The Early Days of American Law Enforcement

The Early Days of American Law Enforcement

The Watch

More than 350 years ago, America’s first known system of law enforcement was established in Boston.  As soon as colonists had settled there in 1630, local ordinances had allowed for constables to be appointed. Soon after, in April 1631, the townspeople formed a “watch” made up of six watchmen, one constable, and several volunteers who patrolled at night, walking the rounds.

Initially run by a combination of obligatory and voluntary participation, the 17th century watch typically reported fires, maintained order in the streets, raised the “hue and cry” (pursuing suspected criminals with loud cries to raise alarm), and captured and arrested lawbreakers. Constables had similar tasks, which included maintaining health and sanitation and bringing suspects and witnesses to court—frequently for such conduct as working on the Sabbath, cursing in public places, and failing to pen animals properly.

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Manuscript: Document sent to Sheriff Samuel Gallup of Bristoll County, New England, April 19, 1703. 2006.98.1. Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, DC.
 
Equipment: Double reed wood rattle, Boston [Massachusetts] police, ca. 1850. 2006.524.1. Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, DC

In the more rural, sparsely populated areas of the Colonies, the sheriff was the main law enforcement figure. Appointed by the governor, sheriffs’ duties included serving legal documents such as writs, appearing in court, and collecting taxes. In many cases, the sheriff was paid a fixed amount for each task he performed, some, for example, receiving payment based on the amount of taxes they collected. Occasionally, these tasks proved dangerous. In fact, the first known American peace officer to be killed in the line of duty was Columbia County (NY) Sheriff Cornelius Hogeboom, who was shot on October 22, 1791, as he attempted to serve a writ of ejectment.

This early policing system was modeled after the English structure, which incorporated the watch, constables, and sheriffs (derived from the British term, “shire-reeves”) in a community-based police organization. (Interestingly, the British system developed from “kin policing” dating back to about 900 A.D., in which law enforcement power was in the people’s hands, and they were responsible for their families or “kin.”) Early law enforcement was reactionary, rather than pre-emptive—the watch usually responded to criminal behavior only when requested by victims or witnesses. And, with monetary incentive in certain areas, apprehending criminals was not always a priority.

Change, Change and more Change

As word spread about Boston’s watch, other colonies began establishing their own. New York (then the Dutch colony New Amsterdam) established a rattle watch in 1652. Before whistles, law enforcement used wooden rattles and their distinct noise to signal for help, even into the 19th century.

Into the 1700s, more people settled in towns and more shops and businesses were built, which meant more work for the watch. Seaports bustling with sailors and overseas trading ships boosted the merchant class economy but also caused unprecedented social problems that affected law enforcement. Taverns were built to entertain sailors in port cities, and public drunkenness, brawls, and prostitution became more common. As police work became increasingly time-consuming and difficult, fewer men volunteered for the watch and many evaded their mandatory duties. Issuing fines to those who didn’t show up only punished the poor—those who were most unable to pay. To curb this, some towns and cities instituted a paid watch.

In 1749, Philadelphia passed a law that restructured the watch in an attempt to solve these problems. Now, officials called wardens had authority to hire watchmen as needed. Their powers were increased, and a tax paid the watch. All male citizens were no longer obligated to work when summoned, and only men interested in the paid job applied. Philadelphia’s reform was not the ultimate solution, but it fueled progress and inspired others to make similar improvements.

Even with positive developments like these, the Colonial law enforcement system still required drastic change. During the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, the number of factories, buildings, and people surged substantially. New York, for example, jumped from a population of 33,000 in 1790 to 150,000 in 1830. The overall boom in industrial growth and overcrowding brought more crime, riots, public health issues, race and socio-economic divisions, and general disorder.

The “New” Policing System

The solution? A new and improved law enforcement system implemented first by England in 1829: a stronger, more centralized, preventive police force, designed to deter crime from happening, rather than to react once it had occurred.

In 1833, Philadelphia organized an independent, 24-hour police force. In 1838, the Boston Police force was established, with a day police and night watch working independently. New York City followed suit in 1844, becoming the New York City Police Department in 1845. Police departments were now headed by police chiefs who were appointed by political leaders. While it still had its flaws, this “new” method of policing more closely resembles a modern day police force.

The story of American law enforcement, from its early roots to the present day, will come alive inside the Museum. Stories like this one will help visitors understand how law enforcement has changed to coincide with changes in American society. Today, new technological advancements, scientific discoveries and comprehensive research aim to improve law enforcement’s efficiency by introducing innovative techniques, equipment, training, and more. Who knows what the future of policing will hold?

Interested in learning more about law enforcement history? Read this book, part of the Museum’s Research Library:

Johnson, David R. American Law Enforcement: A History. Wheeling, IL: Forum Press, 1981.

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