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History and Development of American Policing

March 21, 2012
The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/N...

The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/Norman battle in 1066 which led to the Norman Conquest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This paper will look at various aspects of the following subject matters, the role of the police, police and minority relations, and the evolution of policing in America attempting to highlight how policing has responded and changed over the course of the Nation’s history.  The paper starts by looking at the role of those wishing to preserve law and social order in early pre-western societies.  Followed by policing in Colonial times continuing to the present, including several eras marked by major changes in paradigm.  Next, it focuses on the complexity of minority-police relations including ways in which the institution of slavery has affected policing and policing policy in America to this very day.  Finally, the paper addresses aspects of the evolution of policing, especially as it pertains to the future of policing, bearing in mind the many forces that have shaped its past.

Role of Police

Many elements key to the evolution and role of policing in America took place long before there was an “America” to police.  Previous to the rise of the earliest western societies’ lex talons or “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” such as that found in the Code of Hammurabi, 1772 BC  (Harper) gave societies a way of achieving general deterrence and social order.  “In addition to criminal matters this code regulated matters of contract, such as the wages to be paid to an ox driver or a surgeon.  Other parts dealt with transactions, or the liability of a builder for a house that collapses; another addressed damaged property left in the care of someone else.  A full third of the code addressed issues related to households and family relationships such as inheritance, divorce, paternity and sexual behavior.  One provision appears to impose obligations on officials; stating that a judge who reaches an incorrect decision is to be fined and removed from the bench permanently.  Another provision looked at issues related to military service.  It is also one of the earliest known examples of a presumption of innocence, suggesting that both the accused and accuser have the opportunity to provide evidence.”  (“Code of hammurabi,” 2011)

Unlike most secular societies today, often time’s back then family members of the injured party not the state imposed penalties for breaking rules and codes.  Frequently these reprisals were brutally disproportional to the original harm caused by the offense undermining the social conventions and controls these societies needed to survive.  Codes like that of Hammurabi offered more standardized, orderly, and socially established ways to conduct interpersonal matters and maintain a semblance of balance i.e. justice when cultural or state laws and norms were broken.  These conventions were early attempts to establish social order by making punishment more fitting to the crime as follows, “These laws had scaled punishments and were adjusted depending on social status i.e. free person or slave and addressed various categories such as contracts, family relations, and other obligations and liabilities ” (Könemann/Tandem Verlag, 2005).  Though current policing organizations and their agents differ greatly from that of ancient times, lex talon, i.e. (deterrence) continues to be the chief task of the modern secular police force in America.  Per Kelling and Moore (2005 p. 102), “The community strategy emphasizes crime control and prevention as an indirect result of, or an equal partner to, the other activities.”

The path that American policing has taken to its modern role more formally begins following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 and the “establishment of the community model known as the “frankpledge” (Uchida, 2004 p. 3) also called, “the Mutual Pledge System established by Alfred the Great in medieval Britain.  Alfred was troubled about pilfering and murder amongst his subjects, largely because destitute, injured or dead citizens could not pay taxes.  Under his system it was the DUTY of every subject to “raise the hue and cry” if he or she knew of a crime, and to serve on a “posse” seeking out and bringing the wrongdoer before the King’s Court for judgment.  If they failed in this duty, the Crown levied a fine against them.  This self-policing system lasted in many parts of England into the 19th Century.”  (Stevens,  p. 5)

This official system required that all males age twelve years old and above tithe or group up with nine of his neighbors.  Janet Backhouse (2005) a respected manuscript expert and former Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at The British Library writes, “Communities were divided into ten-family groups called tithings.  Every 10 tithings, or 100 families, were known as a hundred.  These tithings were responsible for maintaining peace within their boundaries.  The mutual pledge system ensured that neighbors shared in crime control.”  Eventually a constable appointed by the King called the shire reeve or (sheriff) oversaw these groups.  Community based, this system persisted until the mid-1300s at which time the Crown established the office of Justice of the Peace.  A system with more centralized authority, it provided the constables’ and shire reeve the power to serve warrants and take prisoners into custody.

This is the model of policing and legal heritage that the colonists brought with them to America, “the American legal system traces its origins to England and therefore is referred to as Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American law or (common law)”, (Neubauer & Fradella, 2011, p. 29) as such it is the basic prototype of American policing.  However, since the time of the colonies the role of American policing has gone through many changes, based on the prevailing historical policy or objective of that time.  According to Kelling and Moore, these changes represent different eras that are, “distinguished from one another by the apparent dominance of a particular strategy of policing”.  These periods or times include the “political era” circa 1840s to early 1900s (including the Progressive Period circa 1880 to 1920).  Followed by the “reform era” (circa the 1930s to the 1970s) which according to Kelling and Moore, “ought to be seen as a reaction to the inherent corruption of the political era that resulted due to the intimacy between the police, the politicians, and the citizens as they struggled for control over the police and policing policy”.  Leading up to the present period they call the “community problem-solving era” which is hallmarked by the broadening of the functions and role of the police in society.  (Kelling & Moore, 2005 p. 89)

As a society increases in size and diversity, one cannot overestimate the import to members of its dominant culture the power of its police to appear and be able to act as legitimate agents of the government and social control.  Invariably all the pressures which have shaped policing policy and the police can be traced back to one or more of the dominant factions or issues central to that point in time.  As Krisberg puts it, (2005 p. 41) “All through the course of American history, a range of privileged and influential persons or groups have busily attempted to shape the police and policing policy to fit their ends and needs.  Often times using their stated goals such as protection from criminal elements or the establishment of social stability to mask their true ethos, to found a more perfect control system guaranteeing the continued hegemony of those with wealth and privilege.”

Currently the police are the most noticeable and significant elements of the criminal justice system.  More than any other parts of American culture the “men in blue” symbolize the law, i.e. (social control) at all levels of government be it local, county, state, or federal.  They are recognized by the members of the dominate culture as the legitimate agents that enforce society’s rules and norms, per Stevens (p. 2)  “Thus when someone says “the law”, he or she is usually talking about the police due to the high visibility and wide discretion given to the police officer”.  Consequently, the primary role of the police in America is deterrence i.e. to shield its citizens and institutions from the behaviors and actions of others of its citizens or foreign nationals when they are in violation of the duly legislated statutory laws and rules of the nation.  According to Harvard sociologist James Q. Wilson, (p. 24) “Community-Oriented Policing (COP) is the final evolution from community service, where police partner with the community to identify and remedy crime-breeding situations.  COP, thus, represents a return to the original mission of police— preventing crime.”

Interestingly the idea of justice per se would seem to have little to do with this mission.

Police and Minorities

“… there is an underside to every age about which history does not often speak, because history is written from records left by the privileged.  We learn about politics from the political leaders, about economics from the entrepreneurs, about slavery from the plantation owners, about the thinking of an age from its intellectual elite.”  Howard Zinn   (2005)

In their essay The Evolving Strategy of Police: A Minority View, Williams and Murphy (1990 p. 109) pose a very important question, “how have slavery, segregation, discrimination, and racism affected the development of American police departments and how have these factors affected the quality of policing in the Nation’s minority communities”.  Bearing in mind Howard Zinn’s missive, (2005) “history is both written and controlled by the privileged”, one can easily understand the nature of the concern Williams and Murphy are making with their query.

The protracted history of lawfully sanctioned slavery in America, plus the more recent Jim Crow “separate but equal”-de jure segregation in the Southern states circa 1876 to 1965 as well as the de facto segregation past and present in many Northern cities and states have all to varying degrees dictated and shaped scores of this Nation’s policing policies.

The law not only permitted but sustained slavery, segregation, and discrimination for most of our Nation’s history simultaneously the police had a legal mandate to maintain it.  Creating in effect a blueprint for current police behaviors and attitudes towards minorities that persists to this day.  Examples of this view include, “minorities possess limited civil rights, police need to keep them under control, and police have little legal duty for protecting them from crime within their communities.  Williams and Murphy, (1990 p. 110)

Hysteresis is a term meaning deficiency or lagging behind that is used to describe the order of multi-state physical systems but one could just as aptly apply it to the state of minority police relations.  Although present-day issues and crisis obscure this reality to many in the general public as well as scores of policy makers, the truth is, the future state of  minority police relations has largely been determined by its past.  This is precisely the point Williams and Murphy make.  The denial and neglect of America’s historical treatment of race and racial issues acts like a fatal flaw in the formation of contemporary policing policies.  Much like a dog, chasing its tail endlessly going in circles, ignorant of the fact there is no point in ever catching it.  Should we persist in formulating present-day policing policy bereft historical perspective we will only succeed to prolong in the coming decades the same kind of myopic lurching from this new “fix” to the next that has typified the ones past.

The only way to effect, ameliorative change in minority police relations is by factoring in the historical nature of these relations as well as current issues and problems.  Continuing to deny this will only make matters worse or as Williams and Murphy (p. 126) have put it “the history of American police strategies cannot be separated from the history of the Nation as a whole… improving relationships between the police and minorities hinges on dealing with the many bitter legacies from that larger history”.

In part five of his paper, the development of the American police: an historical overview, Craig D. Uchida (2004 p. 22) illustrates the situation of minority, police relations from a more contemporary perspective, “Policing in America encountered its most serious crisis in the 1960s.  The rise in crime, the civil rights movement, anti-war sentiment, and riots in the cities brought the police into the center of a maelstrom.”

Many of America’s festering problems and evils came to a head during this period.  The 60s brought with them a pervasive desire to end the “Establishment’s” war in Vietnam as well as the forte of the modern American Civil Rights Movement (1954–1968).  Beginning with the 1954, U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), to King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon, his assassination days later, and the riots that followed in many cities across the United States.  It was a very turbulent time in America history.

American society found itself once more fractured along Establishment vs. Anti-Establishment lines.  These fissures have existed in one form or another since Colonial times and now once again they were becoming visible, this time in the nature of the civil rights movement, “sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, boycotts of segregated bus services, school integration attempts, and public demonstrations lead to more and more frequent confrontations with law enforcement officers”.  (p. 22)

Earlier in the movement for civil rights, these conflicts had been mostly local phenomena but as the 60s progressed, increased media focus began making them national news.  As well at this time, crime rates were escalating, especially in the major cities where “increases in violent crime were alarming the Nation, the public started to doubt the police’s ability to control crime.  The police, once the symbol of American law and order became almost overnight, symbols of a society that denied blacks equal justice under the law”.  (p. 22)

Uchida (p. 31-32) concludes with these thoughts, “Riots, disorders, and corruption are not new to American policing.  …by studying history, we can give contextual meaning to current police problems, ideas, and situations.  By looking at the past, present-day events can be better understood”.  In this case, the past may well set us free.

Steven Tuch and Ronald Weitzer (1997 p. 647-648) studied a representative sampling of major surveys on the topic of citizen attitudes toward the police.  Citing the findings of  Decker, Smith, Graham, and Adams that, “Public opinion in general is sensitive to the influence of major events, and race has long been a strong predictor of attitudes toward the police, with African-Americans more likely than whites to express unfavorable attitudes toward various aspects of policing.  (Decker 1981; Smith, Graham, and Adams 1991)  They went on to look at this issue more closely.

In addition to the findings of Decker Smith Graham and Adams regarding the sensitivity of public opinion as well as race’s correlation per attitudes toward the police.  Tuch and Weitzer (p. 648) found also that “blacks and whites differ in their reactions to police brutality incidents despite the fact that both groups are affected adversely the magnitude of the change is greater for blacks than for whites consequently subsequent incidents of police brutality the perceptions held by blacks tended to be more negative and exhibited greater longevity.”  Although their results also showed that attitudes in both groups (p. 648) “eventually returns to approximately its pre-incident level” it would only seem to make sense that incidents such as these exacerbate and more firmly set the long-standing systemic difficulties in police minority relations increasing the difficulty of remediating them more generally in the long run.

Policing Evolution

According to Dr. Eugene Stevens, (p. 5) “the history of police is circular; initially public police started walking beats with a mission of preventing crime, after many changes over the years, scores of departments today are returning to this original mission— preventing crime by through coordination and partnership with the people they serve”.

Beginning with the Mutual Pledge System model of policing and legal heritage that the colonists brought with them to America, “the American legal system traces its origins to England and therefore is referred to as Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American law or (common law)”, (Neubauer & Fradella, 2011,  p. 29) to the current paradigm of community policing.  The development of policing as institutions in America i.e. the ways in which they actually do things and how they actually do them has had more to do with their organizational and bureaucratic character than “with what actually needs doing”.  (Bayley, 2005 p. 148)  This not to say that policing policy is free from the influences of the greater society in which it resides, but only that regardless the mission given to it by the dominant culture the strategies and tactics used by the police are constrained or hobbled due to the inertia of their structural composition.  Alternatively, to put a more colloquial spin on it, if all you have is a hammer, then every problem begins to look like a nail.

Bayley (1998  p. 5) makes an added interesting point in his paper, Policing in America, assessment and prospects, which is “I suspect that the future of American policing will not be shaped by research or strategic planning.  The role, function, and strategies of police are more likely to reflect the impact of forces that are unseen by either scholars or police practitioners”.  Here he is referring to a growing trend in developed nations towards dualism in policing, in which private police protect the rich while public police provide security to the poor.  He notes several concerns with this trend, one of these being, as the affluent increasingly rely on private police they will be less willing to support public policing thru taxes, which he contends is already the case with public education.  Alternatively, along these lines he also postulates the rich could continue to support public policing but only “on the condition that its approach to crime prevention among the poor emphasizes deterrence rather than the service approach characteristic of community policing”.  (p. 5)

Already the first of these concerns seems to be having some impact on policing and it seems the second is as well, as deterrence remains the foremost priority of the Criminal Justice System.  In addition, Bayley (p. 6) refers to the push for a restructuring of government both as to its size and scope that asks what should the government do, to whom, and who should pay for it?  The winner of this struggle will no doubt play a significant role in the future setting of policing policy in terms of both its means and in terms of its direction.  Bayley has some praise for the “unique institutional ethos of the American police, which incorporates fact-based evaluation, openness to observation, and responsiveness to diverse opinions”.  As well as what he terms as, “the most distinctive aspects of American policing, its responsiveness and accountability”.

Begging the question; based on their history in this nation, who are American policing and the police responsive and accountable to?


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Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

Code of hammurabi. (2011, December 08). Retrieved from

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and Suggestions for Future Policy.’’ Journal of Police Science and Administration


Gabriele Bartz, Eberhard König, (Arts and Architecture), Könemann, Köln, (2005), ISBN-3833119438.

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Police: Attitudinal and Behavioral Questions.’’ In Race and Criminal Justice, ed.

Michael Lynch and E. Britt Patterson, pp. 22–35. New York: Harrow & Heston.

Stevens,, D. (n.d.). Fundamentals of police law enforcement. Informally published manuscript, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina.

Tuch, S. A., & Weitzer, R. (1997). Trends: Racial differences in attitudes toward the police. The Public Opinion Quarterly , Vol. 61(No. 4), 642-663.

Uchida, C. D. (2004). The development of the american police: An historical overview. Critical Issues in Policing:Contemporary Readings, Waveland Press, Inc., 23.

Williams, H., & Murphy, P. (1990). The evolving strategy of police: A minority view. In T. Newburn (Ed.), Perspectives on policing (p. 109). New York: Routledge.

Zinn, H. (2005). A people’s history of the united states. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

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