full powers of the servants of the law. Thus, when the U.S. social order was still associated with slavery in the political era, the police system was in a political phase. This phase’s central characteristic was the direct subordination to the power structures represented by local officials and deputies.

It seems evident that such integration could be closely related to increased crime at the administrative level, abuse of power, and corruption. The next milestone in the police evolution was the era of professional reform when the main focus of the public service was the use of available technology to optimize police agencies’ work. With the help of cars, 911 service, and telecommunications, emergency response times were significantly reduced (Wilson, 2019). Finally, police have entered the era of public order, where law enforcement priorities are not only to respond to problems that arise but also to be proactive to maintain public order. Moreover, police functions have expanded significantly, and today’s officers are also responsible for solving current problems and improving public welfare.

The Civil Rights Era

With the qualitative development of the social order, the self-awareness of the population improved and progressed. The consequence of this evolution has been the formation of civil society, an officially recognized phenomenon of complete and absolute protection of the rights and freedoms of the individual citizen, equality of residents, and tolerance of minorities. Although this dynamic seems a natural progression of human history, the development of the citizen’s critical thinking and the appropriation of fundamental rights have caused a deterioration of an unsustainable relationship with police resources.

The policing of the civil rights era is characterized by the double effect of police structures’ existence. On the one hand, it seems that in a world of such great diversity of cultural and ethnic codes, policing remains a constant that binds and protects individuals’ rights. More than half of citizens remain convinced that, in the event of an emergency or a threat to life and security, the police are the body that will provide the necessary level of a legal order. Nevertheless, the development of the concept of civil rights has led to some abuse of power on the part of citizens and an apparent debate about what constitutes proper and sufficient action for national security. In other words, a distinct thesis that characterizes the civil rights era is the dilemma of how far the police can go to enforce an order.

It seems to be expected that the frequency of phenomena of police brutality and unjustified brutality increases in this context. This is especially true in the case of mass uprisings by disgruntled citizens who want to change specific political reforms. Physical reprisals, acts of psychological pressure, unaccountable surveillance, and bribery are factors that discredit the role of the modern police in the eyes of civil society.

Moreover, history is replete with examples of unjustified brutality by law enforcement officers who deliberately shot and killed a suspect, thereby violating the presumption of innocence. However, according to SRD (2020), the risk of being killed by a police officer’s bullet has generally declined over the past four years, although it is still relatively high. To put it another way, in the civil rights era, police can be judged ambiguously.

The Concept of Community Policing

Police structures that are tightly integrated into a community’s social systems are commonly referred to as community policing. This philosophy is based on the idea that incorporating law enforcement resources into the daily practice of city life becomes a successful strategy for bringing the two sides together to maximize the effect of life safety and increase trust in agency representatives (“What is community policing,” 2018). It seems clear that this kind of implementation allows for the construction of strong community ties that prove useful in eliminating the law’s disorder and violations.

Additionally, it is worth recognizing that the concept of community policing is not aimed at combating state terrorism or investigating high-profile cases, but rather at eliminating minor infractions for the sake of peace and order. Whereas the specialized intelligence agencies deal with high-profile cases to achieve federal security, the smaller units work closely with the community to create a model climate in which every citizen feels protected and heard.

Thus, the strategic embodiment of the idea of community policing is so varied that it can find several practical examples used almost everywhere. First and foremost is the idea of local police officers assigned to a particular area of responsibility. This approach not only delegates responsibility and removes some of the officer’s burdens but also encourages effective communication between the community and the police officer. However, community policing can also be useful for private security, delivering holiday meals, helping to catch stray animals, rescuing people in need, or doing charity work: in all these ways, the police system demonstrates its willingness to integrate into social life.

Modern Police Tactics and Philosophies

Indeed, the work of a modern police agency is closely associated with misconduct and abuse of power. Generally speaking, a law enforcement officer can rarely inspire absolute trust and confidence in the quality of their work, so reforms of the system are necessary. It is worth recognizing that while the police remain a strictly conservative system, they have been slow to open up to changes dictated by public demand. For this reason, the current police philosophy aims to enforce law and order in the region while fully respecting all the rights of the citizen and conforming to a professional, ethical code.

Although the frequency of riots among disaffected populations is increasing and police services are at times brutally cracking down on instigators, there must be a partnership between the two sides that leads to effective prosperity for society. Modern policing’s main strategic goals remain people, policies, and processes, which describes the need for strict transparency, accountability, and high performance in law enforcement (Mummolo, 2018). For example, police officers must always rely on professional codes and methodologies when interacting with the public, do not enforce discriminatory policies against minorities.


To summarize, it is important to clarify that the modern police system is a product of social consciousness development over several centuries. This paper has shown how law enforcement services have evolved in response to societal demands. Moreover, it has assessed the final stage of the development of police structures in the civil society era, attempting to analyze the reasons why citizens distrust the actions of officers. There is no doubt that the police will continue to be modified in the future, which is likely to be realized through tighter integration with public life.


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Headen, J. (2020). Police origins: A history of anti-blackness. BOP. Web.

Mummolo, J. (2018). Modern police tactics, police-citizen interactions, and the prospects for reform. The Journal of Politics, 80(1), 1-15.

Lepore, J. (2020). The invention of the police. The New Yorker. Web.

Pasley, J. (2019). 45 landmark Supreme Court cases that changed American life as we knew it. Business Insider. Web.

SRD. (2020). Number of people shot to death by the police in the US from 2017 to 2020, by race. Statista. Web.

US marshal: Career guide. (2020). CJDS. Web.

Waxman, O. B. (2017). How the U.S. got its police force. Time. Web.

What is community policing? (2018). Discover Policing. Web.

Wilson, D. (2019). Predictive policing management: A brief history of patrol automation. New Formations, 98(98), 139-155.

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