Until the early 1800’s, most of the United States relied on scheduled night-watches to keep the city safe at night. Volunteers would sign up for a certain day and time to watch over parts of their town. The earliest records of the night-watching system began in Boston in 1636, followed by New York in 1658 and Philadelphia in 1700.
Night-watch officers were not high class people, per say. According to Gary Potter, a crime historian from Eastern Kentucky University, many upper class citizens would pay someone to do the night-watch for them. Often officers did not wear badges because “these guys had bad reputations to begin with, and they didn’t want to be identified as people that other people didn’t like,” said Potter in an interview with TIME Magazine.
Throughout the country the early beginnings of police (the night-watch officers) had different jobs depending on the location. For example, in St. Louis police were founded mostly to protect people from Native Americans who were thought to be dangerous. Also, many night-watches and very early police forces in the South were meant to serve as slave patrols. In 1704, the colony of Carolina created the first slave patrol which served to “maintain the economic order and assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property,” wrote Potter in A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing.
The night-watch system was unsustainable and unreliable for a multitude of reasons. People who were put on watch duty often slept or drank throughout their shift. Community members could also be placed on duty as a form of punishment and ironically the upper class would enlist criminals or community thugs to do the night-watches for them. Ultimately the biggest reason for moving into more organized police forces is increasing urbanization, more people moved into urban areas causing communities to grow too large for the night watches to control.
As a result of industrialization, many people flocked to cities hoping to find steady employment, particularly in factories. In addition, a large wave of immigration brought millions of people to America’s urban areas. As populations grew, public disorder and mob violence- usually directed at immigrants or African Americans- became an issue. As bigger populations became too difficult to manage with the formerly used night-watch system, cities had to institute publicly-funded, organized police forces.
In 1838, the city of Boston established the first American police force. During this time, the Port of Boston was experiencing economic growth due to the increase in commercial activities and manufacturing, as well as the influx of immigrants and new railroads. Many locals made money through maritime commerce in the Port of Boston, and businesses hired citizens to protect their goods and oversee their transport. These businesses then chose to reallocate their funds towards creating and maintaining a public police force that would have full-time officers with continuous employment. In 1845, New York City established a municipal police force, followed by Albany and Chicago in 1851, New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1853, Philadelphia in 1855, and Newark and Baltimore in 1857. By the 1880s all major U.S. cities had municipal police forces in place. These police departments had set rules and regulations and were accountable to a centralized governmental authority.
The development of policing in the Southern states followed a different path, as police forces originated as slave patrols, which served the purpose of catching, apprehending, and returning runaway slaves to their owners, as well as to deter slaves from revolting. Although the Civil War abolished slavery in the Unites States, policing institutions in the South continued to target Afrrican Americans by controlling freed slaves who became laborers and by enforcing Jim Crow laws.
Vollmer believed strongly that police need to protect their community and separate themselves from the unprofessional activities they had done before.”
— Daniel Glossenger
Beginning in the 1920s, there was a push for police professionalization. This push was led by then Berkeley police chief, August Vollmer. With this professionalization came new technology such as automatic weapons, lie detectors, eugenics and fingerprinting.
“Vollmer believed strongly that police need to protect their community and separate themselves from the unprofessional activities they had done before.” Glossenger said. However this national movement professionalization didn’t solve the problem of corrupt policing. Throughout Prohibition police took bribes from the upper class in exchange for doing their bidding. They also continued their pattern of violence against the lower classes. This was done through a heavy focus on vice laws regarding alcohol, cannabis and prositution. These laws primarily targeted lower class people, furthering the cycle of violence and oppression towards them.