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Policing in the United States is highly decentralized, meaning the legal authority to police is split among federal, state, and local forces. Most police forces largely operate independently, unlike policing in other countries. Many nations including European countries have strong national police forces. In the United States, a number of federal agencies have their own police powers. At the beginning of the twenty-first century some seventeen thousand police organizations existed in the United States, all operating with some degree of independence.

The U.S. policing system is highly decentralized, meaning its forces are widely spread throughout the states and each with varying amounts of power and independence. This kind of policing system was created by early American colonists who opposed having an authoritarian (highly centralized government power) police force, the kind they had while under British rule. The decentralized structure of the U.S. system, however, meant it evolved very slowly for the next century and beyond.

For much of U.S. history, few rules existed to guide policing. Not until the early twentieth century did police reformers and the courts begin setting strict rules about police procedures. In the 1960s, the most active period during which courts established guidelines, new rules guided key police activities such as identifying suspects, arrest procedures, searching for evidence, and interrogation. Much of this court activity resulted from minorities seeking protection from police abuse.

Police in modern society look after the health, safety, welfare, and general morals of society. They maintain social order in communities and protect people's civil liberties (protections from unreasonable government actions). Police are responsible for solving crimes; enforcing traffic, drug, and firearms laws; carrying out routine patrols; and working with communities to prevent crime of all kinds.

Early policing

Though societies have had codes of behavior for thousands of years since ancient Babylon and the later civilizations of Rome and Greece, the existence of professional police forces to enforce the codes has a much shorter history. The term "police" comes from a Greek word politeia meaning business concerning the order of the state.

France established police including constables and night watchmen over a thousand years ago but did not create a central police force until much later in the seventeenth century. Similarly, the English had created policing roles in the eleventh century. The constable position is considered the first formal type of police officer. Next came sheriffs, who policed county-like areas of England. By the early fourteenth century a justice of the peace position was established in England to serve judicial duties and support policing activities.

During the American colonial period prior to the American Revolution the first type of police in the colonies were county sheriffs. The sheriffs not only kept the peace and fought crime, but also performed various legal functions such as serving court papers, collecting taxes, maintaining jails, and supervising elections. To assist sheriffs were undersheriffs, jailers, county clerks, and deputy sheriffs. The towns, still small in size, had volunteer constables and night watchmen.

Colonial governors often appointed the sheriffs and constables. Boston was the first colonial settlement to use night watchmen beginning in the 1630s. Besides watching for crime and spotting fires, night watchmen would also announce the time and weather conditions. Constables delivered warrants, supervised the night watchmen, and carried out the routine local government functions of the community. Over time, cities added town marshals, city councils, and justices to backup the constables and watchmen.

The southern colonies, where slavery was a key part of the region's economy, created slave patrols by the 1740s to police the black slave populations. They protected white citizens from slaves, fought slave uprisings, and captured runaway slaves. All capable men between eighteen and fifty years of age were expected to serve for a certain time. Historians consider the slave patrols the first modern police force in the United States.

Few changes occurred in colonial policing until later in the eighteenth century. Following the French and Indian War (1756–63), in which the British defeated the French on the American frontier to seal their control of North America, an economic depression hit the colonies. A major rise in crime followed, primarily involving property and street crimes. Each colony and settlement responded individually to needs for improved policing with little or no coordination of efforts.

Even the new U.S. Constitution adopted in 1787 following victory over British forces did not specifically mention policing. The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution adopted in 1791, known as the Bill of Rights, did set important limitations on governmental police powers.

Founding Father and future U.S. president James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17) powerfully argued for the adoption of these criminal justice protections. For example, the Fourth Amendment guarded against unreasonable search and seizure. It required search and arrest warrants issued by a magistrate (judge) before police could conduct a search or make an arrest. The warrants had to be based on probable cause (sufficient evidence to support an arrest) identifying where the police could search and had to define what they were looking for.

The Fifth Amendment stated that an official could not force a person to be a witness against him or herself. This rule limited what police could do during an interrogation or questioning of a suspect. It also grants due process of law, meaning everyone must be treated fairly and their civil liberties respected regarding interrogations, undercover operations, and identification procedures that in modern days includes the use of fingerprinting, lineups, blood types, and DNA testing. Due process means the police cannot use torture, threats against family members, or deprive suspects of basic needs. The Sixth Amendment guaranteed a person the right to have an attorney present during any questioning and court proceedings.

Immediately following adoption of the new U.S. Constitution, the first U.S. Congress passed the first laws of the new nation. One act created federal marshals, the first federal police officers. The marshal was responsible for seeing that federal court orders were carried out and to enforce the first few criminal laws created in 1790. Communities still relied on volunteer constables and night watchmen.

On the western frontier, few federal or local police could be found. Order was maintained by groups of citizens, called vigilantes, beginning in the 1790s. As the frontier moved westward toward the Pacific Ocean over the next sixty years, vigilantism moved with it.

Policing developments that developed in Europe in the early 1800s eventually influenced America. Napoleon Bonaparte, leader of France from 1799 to 1815, expanded the duties of the French national police force to gather intelligence information. By the 1820s the growing industrialized city of London, England, was facing increased social and economic problems. With high unemployment, crime was on the rise. In 1829 under the direction of Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850), the city established its first professional police department, the Metropolitan Police Force of London, to keep order.

The London police, called "bobbies" after Robert Peel's first name (Bobby, short for Robert), wore uniforms and had military-like discipline. They considered themselves full-time civil servants. Their main responsibility was to conduct "preventive patrols" to discourage crime simply by their presence or being seen around their communities.

Professional policing

Through the first decades of the nineteenth century U.S. communities were growing into cities with rapid industrial growth. Along with larger populations and increased crowding came civil disorder. The volunteer system of constables and night watchmen were soon outmatched by growing crime rates. Various cities tried new arrangements of replacing volunteer constables and night watchmen with more formal, paid police forces.

In the 1830s a series of riots occurred primarily in Boston, often involving groups of Catholics and Irish immigrants. In response, some of the larger cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York began moving toward professional policing. New York City was the first American city to establish a professional police force and other cities gradually followed. These included Chicago (1851), New Orleans and Cincinnati (1852), Philadelphia (1855), St. Louis (1856), Newark and Baltimore (1857), Detroit (1865), and Buffalo (1866). Modeled after the London police force, they also
adopted a preventive patrol approach. Once established in the larger cities, the development of police forces spread quickly to smaller communities.

During the American Civil War (1861–65; war in the United States between the Union [North], who was opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [South], who was in favor of slavery) federal policing expanded. A priority for U.S. marshals was arresting Southern sympathizers in the Northern states. In 1865 Congress created the Secret Service to combat counterfeiting, a major problem since the country first began making its own currency. The assassinations of U.S. presidents in 1865, 1881, and 1901 led to the Secret Service becoming responsible for the protection of the U.S. presidents as well.

Important differences from the London police existed; the newly created U.S. police answered to local political leaders instead of being an independent police department. As a result, city councilmen often appointed friends into key police positions as rewards for support. Since they were not a part of city government, police related to the local public on an individual basis, building personal working relationships, and following community standards. As a result, enforcement varied from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Such a loose system of policing meant police were vulnerable to corruption. They often patrolled on foot alone, out of contact from the police sergeant in a time before officers carried two-way radios. Telegraph technology arrived in the 1850s and connected police stations by their typed messages, but telephones were not available until the late 1800s. Corruption involved almost all police departments, from chiefs to patrolmen. Police shared in the gains of thieves and received regular payoffs from criminals. Policemen often bought their promotions within a police department, paying thousands of dollars.

Much of policing in the nineteenth century involved community service activities such as assisting the homeless and poor, maintaining order, making arrests for drunkenness, or returning lost children to their homes or orphanages. In the 1890s with the further growth of industrial cities and the arrival of thousands of immigrants from east European countries, the police began handling more serious crime like murders, assaults, and burglaries as crime rates grew along with the city populations.

Private police

The increased crime rates following the Civil War led businesses such as banks and railroad companies to hire private police services. The private agents not only protected cargo and property, but also actually pursued criminals and broke strikes by employees of the companies that hired them. Unlike local police they had no particular jurisdiction and could pursue suspects from town to town and across state lines.

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was formed in the mid-nineteenth century and its agents even served as spies during the Civil War. By the 1870s the Pinkertons had established the first nationwide criminal database for its agents. More private police organizations appeared over the next few decades including the Burns National Detective Agency in 1904 by William J. Burns, a former Secret Service employee.

Seeking reform

By the end of the nineteenth century, politicians and the public pushed for reform to make police departments more professional and part of the city government. As part of the city, police forces would no longer be controlled by political leaders such as mayors and councilmen. The reformers wanted training programs, increased standards for recruits, and focus more on crime and less on civil service.

One of the lead reformers in New York City in the 1890s was future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–09). He served as the newly created city police commissioner. Roosevelt believed in promotions based on merit (the performance of the individual) and tougher physical and mental requirements. Unfortunately, little came from these reform efforts.

In the first decades of the twentieth century patrol officers still worked twelve-hour days and were poorly paid. Most police departments did not even require their officers to have a high school degree. As employees in other workplaces such as factories began to form labor unions (organizations that sought better working conditions), police attempted to create their own unions. This trend, however, was short-lived; in 1919 most of the Boston police force went on strike for the right to form a union. While the officers were on strike a crime wave hit Boston and police lost all public support to improve their working conditions. Most of the strikers were fired and the police union movement disappeared until well after World War II.

National crime spree

Through the 1920s crime became a national issue for the first time. Prohibition, which banned the sale, manufacture, possession, and transportation of liquor, brought crime syndicates, gangsters, and bootleggers (those who sold liquor illegally) plenty of business. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), first formed in 1862 during the Civil War, had much of the responsibility for tracking bootleggers.


Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, killing some three thousand people, policing in the United States experienced major new challenges. Intelligence gathering gained greater attention and counterterrorism led to much greater cooperation among police organizations of all levels of government.

Police resorted to a range of investigation tools from high tech monitoring devices to consulting with psychologists about the behavior of terrorists. Police found that terrorists were quite different than usual criminals; street criminals often acted on impulse taking advantage of opportunities and were untrained and undisciplined. Terrorists, driven by strong political and religious beliefs, carefully planned their activities, sometimes over long time periods.

In October 2001, just over a month after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (more commonly known as the Patriot Act). The act loosened the restrictions on police for obtaining personal information about citizens. People no longer needed to be suspects in a crime for the police to access information about them.

Under the act, the FBI could deliver a letter to a doctor's office or librarian demanding the personal records of a specific individual without a warrant. Warrants could also be obtained for electronic surveillance without naming specific individuals. Warrants had to identify only what area or electronic system was to be tapped. The act was the subject of much debate. It spelled out that the greatest challenge for police was to prevent future terrorist attacks while protecting the civil liberties of its citizens.

The U.S. Customs Service was in charge of guarding the nation's borders to keep smugglers from bringing liquor (and
later drugs) into the country illegally. Even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) went after criminals—by charging them with tax evasion (not paying taxes). After other law enforcement agencies tried and failed numerous times to convict notorious gangster Al Capone (1899–1947) of various crimes, the IRS nailed him for tax evasion and sent him to prison.

Still, crime was out of control. In 1929 President Herbert C. Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33) appointed U.S. attorney general George Wickersham (1858–1936) to head a national commission to study crime and punishment in the nation. The commission produced fourteen volumes by 1931. The volumes addressed various issues related to policing, including police corruption and the use of too much force, which lead to violence against suspects. Much of the policing sections was written by Los Angeles police chief August Vollmer (1876–1955).


Major steps toward professionalism were led by a number of prominent police chiefs around the nation including Vollmer. Police departments adopted codes of ethics to combat corruption and established education requirements for recruits. Police academies were established and San Jose State College offered the first training program for professional policing in 1931. Police departments adopted formal rules and hiring practices to further separate themselves from political influence.

Police departments also adopted modern technologies such as establishing forensic laboratories. The biggest technological change had come by the 1920s with the automobile. Policing was revolutionized with the widespread use of police cars and two-way radios. The radios put officers in continuous contact with their sergeants at the police station and allowed them to be much more responsive to calls from the public. Unfortunately, patrol cars also served to separate police from the community as they were no longer on foot patrols. Nonetheless police were more efficient, responded faster, and had new technologies to help them solve and prevent crimes. These tools led to greater professionalism and a drop in corruption.

During this time J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972) overhauled the U.S. Bureau of Investigation into a top notch professional federal police agency. Hoover and his G-Men, as the agents were called, became famous with their capture and killing of several notorious crime figures in the early 1930s. As a result Congress gave the bureau expanded crime fighting responsibilities such as kidnappings, crossing state lines to avoid prosecution or testifying, carrying stolen goods across state lines, and drug enforcement. In 1935 the agency changed its name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and established an academy to train local police officers.

Like other federal agencies, the FBI grew throughout the 1930s with its new responsibilities—which in turn led to a decline in the role of U.S. marshals. Marshals, however, continued to serve court papers and to patrol the courts. The federal government had also expanded its policing powers with the addition of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 1940 as part of the Department of Justice.

Changes in police agencies

A trend toward forming state police organizations grew throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Fifteen states established state police forces by World War II. State police forces first appeared in Texas and Massachusetts during the previous century. The Texas Rangers had existed off and on through the 1800s and were officially established in 1874. Massachusetts also experimented with a state police force beginning in 1865, primarily aimed at Irish immigrants and Irish Americans and enforcing liquor laws.

Following World War II the steady progress toward increased police professionalism continued through the 1950s among the nation's police departments as standards continued to rise. A leader at this time was Chicago police commissioner Orlando W. Wilson (1900–1972) who established a criminology program at the University of California at Berkeley.

Then came the 1960s, a traumatic period in U.S. history in many ways. Policing in the United States changed dramatically. Civil rights demonstrations were increasing, antiwar protests grew, and race riots erupted. These events brought new and staggering demands on police forces. The general crime rate doubled during the decade including a particularly steep increase in violent crime. Not only was the existing police system unable to deter crime, but police actions often triggered riots.

Beginning in the mid-1950s the Civil Rights movement involved black Americans fighting discriminatory laws and city ordinances limiting their use of public places like restaurants and hotels. The movement's civil disobedience (challenging rules of public behavior) included "sit-ins," which blocked access to places like offices, sidewalks, or streets; boycotts (getting groups of people to stop buying certain goods or services); and demonstrations in the streets. These activities led to direct confrontations or clashes with local police. They even led to conflicts between state police enforcing local laws and U.S. federal marshals enforcing federal court rulings. By being forced to uphold discriminatory laws passed by local politicians, the police themselves became a symbol of inequality.

By the late 1960s, race and antiwar riots erupted in various U.S. cities. The antiwar movement adopted many of the civil disobedience measures practiced by the supporters of civil rights. Well-known battles between police and antiwar protestors became common. The notable example was the Chicago riots in the summer of 1968 during the Democratic National Convention. An investigative commission after the riots was so critical of police reaction that they called the Chicago conflict a "police riot."

A number of race riots erupted in various cities across the nation including New York in 1964, Los Angeles in 1965, Newark and Detroit in 1967, and Washington, D.C., in 1968. Race riots were started by routine police traffic stops in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and in Newark, New Jersey, while a police raid on a bar started a riot in Detroit. Police lost considerable respect among the public during the decade.

Support for police

Two national commissions on crime were established in the mid-1960s to determine how to improve policing in America—President Lyndon Johnson's (1908–1973; served 1963–69) Crime Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, and the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The commissions found major police weaknesses including abuse of power, brutality, harassment, and a lack of training on how to control riots. They also noted the poor relations between police and community
members, racial discrimination in arrests and hiring, and continued problems of corruption in some departments including New York, Denver, and Chicago. Among some two hundred recommendations, the commissions called for improved training programs and the hiring of minorities.

To bolster local police departments, Congress created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) in 1965 to provide federal funding to improve policing. Over a ten-year period billions of dollars went to the various states to improve police departments. Part of the funding purchased new weapons including tanks, armored cars, computer systems, helicopters, and riot control equipment. Funding available through LEAA quickly rose from $63 million in 1969 to $700 million in 1972.

Protecting civil liberties

During the 1960s police also saw increased restrictions on their activities. Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 requiring warrants for any kind of electronic eavesdropping (like tapping someone's phone to listen in on conversations). The U.S. Supreme Court under Justice Earl Warren (1891–1974) made several landmark decisions between 1961 and 1966 affirming the rights of suspects to be advised of their rights before questioning (Miranda Rights) and to prevent police from illegal searches and the seizure of a suspect's property without proper cause and the necessary court-approved documents (the exclusionary rule).

The Supreme Court expanded a much earlier decision issued in 1914 about search and seizure rules. Until 1914 search and seizure was handled more through a trespassing law rather than as a constitutional protection. But in Weeks v. U.S. (1914), the Court ruled that any evidence obtained in violation of a suspect's Fourth Amendment rights could not be used as evidence against him or her in court proceedings and must be excluded.

In short, the "exclusionary rule" states that evidence obtained illegally by the police cannot be used in a court of law. Since the Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government and federal law officers, however, evidence gained illegally by state or local police could still be used in a federal court. Supreme Court Justice Warren extended the exclusionary rule to include search and seizures by state and local police in addition to federal authorities.

The Fifth Amendment provided the basis for Miranda Rights, established in a 1966 Supreme Court ruling. According to the decision, police must advise people being arrested that they have the right to remain silent, that anything they say can be used against them, they have a right to a lawyer, and that a lawyer will be provided if they cannot afford one. Many foreign countries have adopted some form of the Miranda Rights.

Despite the increased police patrols and presence through the late 1960s and early 1970s the crime rate stayed high. Police considered the restrictions on their tactics by the Supreme Court a major problem. Many criminologists attributed the high crime rates to the number of seventeen to thirty-four-year-olds in the population at the time.

Changing views

The increased professionalism of public police departments in the 1930s led to their dominance over private police organizations until the 1970s. The high crime rates of the 1960s and 1970s, however, led to the rapid growth of private security firms. By 1975 there were twice as many private police as public. By 1990 two million private security officers
(like bodyguards) were employed in the country compared to six hundred thousand in public police agencies. This trend toward private policing continued into the twenty-first century as security from terrorism became a greater concern.

By the 1980s with a strong public push to "get tough on crime," police forces saw a change in support and respect from their communities. Retiring members of the Supreme Court brought in new justices who were more conservative or traditional in their thought and decisions. The Court made rulings favoring the prosecution of crime rather than protecting the rights of the accused. Restrictions were eased on searches and stopping suspicious persons. The exclusionary rule was relaxed making it easier to obtain warrants.

Police in cities, such as New York, performed shakedowns or pat-down searches of suspicious people on the sidewalks, reducing the number of illegal firearms. Most searches occurred without warrants in situations outside of homes where a warrant was not needed, such as traffic stops or on the streets while in pursuit of a criminal. Roadblocks and searches only required reasonable suspicion, not probable cause and a warrant. Flying over property in a helicopter or small plane did not require warrants, so police could keep an eye out for suspicious activity by air. Also, if a person agreed to a police search, then Fourth Amendment protections were not involved.

Another major change brought back policing practices of the nineteenth century. These were foot as well as bike patrols. Known as community policing, the overall police strategy changed from reacting to calls for assistance to working in partnership with community members to prevent crime and increase the chances of catching criminals. Citizen cooperation was encouraged and programs like Neighborhood Watch and Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) helped heal relations between police and the public. By the end of the twentieth century, well over half of all U.S. communities had adopted some form of neighborhood policing.

Another major change came with adoption of a new theory in policing to control crime known as "Broken Windows." Police focused on stopping minor or lesser crimes, which in turn restored order to the streets. As a result, major crimes also decreased in those areas.

The 1990s proved a better period for policing in America. Crime rates went down and stayed down, particularly for violent crimes, which fell 30 percent in New York City in 1995. The drop in crime was probably due to more police, increased tactics to seize illegal guns, longer prison sentences, more prisons, more jobs, and a decline in drug use. Perhaps the biggest factor was the aging population: males between seventeen and thirty-four years of age had grown up and settled down.

Major challenges

In the twenty-first century policing in the United States remained divided between a number of agencies with differing powers and jurisdictions. Local police forces answered to their communities; police chiefs were elected and the public had the power to reelect or deny them another term. City councils, made up of elected officials, created laws and determined how they would be enforced. A major police responsibility remained the protection of civil rights and the freedom of every community's citizens. All citizens were to be treated fairly and equally regardless of economic status, race, or religion.

Police challenges in the new millennium include random crimes that seem to have no motive or intent; monitoring gang activities; using video surveillance equipment that many believe threatens privacy; and guarding against possible terrorist attacks.

For More Information


Conser, James A., and Gregory D. Russell. Law Enforcement in the United States. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen, 2000.

Gaines, Larry K., Victor E. Kappeler, and J. B. Vaughn. Policing in America. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson, 1994.

Miller, Wilbur R. Cops and Bobbies: Police Authority in New York and London, 1830–1870. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Morn, Frank. "The Eye That Never Sleeps": A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Oliver, Willard M. Community-Oriented Policing: A Systematic Approach to Policing. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Walker, Samuel. The Police in America: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.

Web Sites

Court TV's Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods.http://www.crimelibrary.com (accessed on August 19, 2004).

"LAPD Had the Nation's First Police Woman." Los Angeles Almanac.http://www.losangelesalmanac.com/topics/Crime/cr73b.htm (accessed on August 19, 2004)

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