The History & Impact of Policing in America

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  • 0:01 Police
  • 0:44 Watch System
  • 2:35 Prohibition
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Law enforcement officers work hard every day to keep us safe and keep order in America. But it wasn't always that way. Watch this lesson to find out more about the history of policing in America, including the beginnings and the impact of Prohibition.


Johnny and his friends are playing cops and robbers. The kids who are playing the bank robbers are running around, out of control. Meanwhile, the kids playing the cops are trying to catch them to bring order back to the playground.

A police force is a group of people whose job it is to enforce the laws of society. They keep order via the detection and prevention of crime.

What would happen without a police force? Like the robbers on the playground, the real world would likely be chaotic, with real-life criminals running amok. Our police keep people in line.

Policing has been different throughout history. Let's take a stroll back in time to see how policing has changed as time has gone on.

Watch System

Remember Johnny and his friends? They're playing cops and robbers. The robbers are the bad guys, who rob and steal and maybe even do worse things than that. The cops, meanwhile, try to catch the robbers and restore order to the playground.

But, what if the cops were just ordinary kids? What if they weren't part of the game but stepped in to do the right thing, anyway?

In early America, citizens were responsible for keeping order within their own villages. There weren't any formal police back then; all the citizens just worked together to keep the peace.

That worked really well when everyone knew everyone else. But what about if people didn't know each other? For example, what if suddenly Johnny's cops and robbers game was transported from the local playground to a vast playground with hundreds or even thousands of kids? Suddenly, just looking out for your neighbor isn't as easy as it once was.

That's what happened in colonial America. During the 18th century, there was a population boom in America. Different immigrant groups came into the country, and those that were already here began having children. This population boom necessitated a formal police force to help control crime.

In the colonies, the police system was largely based on the British police system. New and growing cities, like Boston and New York, formed police forces that were organized in a similar fashion to the police forces in British cities, like London and Manchester.

Down South, there weren't large cities yet. Instead, the Southern colonies were mostly agricultural and that agriculture was based on a slave economy. Slave patrols were created to keep slaves in line and prevent them from trying to escape. Some people consider these slave patrols to be the first formal police forces in the United States.


Let's go back to Johnny and his friends for a moment. They're playing cops and robbers. But what happens when the rules of the playground change? What if suddenly candy was illegal on the playground? Anyone caught with candy would be put into jail by the kids pretending to be cops.

That's kind of what happened shortly after World War I in America, when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed. This amendment outlawed the sale of alcohol in the United States, and the time period that it was in effect is often referred to as Prohibition.

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