In today’s society, law enforcement is second nature; it is hard to imagine life without it. However, the police force has not always existed and started in the US for differing reasons. Policing in America was historically informal, for-profit, and a privately funded system. In the North, Boston started the ‘night watch’ in 1636, in which volunteers signed up to monitor fellow colonists engaging in prostitution or gambling. New York followed in 1658, and Philadelphia in 1700. This system was ineffective as the volunteers often slept or drank while on duty. Further, duty was sometimes given as a punishment, leading to laidback patrolling2. These early forms of police didn’t want to wear badges as they had bad reputations and didn’t want people to identify them. Further, people with means often hired their own protective services; ironically, these were often criminals. As urbanization occurred night-watch was outgrown, and the first publicly funded police force was created in Boston, 1838. Boston was a large commercial shipping center, and merchants who were privately hiring security, came up with a way to save money. The merchants transferred the cost of maintaining a police force to citizens by arguing that it was for the ‘collective good’2.

The creation of the police force in the South stemmed from the preservation of the slavery system. The first formal slave patrol was created in 1704 in the Carolina colonies2. The literature provides evidence that the law enforcement system pre-civil war existed for the purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interest of slave owners3.  During the civil war, the military was the primary form of law enforcement in the South, however, during Reconstruction, many local sheriffs functioned similarly to slave patrols. Specifically, they enforced segregation and disenfranchisement of freed slaves. The influence of slavery and racism continued after the civil war, first as Black Codes and then as the Jim Crow laws2. For 80 years, Jim Crow laws mandated the separation of Blacks and Whites, and the police officers were required to enforce them. Black people who violated the social norms often experienced police brutality. Yet, when Black American’s were being lynched and murdered by mobs, the authorities did not punish the perpetrators2. The unjust killing of Black Americans has and continues to be influenced by law enforcement today.

By the late 1880s, all major U.S cities had police forces. The fear of labor union organizers and large waves of immigrants that behaved differently than the ‘norm’ contributed to the preservation of policing. In the 19th century, formal politics influenced law enforcement. For example, police captains and sergeants were often picked by political party leaders. These same party leaders often owned taverns or ran street gangs that intimidated voters2. Political leaders were able to use the police force to their advantage such as for harassing their opponents and for providing payoffs to officers. The relationship between the politicians and law enforcement was exacerbated during prohibition. This led to the creation of the Wickersham Commission in 1929, to investigate law enforcement nationwide2. To disassociate politics and police the map of police precincts was changed so that they would no longer correspond with political wards. This contributed to professionalizing the police. In the 20th century, there have been campaigns for police professionalism. A crime historian, Samuel Walkers, argues that the move to professionalism was not all good. He suggested that this promoted the creation of police departments that were ‘inward-looking’ and isolated from the public and communities that they served2. Further, the isolation ended up exacerbating tensions between law enforcement and communities.

The culture of law enforcement needs substantial changes to address present-day realities. In fact, police can often be used to reinforce inequity in the justice system. Law enforcement is changing slowly as there is a greater understanding of how police brutality increases public mistrust. The pressure from the public via protests, on social media, and in the election could lead to changes in law enforcement as there are movements to abolish the police and to defund the police. Defunding the police as we know it today could reorient classic policing from law enforcement to community service. I think there needs to be a ‘fresh start’ to policing, one that requires education and a diverse staff – both by race and ability (such as social workers, psychologists, mental health professionals, behavioral specialists, and active-duty officers). If the police do not change, they will be failing to protect and serve all Americans, as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)  and minority populations deserve so much better.


  1. The History of Police in America and the First Force | Time.
  2. A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing | Police Studies Online.
  3. Hassett-Walker, C. The racist roots of American policing: From slave patrols to traffic stops. The Conversation