How Did Our Dual System of Policing Evolve?

When the first U.S. Congress met in 1789, it adopted a law called the U.S. Judiciary Act of 1789. This act established the U.S. federal judiciary. Along with the federal judiciary, the U.S. Marshals Service was also created by this act. This first law enforcement agency was formed to be the enforcement arm of the federal courts. However, since no other mention was made in the Constitution about law enforcement or the police, it was up to the new country to develop a system of policing.

Since America was colonized by the English, it is no surprise that early citizens of the fledgling country were people who were familiar with the systems previously developed in England. The major system developed in the new country was the constable watch system. The watch system employed in the cities and urban areas developed in the middle years of the nineteenth century.

The watch system as it developed in England’s towns and villages generally meant that men—usually ordinary citizens—would be responsible for patrolling the streets watching for any kind of criminal activity. Constables, again, based on the system that had been used in England prior to the nineteenth century, were mostly supervisors of watchmen.

In America, Boston developed a watch system as early as 1634 (Bohm and Haley, 2002). Essentially, that was the predominant policing system in America for the succeeding 200 years. Citizens were expected to serve as the watch, but some of the citizens could afford to pay a watch replacement, and as a consequence, often the worst kind of men ended up protecting the community (Bohm and Haley, 2002).

Much later, particularly in rural and southern areas of the United States, the office of sheriff was established and the power of the posse was used to maintain order and apprehend offenders (Bohm and Haley, 2002). That meant that two forms of law enforcement (in addition to the U.S. Marshals, who helped bring law and order to the western frontier) began to evolve. There was the watch in villages, towns, and cities, and the sheriff in rural areas and counties. Some areas in the northern parts of the United States often had both systems.

Although England organized its London Metropolitan Police in 1829, America didn’t imitate the English model for several years. The first American police department in the north was created in Boston in 1838 (Dempsey and Forst, 2010). It was in the 1840s that New York City combined its day watch and night watch to form the first paid, unified police force (Bohm and Haley, 2002). Then, in 1853, the New York state legislature created the Municipal Police Department. However, it was found to be so corrupt that it was abolished by the legislature four years later (Bohm and Haley, 2002). The legislature replaced it with the Metropolitan Police. Other big-city police departments were created later on in the 1850s and 1860s. For instance, Philadelphia combined its day and night watches in 1854 to bring about its own police department.

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