The History of the American Police Officer

As this TIME article suggests, John F. Kennedy once claimed that the police had been protecting the United States of America since its birth. However, this is not entirely true, because, in the history of the United States, we can not really talk about a publicly funded, full-time and organized police until 1838. When this first police collective was established in Boston, the police force had already been through some surprising changes.


The History of the American Police Officer - from the beginning to nowadays
The History of the American Police Officer – from the beginning to nowadays

Humble beginnings in US History

Nightwatchman served as a form of police in Colonial Times.
Nightwatchman served as a form of police in Colonnial Times.

The history of policing in the United States has been shaped by certain economic and political changes in society. Of course, this is true for every nation’s police force. In the Colonial United States, there was not really a proper police force. Towns relied on the so-called “night watch” service. Volunteers joined and, in a certain time period in history, they protected the communities from prostitution and gambling. The problem was that these volunteers were often drunk and slept through their shifts. However, not just the volunteering “nightwatchmen” were on duty, joining the force sometimes happened as a form of punishment. After a while, constabularies started supervising the nightwatchmen, but it was not a highly-sought job, either. That is why, constabularies were not wearing any badges, because, they did not want to be associated with the nightwatchmen service. When towns wanted to make this service mandatory for everyone, the rich (and often the criminals) paid someone else to go instead of them.

North and South

Soldiers during the US Civil War
Soldiers during the US Civil War

As the nation was growing and getting more and more urbanized, ports were becoming more and more important. In the north, the city of Boston was a frequent commercial center, so, after a certain period of time, a police force was needed to protect the goods. Merchants found a way to maintain the police force in Boston. While it was about the commerce in the north, in the history of the south, the task of police officers revolved around slavery. Their duty was to catch slaves who were running away or simply to maintain the system of slavery. The first formal slave patrol had been created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. (Image source)

Immigration waves

After the Civil War, where the military took over the roles of the police, there was a general fear of the huge waves of “large waves of Catholic, Irish, Italian, German, and Eastern European immigrants, who looked and acted differently from the people who had dominated cities before.  For example, people who drank at taverns rather than at home were seen as “dangerous” people by others, but they might have pointed out other factors such as how living in a smaller home makes drinking in a tavern more appealing. (The irony of this logic, Potter points out, is that the businessmen who maintained this belief were often the ones who profited off of the commercial sale of alcohol in public places.)”

Politics, politics, and police

Police in Boston
Police in Boston

Image Source

In the 19th century, it was all about the political machines, at least as far as police was concerned. Local political party leaders were the ones to pick the police officers and sometimes local gangs who intimidated the public for votes. These gangs often harassed the opponents of that certain political party. This chaos was then revised and controlled by President Hoover, who made the “police independent from political party ward leaders”.

The Police in Modern Times

Police in Pennsylvania in the 1950s.
Police in Pennsylvania in the 1950s.

During the 20th century, the American police force  continued to develop and improve, however, as “crime historian Samuel Walker’s The Police in America: An Introduction argues that the move toward professionalism wasn’t all good: that movement, he argues, promoted the creation of police departments that were “inward-looking” and “isolated from the public,” and crime-control tactics that ended up exacerbating tensions between police and the communities they watch over. And so, more than a half-century after Kennedy’s 1963 proclamation, the improvement, and modernization of America’s surprisingly young police force continues to this day.”

This article is for educational purpose only and was transcribed from this TIME Magazine article.

You can download the vocabulary of this article here: The History of American Police Officer.

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