The History of the Police

Ever since the tragic death of George Floyd last year, there has been an ongoing conversation in American society about the appropriate role of our law enforcement. As often happens whenever there is a major controversy, some misinformation has unfortunately entered the conversation and has been circulating within it. Specifically, I am talking about the claim that policing is a modern invention that evolved from 18th-century patrols that hunted for escaped slaves. While such patrols absolutely did exist, to claim that ALL of our modern policing evolved from that one origin is as disingenuous as claiming that our Constitution was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy while ignoring the many, many other influences that went into its formation.

Law enforcement has been around since laws existed. This should be obvious on its face, as what makes a rule into a law is the power of the government to force people to comply with it or face punishment for non-compliance. Foraging societies, making their living by hunting and gathering in nomadic bands, have no formal governments or political structures, and thus have no real laws. Disputes are resolved either with informal agreements between the individuals involved, or by some sort of contest, such as a sing-off. Those who are seen to have truly violated the tribe’s key taboos are shunned and banished, a very serious punishment in such societies as survival without the support of a social group in the wilderness is extremely difficult. Even so, life without law can be a frightening prospect from our modern viewpoint – among the Ju/’hoansi tribe in Botswana and Namibia, it is not uncommon for men to murder each other over rival claims to their women.

The oldest police force we know about existed in Ancient Egypt. Wealthy aristocrats would hire gangs to protect their property and keep important public buildings safe. Later, the government took over responsibility for law enforcement, centralizing power over the maintenance of public order with formal courts that determined the guilt or innocence of the accused. Nubian mercenaries from modern-day Sudan were hired to serve as law enforcement, and eventually Egypt would have ten times more police officers per capita than the modern United States has!

The word “police” itself comes from the Ancient Greek word “polis”, their name for their city-states. Responsibility for maintaining order in ancient Athens was held by 41 civil magistrates who collectively commanded a force of 300 slaves that did their dirty work for them. Later, the first Roman Emperor would create the Cohortes Urbanae, a subset within the Praetorian Guard who served as the police force in the city of Rome. In the Roman provinces, soldiers would be stationed in cities and towns to maintain order and capture criminals.

Law enforcement in ancient China took on many forms. Under the Tang Dynasty, the Gold Bird Guards were responsible for apprehending those accused of committing one of the Ten Abominations such as rebellion, treason, murder, assaulting a parent, or sorcery. Later, the Song Dynasty initiated a system known as “baojia” that made all the families in a village or neighborhood responsible for policing each other, with each family required to to train two sons in martial arts so they could act as the village’s police force.

In the Inca Empire, laws were enforced by local chiefs who were responsible to the emperor. Inca punishments were meant to set an example, so they were incredibly harsh – for example, adultery was punishable by being pushed off a cliff, and thieves would have a limb cut off. If a chief refused to enforce these Inca laws, he would be replaced by a new chief who would.

The earliest roots of our modern concept of policing originated, perhaps unsurprisingly, in medieval England. The Anglo-Saxons saw law enforcement as a collective responsibility of the community, with every person required to help in apprehending criminals. They grouped themselves into “shires”, and the criminal-hunting parties were organized by a figure called the “shire-reeve”. Yes, this is where we get the word “sheriff”. After the Norman Conquest, a new class of low-level nobles called “constables” were created who would act as a town guard, monitoring who entered or left the gates of a city. In 1361, King Edward III created a new, professional law enforcement officer called the “justice of the peace” who would act as his deputy in cities, towns, and villages across England.

Yet even as law enforcement in England gradually became more professionalized, the idea that it was up to ordinary citizens to stop crime remained in place as late as the 18th century. By then, London and many other English cities had established a system of paying cash rewards for the apprehension of criminals. This unintentionally led to large-scale corruption, as exemplified by the case of Jonathan Wild. Calling himself the “Thief-Taker General”, he led a team of criminal-hunters while simultaneously being one of London’s biggest criminal gang leaders. His “Thief-Takers” would arrest his competition while leaving his own underlings alone. Eventually, Wild’s double-life was found out, and he was hanged in 1725.

This sort of corruption ultimately led to large-scale reforms in the way the British handled policing. The Scottish city of Glasgow created a formal, professional police service in 1800, and in 1822 the Royal Irish Constabulary was created to maintain order on the Emerald Isle. One of the most important advocates for police reform in those days was Sir Robert Peel, a British politician who helped push through several police reform laws and created the Metropolitan Police Service of London (better known as “Scotland Yard”) in 1829. This new police force was based on a set of principles Peel created that all ultimately boil down to the idea that law enforcement doesn’t serve the government; it serves the public. Originally, British police officers wore a uniform Peel devised that included a top hat (representing authority) and a servant’s jacket (representing, well, public service).

You have to admit, they look a bit different than the modern uniforms we’re used to.

These reforms were remarkably successful, and police forces across the UK soon copied Scotland Yard’s model. Before long, cities in the United States followed suit, starting with the New York Police Department, founded in 1844.

Obviously, there was law enforcement in the United States since early colonial times. In 1636, Boston established a formal “night watch” to patrol its streets, just six years after its foundation. However, colonial-era policing was usually handled either by local volunteers or by for-profit entrepreneurs who would offer their services to the local merchants in a community for a fee. One of the main reasons why big cities adopted London-style police forces was because, frankly, it was cheaper to have a taxpayer-funded, government-run police service.

While America’s big cities copied the British when designing their police forces, that doesn’t mean Americans couldn’t innovate in this realm, too. The world’s first dedicated detective unit whose sole job was to investigate crimes after they had already been committed was established within the NYPD in 1857.

However, this professional and formal model of policing, tailored to serve the needs of big cities, didn’t translate well to the wild frontiers of the American West.

“Git yer city ways outta here!”

In a newly-established town, locals would often form vigilante groups to punish those the community saw as wrong-doers. As the town grew, formal sheriffs could be elected or hired by the local city council. In U.S. territories, the Department of Justice would send a U.S. Marshal out to patrol a particular region and arrest any bad guys in a given area. Often, these Marshals would take a cut of the fines charged to the criminal upon conviction, leading many to basically be bounty hunters in all but name. Such was the life and career of Bass Reeves, a former slave who became the most successful lawman in U.S. history, apprehending as many as 3,000 outlaws over the course of his career.

This face is crime’s worst nightmare

Eventually, as the United States became more industrialized and urbanized, concerns about police corruption grew, leading to numerous reforms. These included making the hiring of police forces more professional and less dependent on political favors, along with the creation of a new federal police force, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Still, there were many in the 1960’s and 1970’s who accused police departments across America of not respecting citizens’ civil rights, being racially biased, or both. These accusations have remained prominent over the decades since, in spite of numerous attempts to reform the police to assuage these concerns.

Law enforcement has taken many forms over thousands of years, and will likely take even newer forms in the generations to come. Nevertheless, as long as we live in a society that agrees some rules need to be enforced and some actions should be punished so that each and every one of us can sleep in safety at night, walk through the park safely during the day, and rest assured that we will still have our homes and our stuff when we get off of work, there will always be a need for the police.

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