General History and Background of the American Police System

The evolution of the American police had been a working progress since the beginning of the colonies. By 1884, the year of Ada Brown’s murder, the majority of American police systems had evolved into a unit relatively similar to what we have today.

One of the earliest forms of police work in America began in Boston around 1631, and was referred to as the constable/watch method, a mainly community-based police organization formed by the townspeople. The role of constable was normally an elected position, with financial compensation decreed by a court or justice of the peace (Monkkonen 32). The “watch,” however, originated as a voluntary position. It was usually made up of six watchmen, one constable and many volunteers who made rounds in the neighborhoods, mostly patrolling at night. They had numerous tasks, from raising the hue and cry (a form of alarm to alert the community of a danger) to making sure the streetlamps remained lit. However, the origins of the watch are actually rooted in English history, where the compulsory involvement of an entire community was reinforced in order to solidify “a means of social control by alien dictators” (Monkkonen 33). The watch became a minimally paid position, and eventually earned a bad reputation, as shady characters who could not find employment elsewhere were drawn to the positions.

Another early part of the policing system was the sheriff. Before the start of the American Revolution, sheriffs appointed by the governor were also utilized as peacekeeping figures. However, they had many other roles aside from law-enforcement. Sheriffs “also performed various legal functions such as serving court papers, collecting taxes, maintaining jails, and supervising elections” (“Early Policing”). Because of this, the majority of policing fell to the watch and constable.

In the southern colonies, groups of men formed slave patrols by the 1740s in order to hunt down runaway slaves and quell slave riots. Because slavery was part of the southern economy, and the patrols were formed to keep the economy safe, many historians believe slave patrols to have been the first police forces in America (“Early Policing”).

One of the main issues with law enforcement in this time period was that it was mostly reactionary. No action was taken until after an offense had already been committed. The watchmen would respond to criminal behavior only when requested by victims or witnesses. Due to this particular specificity, criminals were not all apprehended.

In the year 1829, Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police Force in London, the concept of which would eventually be the template for the American police system. Peel wanted the London police force to be neither military nor civilian, but rather something new entirely. Peel also felt that uniforms were important, and that the physical uniform should not be intimidating, like a British military uniform, but it should make perpetrators think twice before crossing the law.  

Both Peel’s innovative policing system and America’s adaptation of it introduced a new concept- the prevention of crime before it took place. This was an almost completely new view of social control. Up until this point in time, earlier forms of social control all functioned only after an offense was committed (Monkkonen). Because of this, the focus of the law enforcement shifted from the crime itself to the perpetrator of the crime. This created a problem by sparking the idea of a “dangerous class” of people who needed to be monitored by the law enforcement. We will go into this particular subject in more depth in a later post.

Though it took a few decades for Peel’s law enforcement ideas to be adopted in America, once the new policing systems had begun to take root in major cities, they quickly spread. By the 1880s, law enforcement began to take on the characteristics of the modern policing system we know of today. The police officers in the city of Hartford during the murder of Ada Brown would have been focused on mainly crime prevention and control.

-Grace and Lauren

Works Cited:  


Lane, Roger. Policing the City: Boston, 1822-1885. New York: Atheneum, 1967. Print.


Monkkonen, E. H. (1981). Police in Urban America, 1860-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


The Early Days of American Law Enforcement. (n.d.). Retrieved October 3, 2016, from



“Policing – Early Policing:” Retrieved October 4, 2016;

<a href=””>Policing – Early Policing</a>


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