The History of Law Enforcement Unit in America

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Police is a unit of criminal enforcement department that is a major component of the Criminal Justice System (Daleidein, 2006). As a unit of the law enforcement department (government department), police are delegated with the responsibility of “regulating and controlling community affairs”. Mainly, the police are responsible for maintaining order, implementing laws, and preventing any form of crime (Gest, 2000). In every state, the police unit is highly trained in the fields of law enforcement and crime prevention and detection (Gest, 2000). In addition to this, the police have an obligation of maintaining order, peace, and security in society. In this research paper, we will look at the history of the American police.

In the last three decades, many people like researchers and scholars have developed an interest to know the history of law enforcement units in America. As we try to look at this history, we will cover the topic extensively beginning with the birth to growth and development of the American policing system.

The emergence of the police system in America

The current police system of America was inherited from Great Britain and most of the American government systems were also adopted from Ancient Britain including the Common Law and the modern law enforcement unit (Daleidein, 2006). All ideas regarding community policing, crime deterrence, Constables, and Sheriffs were also borrowed from Great Britain (Schmallenger, 2005).

When the British came to the American coast, they found a new and unexplored land. Since they expected hostility from the inhabitants of the land, the newcomers came fully prepared for any eventuality. As such, the British came with young boys and energetic men who formed the British police unit (Schmallenger, 2005). The British were very surprised to see that the “new land” did not have an organized Law enforcement department (Schmallenger, 2005). As soon as the British settled in the new land, the duty of maintaining order was delegated to the Justices of the Peace who ensured peace and order (Schmallenger, 2005). As time passed and colonies continued to increase in terms of population growth, the need to expand and develop the Justices of Peace System increased. This led to the formation of the police force. With the emergence of the police force, new laws were developed and the law enforcement unit became more organized.

Many scholars have acknowledged that the American law enforcement department began in early 1600. To begin with, both the New York Sheriff unit and the Night Watch unit were established in the 17th century (Lane, 1967). Because of the rising insecurity in the city of Boston, the Night Watch unit was launched in the year 1636 to ensure peace within the city and its localities. These two most important law enforcement agencies underwent a major transformation in the 19th century. The Boston “Night Watch” unit evolved into the Boston police department towards the end of the 1830s while the New York City Sheriffs unit transformed into New York City police department in the year 1845 (Lane, 1967).

In the mid 17th century, New York City formed the Shout and Rattle watch. However, as time passed Philadelphia decided to subdivide New York City into numerous patrol units and it is reported that New York City was subdivided into ten patrol subdivisions (Lane, 1967).

Generally, in the 17th and 18th centuries, much of the American law enforcement departments followed the London style (Schmallenger, 2005). The Sheriffs and the Night Watch were both inherited from the British system too. The Sheriffs were the most effective form of law enforcement shortly after the establishment of the police unit. Because the Sheriffs were very effective, the governor was honored with the duty of appointing the county Sheriff. Mostly, Sheriffs were responsible for maintaining peace in the streets, collecting taxes, and arresting individuals who broke established laws (Schmallenger, 2005). Because of the ability to multitask, Sheriffs were entitled to a salary.

In bigger cities (New York, Boston, and Philadelphia among others), the Night Watch and Constables who were also adopted from the English system were officially recognized law enforcement officers (Schmallenger, 2005). They performed numerous duties including lighting streets, reporting fire breakouts, arresting criminals, and ensuring public protection.

American police in the 19th century

The 19th century can be referred to as the transition period for the law enforcement department in America. It is during the mid 19th century that the American police system emerged. It is said that during the mid of the 19 century, American law enforcement officials became more organized. Although the current system has its roots in the English system, it is during the 19th century that the American law enforcement unit become well established (Schmallenger, 2005). During this time, the police were accepted since their services became more significant in society. During this period also, police roles, training, and activities became well defined (Gest, 2000). In addition, the relationship between law enforcement officers and the community also improved. Although many changes occurred within this department, a few of the established sub-units retained some aspects that were similar to the English system. Such sub-units include the Patrol Officer and the Police Officer.

As part of the new American policing system, officers began receiving better pay and it is said that Police officers earned a better salary than local tradesmen did (Gest, 2000). On the other hand, despite the good pay, the issue of job security made people shy away from this career. In addition to this, Gest (2000) points out that Police Officers did not receive proper training and there were no well-established arrest procedures among other numerous issues.

One of the biggest problems reported in the law enforcement department during this time was widespread corruption. Lack of well-established law (lawlessness) and widespread corruption across police departments are the two biggest weaknesses the American police system experienced in the 19th century (Gest, 2000). Corruption within the law enforcement unit was so unchecked that individuals exchanged money for employment opportunities (Gest, 2000). Officers on the ground allowed drug peddlers, thieves, street gamblers, and conmen to carry on their “errands” in exchange for money.


Because of such problems and unprofessional conduct by the police unit, society saw the need to have a professional police unit. The Progressive group initiated transformational changes that saw the abolition of corrupt, undisciplined, and untrained police units (Gest, 2000). By the beginning of the 20th century, the Progressive group had influenced several changes in the law enforcement department. In 1920, legislative reforms were made and a police commission was formed (Gest, 2000). However, due to political interference, the police unit continued to face numerous challenges despite the extensive campaign for reforms by the Progress group.

At this point, a second evolution was formed aimed at bringing reforms in the law enforcement unit. After the Progressive group failed to achieve complete reforms, the police chiefs began campaigning for the restructuring of the police unit. This second evolution saw the establishment of professional officers in the police unit. With the emergence of technology, the police unit became more professional and the second movement was deemed more successful than the first one. In the year 1960, the American law enforcement unit faced another major setback due to national wide riots by the Civil Rights Movements, which accused the police unit of denying blacks equal justice rights (Gest, 2000). Because of the 1960’s chaos, a third movement was formed that advocated for community policing. With government support, community policing was adopted which formed the modern professional law enforcement unit in America.


In summary, modern community policing and its ideas were all borrowed from the British system of law enforcement. Although it has not been an easy journey, the law enforcement unit in the US has transformed and it represents the most developed police department in the world today. Having undergone major reforms, the current policing system in the US has improved and today, it is strictly made up of professionals only. With the emergence of technology, the law enforcement unit in the US is still embracing more changes to ensure public safety.

Reference List

Daleidein, R. (2006). A clumcy dance: The political economy of American police and policing. An international Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 29 (4), 602-624.

Gest, T. (2000). Crime and Politics: Big Government’s Erratic Campaign for Law and Order. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lane, R. (1967). Policing the City: Boston, 1822-1285. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Schmallenger, F. (2005). Criminal justice: A brief introduction. (8th Edn.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

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DemoEssays. "The History of Law Enforcement Unit in America." December 24, 2022.