The History of the Police in the US

A Broad Overview

Amy Sundberg

The British Police Force Model

The “original” police force is believed to be the London Metropolitan Police, founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. Peel had developed his ideas about a police force while he was managing the British occupation of Ireland. He didn’t have the troops to quell increasing riots and civil unrest there, so he instead formed a professional force to manage crowds by infiltrating themselves amongst the protesters to identify and neutralize their leaders and particular “troublemakers.” 

Meanwhile, widespread poverty and increasing industrialization back home in the UK led to similar issues. The state needed a way to enforce new vagrancy laws, as well as to protect property, quell riots and strikes, and produce the disciplined workforce for industry the Empire needed, and thus Peel formed his police force based on the principles he’d developed in Ireland. 

The US: Fear of Immigrants and Labor Organizing in the North

The first funded full-time police force in the US was founded in Boston in 1838, partly based on Peel’s police force, and the idea quickly spread through other Northern cities. Before this, cities had private for-profit security forces as well as voluntary night watches. However, large waves of immigrants and increased city populations as well as social unrest and riots due to industrialization (inequality was rising rapidly and workers had low wages, long hours, and unsafe working conditions) led to a call for increased law and order. 

It is notable that there is no evidence of an actual crime wave at this time. However, the elites needed a system to maintain a stable and disciplined workforce and a safe community for commerce. They blamed the “dangerous classes” for social unrest and rebranded social control as crime control. Vice laws began to be created and enforced, giving more power to intervene into people’s social lives. The focus of the police was on “bad individuals” rather than on the social and economic conditions that might be underlying newly criminal behavior.

Early police officers were often chosen based on political connections and bribery. There was usually no formal training, and police were used by the political parties and local politicians to suppress voting and monitor and suppress workers’ organizations and strikes. It was common for detectives to act as fences for stolen goods and spy on political radicals. A system of payments (bribes) to the police was formed and remained standard in many departments until the 1970s. 

Slave Patrols in the South:

In the South, some of the first policing institutions were slave patrols who chased down runaway slaves and put down slave revolts; the first documented slave patrol began in 1704. Some Southern cities had paid full-time police based on the slave patrols as early as 1783. After the Civil War, these slave patrols evolved into police departments whose main concern was to force newly freed black people into subservient economic and political roles. Vagrancy laws forced black people to accept employment, often in the sharecropping system. Voter suppression tactics were adopted, and policing became a central tool of maintaining racial inequality throughout the South. Meanwhile, in the North, political leaders, afraid of the migration of newly freed Black slaves, established urban ghettos to control this population, with police on hand to contain and pacify them. 

Police in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American police departments were a primary tool for creating corruption. By the late 1880s all major US cities had a police force. Police systematically received payoffs for allowing illegal drinking, gambling, and prostitution. Police captains and sergeants for each precinct were often chosen by the local political party ward leader, who used the police for their own benefit politically. Labor unrest was widespread, and the use of police to break strikes confused the issue of workers’ rights with the issue of crime, which was convenient for elites.

At the beginning of the 20th century, police were acting as the enforcement arm of organized crime in most big cities. Prohibition (1919-1933) made the situation even worse, with organized crime becoming more open and dealing directly with the police. Police corruption by the end of Prohibition was almost total. 

Efforts to Reform and Professionalize the Police:

As cries for police reform increased, commissions began to be formed to examine the problem, including President Hoover’s Wickersham Commission in 1929. To make police independent from political party ward leaders, the map of police precincts was changed to not correspond with political wards. Other reforms included selection standards, training, new technology, and becoming more bureaucratic with a clearer chain-of-command. Professionalism continued to be touted as the means for reform in the 1950s and beyond.

Police departments were broken up into ever more specialized tasks and units.  More focus was placed on science and technological advancements, including crime lab technology, communication and record systems, and more recently, citizen surveillance. Emphasis was placed on efficiency and crime-fighting, with social work aspects of policing being discouraged. And nearly every large city police department became unionized by the late 1970s.

The Civil Rights Movement, Militarization of the Police, and More Recent Times:

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s led to more repressive policing to try to manage the unrest. In the South, the police became the front line for quashing the movement, including beating and threatening protesters, denying them permits, not protecting them from vigilantes, making discriminatory arrests, etc., while in the North and West some protests were allowed but only as long as they didn’t grow in any way militant. The police was recognized as a source of social tension during this time, and there were many riots and protests against police brutality specifically. The police handling of the protests against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s was also controversial.

Meanwhile, at the same time the US government operated a major international police training initiative called the Office of Public Safety (OPS). The training emphasized counterinsurgency, espionage, bomb making, and interrogation techniques. Many of these trainers later moved into domestic law enforcement and applied the lessons they had learned abroad. 

Beginning in 1965, when the War on Crime rhetoric began, a massive expansion of federal funding for the police provided more training and equipment, leading to the development of SWAT teams, mass incarceration, and the militarization of the police. Interestingly, law and order rhetoric (“the Southern strategy”) was originally used as a political strategy for Nixon to convince Southern whites to vote Republican, winning him two presidential elections. Eventually the idea of appearing tough on crime was embraced by the Democrats as well. The War on Crime and the War on Drugs, another initiative begun by Nixon and strengthened by Reagan and Clinton, both criminalized vast swathes of the population, including a disproportionate number of Black people.

“Broken-windows”-style policing came into favor in the 1980s. This theory stated that if cities wanted to maintain crime-free neighborhoods, they needed to apply pressure to make residents conform to social orderliness. The easiest way to accomplish this was to have a visible police presence to promote order, including more police arrests, harassment, and violence. Proponents of this theory believe that crime causes poverty and social disorder instead of the other way around.

Also in the 1980s, police forces began to consider the strategy of community policing. As Dr. Gary Potter writes, “Community policing is the latest iteration in efforts to (1) improve relations between the police and the community; (2) decentralize the police; and, (3) in response to the overwhelming body of scholarly literature which finds that the police have virtually no impact on crime, no matter their emphasis or role, provide a means to make citizens feel more comfortable about what has been a seemingly insoluble American dilemma.”

Policing Today:

The American police force was born in an effort to control “the dangerous classes,” whether that was Black and Brown people, immigrants, or union organizers, and those roots can still be seen today. The wealthy and politically powerful still benefit from exercising social control over the masses to maintain the status quo and accumulate ever more wealth. Thus they have a vested interest in keeping police forces unchanged. It is no surprise that we’re seeing a resurgence of police violence in response to the recent protests. Throughout their history in this country, police have been used to quell strikes and riots, often with whatever force is necessary. 

Unfortunately most police reform efforts have met with mixed to no success. Many reforms are used as ways to paper over the existing problems to lull the public’s concerns rather than make meaningful change. When we talk about defunding the police, we’re speaking from the knowledge that decades of attempt at reform have not borne fruit.

I’d like to end by quoting Alex S. Vitale, who in his conclusion to The End of Policing wrote, “Powerful political forces benefit from abusive, aggressive, and invasive policing, and they are not going to be won over or driven from power by technical arguments or heartfelt appeals to do the right thing….This does not mean that no one should articulate or fight for reforms. However, those reforms must be part of a larger vision that questions the basic role of police in society and asks whether coercive government action will bring more justice or less.”

It is that larger vision, one in which equity is centered and we commit to lifting up all people, not just certain groups, that we are now trying to make a reality. 

Sources:

Martin, Michel. “The History Of Policing And Race In The U.S. Are Deeply Intertwined.” All Things Considered, NPR, 13 June 2020. 

Potter, Gary. “The History of Policing in the United States.” EKU Online, June 2013.

Vitale, Alex S. The End of Policing. London: Verso Books, 2017.

Waxman, Olivia B. “How the U.S. Got Its Police Force.” Time Magazine, May 2017.

(If you’re interested in a critique of The End of Policing, you can read Vox’s “The End of Policing left me convinced we still need policing.” I don’t agree with everything Matthew Yglesias says here, but I think it’s educational to read both sides of the debate.)