10 Things to Know About the Evolution of the Police in the United States

By Larry Holzwarth

Policing in America’s cities was developed along similar lines to that in England’s urban centers, particularly London. In the American south, county and state slave catching forces arose to pursue runaway slaves, a precursor to organized police departments. In the west, towns elected or appointed sheriffs and marshals to enforce local ordinances and customs. The development of formalized police forces was spasmodic throughout American history.

It began in the earliest days of colonial settlement, the settlers brought with them the customs of the villages and towns which they left behind. In some early colonial settlements the military assumed the duties of patrolling the streets for public safety and to reduce crime. In the puritanical New England settlements sin and crime were often viewed as one and the same, and religious leaders supervised the policing of their flocks, with the sins of those who strayed announced to the congregation from the pulpit.

The New York Municipal Police were replaced by the New York Metropolitan Police, leading to rioting between the two forces. Library of Congress

Here are ten events in the evolution of police forces in the United States.

Drawings of lanterns of a type which would have been carried by the nightwatch in Philadelphia in colonial days. Wikimedia

The night watchman

In the early colonial settlements, the citizens themselves assumed a large proportion of ensuring the streets were kept safe. Gentlemen were expected to wear swords or dirks as they went about their daily affairs. Towns, especially those which were built around a port, quickly developed less than desirable neighborhoods, with bars and houses of ill repute, and dark alleys where a hapless wanderer could be readily relieved of purse and other valuables.

There was also the ever present danger of fire, as cinders from chimneys could be easily transferred to roofs often thatched or shingled with cedar or other flammable material. To guard the community during the night hours, when there were fewer people on the streets, the practice of setting a watchman, or several watchmen, began when the colonies were but a few years old. Boston, founded in 1630, first placed watchmen on the streets in 1636.

The watchmen were effective as alarms of fires for the most part, but their effectiveness against crime was less laudable. Watchmen, unsupervised as they went about their duties, often alleviated their boredom by drinking. In some instances watchmen were assigned the job as punishment for some indiscretion or other. The practice of calling the hour aloud was established in some communities to prove the watchman was on duty and not sleeping through his shift.

New York established a night watch in 1658, placing several watchmen on the streets of an evening. Philadelphia didn’t establish a night watch until 1700. Though the watch was sometimes a volunteer, often a task taken to evade service in the militia, he was usually unarmed as he went about his duties, or armed merely with a staff. He carried a bell (in Boston a rattle) with which to sound the alarm in the event of trouble, to which citizens were expected to respond.

After the Revolutionary War, several of the eastern cities added a day watchman, with Philadelphia being the first in 1833. The day watchmen were supported by constables in the larger cities. The constables were federal officers employed by the Justice Department to serve warrants, and they were usually paid by the number of warrants they served. Some cities placed their watchmen under the supervision of the constables, just to have someone keeping an eye on them.