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

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

Larry Holzwarth - August 1, 2018

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.

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

10 Things to Know About the Evolution of the Police in the United States
Drawings of lanterns of a type which would have been carried by the night watch 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.

10 Things to Know About the Evolution of the Police in the United States
Sir Robert Peel’s design of London’s police force was widely imitated in the United States. Wikimedia

Formal police departments emerge

In Boston, the night watchman carried a badge by 1796, as well as a six-foot pole with a hook on one end to facilitate grabbing miscreants. The other end was intended to be used as a defensive weapon. A force of six officers organized as the day police in 1838, supervised by the City Marshal, and had no connection whatever with the night watch. The Boston General Court began exploring the means to fund a full-time police force.

In 1854, the Boston Police Department was formally created, disbanding the night watchmen and the six-foot watchpole was replaced with a fourteen-inch long cudgel which soon earned the name nightstick. The day police force was also disbanded, and the Boston Police Department was modeled after the London Metropolitan Police, using the theories and practices of Sir Robert Peel (the London Police were called Peelers in the street slang of that city).

The first Boston Police officer to lose his life in the line of duty was Ezekial Hodsdon, who attempted to stop a burglary in east Boston, struggled with the two criminals, and was shot in the head by one of the burglars, who then fled. The young officer was but 25 years old at the time of his murder, and had earned the sum of $2 per day for his service to the city of Boston. Two-night watchmen had been killed in the line of duty prior to formation of the Boston Police.

In New York, Peter Cooper created plans for a 1,200-man municipal police force in 1844, but quarrels between the Mayor’s office and the Common Council over which body would have the authority to appoint officers kept the force from being a reality until May, 1845. The Municipal Police plan divided the city into three districts. It was replaced by the Metropolitan Police in 1857, which covered Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Westchester County.

The New York Metropolitan Police found that their predecessors, the municipal force, were not happy with the idea of being disbanded and resisted for a time, giving New York two police forces which opposed each other when either attempted to serve warrants or arrest suspects. Several months of chaos climaxed when first there was a riot involving the police forces, and the following day a riot involving the citizenry which the Metropolitans failed to suppress.

10 Things to Know About the Evolution of the Police in the United States
Two rival police forces rioted against each other in the corridors of City Hall and on the streets outside. Wikimedia

The New York City Police Riot

When Daniel Conover arrived at City Hall on June 16, 1857, to assume the recently vacant office of Street Commissioner, which had been promised to him by the governor, Mayor Fernando Wood told him the office had been filled, and had officers of the Municipal Police remove him from the building. Conover obtained warrants for Wood’s arrest for inciting a riot and for violence against his person. When Metropolitan Police Captain Walling tried to serve the warrant he was thrown into the street by Municipal Police.

Walling was joined by over fifty Metropolitans outside of City Hall, and the Municipals attacked them, with a riot between the two uniformed police forces erupting in the street and on the steps of the building, all armed with nightsticks. The fight lasted about 45 minutes, including fighting inside the corridors of City Hall, before the outnumbered Metropolitans were forced to retreat. Over fifty police officers of both departments required treatment for injuries.

When Sheriff Jacob Westervelt attempted to serve Conover’s warrants and was also refused by the Mayor and the Municipals, they asked assistance from Major Charles Sandford and the US Army Seventh Regiment surrounded City Hall. The Mayor agreed to allow the warrants to be served. He was arrested, released on bond, and was never brought to trial. The rivalry between the two police departments, the Metropolitans and the Municipals, worsened.

The Metropolitans were under the control of a board appointed by the governor, the Municipals under positions controlled by the Mayor, and the tension between the political offices was exacerbated by ethnic tensions among the officers of the two forces. The criminal underworld of New York took full advantage of the rivalry, and another clash between the Metropolitans and the Municipals emerged in rioting during the first week of July.

In the fall of 1857, following several court rulings which found that the governor was within his rights establishing a Board of Commissioners to supervise the New York Metropolitan Police, Mayor Wood conceded, and the New York Municipal Police Force was disbanded. The Metropolitan Police then began the task of earning the confidence of the communities they served, and control over the criminal element which had profited in the summer of 1857.

10 Things to Know About the Evolution of the Police in the United States
The Pinkertons were often hired to provide private police forces before and after the Civil War. Wikimedia

The Pinkertons

By the 1850s, nearly all of the larger northern cities had organized police forces, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Albany, Cincinnati, and New Orleans. All of these forces followed the Peel model; they were organized as bureaucracies, consisted of professional officers under a system of discipline, and had established rules of procedure. They also reported to a separate government authority.

Private police forces also emerged, organized by businesses to protect property and combat attempts at unionization. Among the many private police organizations probably the most famous was the Pinkerton Detective Agency. It was formed in the 1850s by Allan Pinkerton, who quickly found employment for his agents solving train robberies, which often took place outside the jurisdiction of existing police forces. It was through the railroads that Pinkerton’s fame grew.

Pinkerton solved train robberies which affected the Illinois Central Railroad, bringing him into contact with George B. McClellan, its president at the time, as well as giving him an opportunity to work with the company’s lawyer, Abraham Lincoln. When president-elect Lincoln was traveling to Washington to assume office the Pinkertons discovered and thwarted an assassination plot against him, and Lincoln continued to employ Pinkerton agents as bodyguards for a time.

The Pinkertons drew negative attention when the private police force was employed by companies in the decades following the Civil War, often to protect strikebreakers and to break up union protests. The negative publicity generated in many of these actions, in which Pinkerton operatives initiated violence against workers and their supporters, led to the US government passing the anti-Pinkerton Act in 1892, prohibiting the federal government from hiring Pinkerton agents as contractors.

Private police forces in the United States reached their peak in the period 1890-1920, beginning to wane as more modern police forces evolved in the smaller cities and towns of the nation. The role of protecting the president of the United States was taken over by the Secret Service, and many companies, though they maintained corporate security forces, no longer needed the services of a national independent police force.

10 Things to Know About the Evolution of the Police in the United States
Slave patrols were formally organized in the Carolina Colony in the early 1700s. Wikimedia

Police Evolution in the South

In the same manner that its lifestyle and economy evolved differently, policing in the American South took shape following a pattern dictated by its laws. Although the cities that grew in the South, such as Charleston, Savannah, and Richmond, developed systems of night watches and eventually expanded them to day police, they added another component unique to the region – slave patrols. Slave patrols roamed the South in search of runaway slaves.

The Carolina colony around Charles Town, today’s Charleston, established its first slave patrol in 1704. As part of their formal mission, they were responsible for the incitement of fear among the slaves to prevent them from attempting to escape, as well as capturing those that did and returning them to their owners. The slave patrols were paid by colony authorities in Carolina, from fees assessed on slaveowners.

Following the Civil War, many of the former slave patrols became vigilante groups which opposed the efforts of the politicians during Reconstruction, continuing to terrorize the former slaves to prevent them from exercising their new rights as citizens. The vigilantes gradually evolved into the sheriff departments and small-town police departments of the Deep South, which enforced the Jim Crow and segregation laws well into the twentieth century.

It was the enforcement of the Jim Crow laws and the lack of work other than in an agricultural labor force that stimulated the great migration to the Northern cities and towns in search of manufacturing and mining jobs. During the years following the Civil War, many northerners resented the influx of new labor, as the competition for jobs became even greater with the immigration boom and the widespread expansion of industrialization.

Southern police forces did not develop the organized systems designed by Robert Peel in England and imitated by the northern cities until well after the civil war, and in many cases, it was initiated by the forces of Reconstruction. By the end of the nineteenth century, all American police forces were on the verge of being forced to adapt to two major societal changes. These were an increase in crime and the emergence of the automobile.

10 Things to Know About the Evolution of the Police in the United States
U. S. Grant was given a speeding ticket on the streets of Washington while in office as President. Library of Congress

Traffic control

Speeding tickets issued by police officers predated the automobile by several decades. President Grant was issued a speeding ticket while driving his horse and carriage on M St. in northwest Washington early in his administration. When the embarrassed officer realized whom he had stopped he offered to ignore the violation, but Grant insisted that the officer do his duty and paid the five-dollar fine. It was not his first speeding fine, nor his last.

As automobiles increased in popularity laws were enacted to control their use, register them, license them, and later license the drivers as well. It became the duty of local police forces to enforce these laws, and signs regulating speed and controlling the flow of traffic were installed, with officers assigned to monitor traffic. Outside of communities, there were less officers available to watch for driver’s infractions.

Rural sheriff departments were often limited in size. To avoid carnage on the roads, and to enhance state revenues, state police departments began to be formed in the United States, with many of them taking the name Highway Patrol rather than State Police. Their organization and jurisdictions vary from state to state, for example, the Arizona Highway Patrol is a state police agency; the North Carolina Highway Patrol, while statewide, is specifically charged with traffic law enforcement.

Several larger American cities formed their own highway patrol departments to control traffic within their communities, including on the interstate highways which run through them. By the 1960s the highway patrol departments and virtually all police monitoring traffic were equipped with radar, and later laser systems to measure speed. They were supported with fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft, and in many areas used unmarked vehicles.

According to the National Motorists Association at least 25 million, and possibly as many as 50 million traffic tickets were written by police officers of all jurisdictions in 2007. There was no national database recording the total, nor is there one today. Traffic laws and their enforcement evolved to include police officers as revenue collectors in many states and municipalities across the country, generating a cash stream which nationally supports a multitude of businesses and professions.

10 Things to Know About the Evolution of the Police in the United States
A Smith & Wesson .38 Special, a popular sidearm of police departments in the 1930s. Wikimedia


Throughout the nineteenth century, police officers were armed with the cudgel which became known as a nightstick. A firearm was not typically provided by the police department, if the officer chose to carry one it was up to him to provide it at his expense. In many jurisdictions, officers were not permitted to carry firearms while on their beat. Gradually that prohibition eased as crime increased in American cities and towns.

New York’s police department was armed when Theodore Roosevelt became President of its Board of Commissioners in 1895, and Roosevelt, who as an avid outdoorsman knew a thing or two about firearms, decided it was time to standardize weapons for the department. Roosevelt ordered 4,500 Colt New Police revolvers for his officers, in .32 caliber. Roosevelt also recognized the need to train all of his officers in the weapon’s use and its maintenance, and standardized both.

During the early part of the twentieth century, other urban police departments followed Roosevelt’s lead, and by the 1920s most northern police departments issued the .38 Special to their officers, which began to be seen by many officers as ineffective against car bodies and heavy plate glass. Many departments changed to the .357 Magnum when that caliber became available in the mid-1930s, including the only recently armed FBI.

Officers in southern and western communities generally preferred heavier calibers, but throughout the country, the policeman on the beat was armed with a revolver as a general rule. Semi-automatic pistols were available through most of the twentieth century, but police agencies disregarded them for the most part, other than as the backup weapon which many officers carried on their own, at their own expense.

In 1967 the Illinois State Police were issued 9mm semi-automatics as their sidearm, the first semi-automatic to be issued to a large department. By the 1980s many departments had changed to semi-automatics and by the turn of the century, nearly all urban and suburban police departments had equipped their officers with semi-automatic pistols. Polymer-based semi-automatics were the rule by the 1990s in nearly all police departments.

10 Things to Know About the Evolution of the Police in the United States
A Puck cover depicts Conservatism sitting on a throne of corruption. Library of Congress


Well into the 1940s and beyond corruption of America’s police departments was common in cities large and small. Some politicians, such as Theodore Roosevelt, made their reputations exposing such corruption. Others profited from it. Police officers accepted pay-offs to allow illegal gambling, the operation of brothels, narcotics, and other vices. Sometimes the corruption was department-wide and sometimes it was merely a compliant officer on the beat.

In machine politics it was often the police officer who rounded up individuals and took them to the voting precinct, stuffing the ballot boxes. Appointment as a police officer was often a reward for political favor. Officers in many departments purchased their promotions, rather than earned them. Training was non-existent, and as a general rule police departments were known for brutal tactics and behavior towards those who crossed their path.

Officers drank while working without fear of reprisal, and during the days of prohibition, they protected the speakeasies and other drinking establishments on their beat. Even when the police raided an illicit drinking den it was usually after a warning had been sent. The state police departments were usually less involved in the political machines, but enough officers had been bought that local departments could be tipped off to state police activity.

The political machines of the big cities were the organized crime that existed in America prior to the onset of Prohibition. Prostitution, drugs, alcohol, gambling, distribution of stolen goods and more were all controlled by elements of the political machines. The police departments were their enforcement wing in nearly all of America’s biggest cities, and even some of its smaller towns. In rural areas, many whole counties were run by a machine.

The police departments were also used by the political machines to dispense public services, such as opening and operating homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and establishing quarantine zones during outbreaks of contagious illnesses. The officers were dispatched by the local ward, and credit for their service was directed to the machine operatives who sent them. When Prohibition began, the level of corruption quickly grew worse.

10 Things to Know About the Evolution of the Police in the United States
Detroit officers pose with some illicit brewing equipment during Prohibition. National Archives


The era of Prohibition occurred because a minority imposed its moral code on an unwary majority which chose not to comply with them. Especially in the large urban areas, the majority of adults wanted to drink. A system for them to do so appeared almost overnight. In every city of the nation, drinking went underground, but the fact that it existed was well known to all. That it existed throughout the era was due to the complete corruption of the police.

The criminal syndicates which arose out of Prohibition quickly acquired enormous power, not from the votes of the people but from their money, which flowed to their coffers in exchange for alcohol. Organized crime significantly weakened the political machines in many cities, as the bootleggers dealt directly with the local police. Crime committed openly and with impunity was only possible if the local police and other authorities were completely corrupted.

With the police often serving as the crime syndicate’s enforcers, incidents which spiked public outrage were inevitable. When the outrage grew loud enough the call for investigations grew. The usual response was the establishment of an independent investigation, which often revealed the depths of the corruption. The corruption wasn’t always part of links to organized crime and illegal liquor. At times it was within the legal system itself.

The 1931 Seabury Commission found corruption among New York’s police officers, magistrates, judges, prosecutors, other attorneys, and bail bondsmen. They had conspired to extort money from arrestees which were deliberately framed by the arresting officers. The commission led to the resignation of New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, numerous arrests and indictments, and public outcry for further reform, spurred by Governor Franklin Roosevelt.

Following the exposure of the corruption in urban police departments many attempted to initiate reforms by loosening the ties to local politicians, particularly at the ward level. These reforms did nothing to remove the tightening connections to organized crime. With the end of prohibition, the police no longer needed to protect the alcohol distribution and consumption facilities, but there were still other illegal activities that they had sworn to stop, but were needed to protect.

10 Things to Know About the Evolution of the Police in the United States
Boston police check on a vehicle in 1958. Wikimedia

The rise of professionalism

Until the 1950s, the majority of new policemen in the United States received relatively little training, learning the job as he went along from more experienced officers. This lack of formal training was viewed by reform-minded as a gateway to corruption. A movement arose demanding the professionalization of the police forces in the United States, instilling military-style discipline and organization. More direct supervision of officers on patrol was deemed necessary.

What had been foot patrols were moved to patrol cars, allowing for precincts to be merged. Headquarters were centralized and command and control were consolidated there. The militarized appearance and behavior of the police under the professionalism movement led to more aggressive activities in stopping citizens for identification as a crime control tactic. The new professional approach was seen as isolating the community from the police.

The professionalism model led to the police bureaucracies becoming more authoritative in nature, and less responsive to the needs and concerns of their own officers. Police departments grew increasingly distant from the communities they existed to serve. By the 1960s, the unionization of police departments was underway, assisted by a series of court rulings which allowed public employees and civil servants to be represented by unions.

The unionization was driven in part by the large city police departments being perceived by the public they served as prone to brutality and corruption. It was also driven by the department’s own rigidly authoritarian command structure, and a desire for increased pay and benefits. By the end of the 1960s, virtually all American big-city police departments were fully unionized. In 1971 the New York police went on a five-day strike, other cities have been struck by police since.

The police are far less accessible to the average citizen than they were in the days when they walked a beat and knew the people who lived and worked along it. The police forces in the United States have evolved to become largely isolated from the citizens they serve, and though many departments have taken steps to reconnect with their communities, the isolation has remained. In many cities, the divide between citizens and police officers has increased in the twenty-first century.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The History of Policing in the United States”, by Dr. Gary Potter, Eastern Kentucky University Police Studies Online

“The Police in America: An Introduction”, by Samuel Walker, 2004

“The Policeman’s Lot”, by Thomas Fleming, American Heritage Magazine, February 1970

“The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency”, by Frank Morn, 1982

“The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality in the U. S.”, by Katie Nodjimbadem, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2017

“1900-1930: The Years of Driving Dangerously”, by Bill Loomis, The Detroit News, April 26, 2015

“The History of the Police”, by Sage Publications, pdf, available online

“The Corrupting of New York City”, by Peter Baida, American Heritage Magazine, December 1986

“Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America”, by Edward Behr, 1996

“Taylorization of Police Work: Prospects for the 1980s”, by Sid Harring, Sage publications, July 1, 1981