English Influence on the Development of U.S. Law Enforcement

English Influence on the Development of U.S. Law Enforcement
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  • 0:00 The History of Policing
  • 1:10 Law Enforcement Before…
  • 3:42 Law Enforcement from…
  • 6:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, explore the history of American law enforcement and discover the influences that English ideas have had on American policing. Then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The History of Policing

This is Officer Study. Officer Study here is very proud to be a police officer, partly because she comes from a long line of police officers. It's a family tradition. The Study family has been involved in law enforcement for centuries, but what this means has drastically changed over time. In fact, the very idea of a police officer is relatively young.

Western society has always embraced the concept of the law, the body of rules telling people within a society what they can and cannot do. But the importance of laws and the efforts to enforce those laws - well, that's changed quite a bit. Here in the United States, we can trace the history of our police back to the colonial era but as a colony of England, it should be no surprise that our law enforcement was very closely tied to British practices. In fact, English ideas about law enforcement were instrumental in creating our own modern police.

Here, let's take a look through the Study family history and see just what this means.

Law Enforcement before the 19th Century

Let's start with the colonial period. England in the 17th and 18th centuries was mostly using a law enforcement system of citizen volunteers, in which groups of volunteers watched for crime within their community. Don't forget, this is still mostly before the Industrial Revolution, the major period of development of industrial technology, so people were generally living in small, rural villages. On top of these citizen watch groups, towns and counties had sheriffs or constables, law enforcement officials that were officially in charge of prosecuting criminals.

This is Constable Study, Officer Study's ancestor and an English law enforcement official from the 17th century. Now, this was not a perfect system. Originally, sheriffs were volunteer positions and while constables were appointed by the Crown, they still were not paid well and it was sort of a side job for many. Sheriffs and constables both gained most of their income from collecting taxes, so they tended to focus a lot more of their energies on this over actual law enforcement.

This system of sheriffs and constables was used by the English when developing law enforcement systems for the American colonies. Sheriffs thus became important people in colonial society. This was still not a paid position but, like in England, the sheriff did receive a salary from collecting taxes and had other responsibilities in the colonies as well, including supervising elections.

For the American colonists, most issues of law enforcement were handled by local courts, and ideas of collective security, such as citizens groups working together, were very important. Major cities like Boston organized groups of male volunteers into organizations called the night watch, citizen patrols that watched for crime.

By the mid-17th century, the Dutch colonies of North America replaced volunteers with paid watchmen to guard their colonial city of New Amsterdam. Later, when the British took over the Dutch colony and renamed it New York, they kept this system in place. Throughout the colonial period, both England and the 13 colonies used these systems of volunteers, citizens groups, and a few law enforcement officials who oversaw it all. The system was not especially effective, with officers being prone to bribery and criminals exploiting the gaps in law enforcement.

Law Enforcement from the 19th Century

Through the end of the colonial period, both England and the American colonies had roughly that same system of law enforcement. These patrol groups that were responsible for identifying and stopping crime lasted into the beginning of the 19th century. Then in 1829, Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary of England, proposed a complete overhaul of British law enforcement.

By this time, London had become an industrial city, which meant immense population growth, new wealth, and lots and lots of crime. In order to combat this, Peel proposed the creation of an official, professional police force. In September of 1829, the world's first modern police department opened, called the London Metropolitan Police. These paid, full-time, professional officers were organized with a special purpose. Peel envisioned these police as being a tool for crime prevention, stopping crime before it started through the presence of uniformed officers on the streets.

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