The Development and Evolution of American Police



The Development and Evolution of American Police


This is an introductory course on policing, primarily policing in the United States.  The focus of the class is on understanding what police do and how they do it.  Our goal is to understand police behavior, its causes, correlates, and consequences.  Beyond that, we also want to understand the impact or effect of police behavior.

“Policing” is what happens “on the street.”  It typically involves an interaction between one or more police officers and one or more civilians.  We want to identify the correlates (ideally, the causes) of police behavior.  Correlate means to “co-vary,” so that a change in one factor is associated with a change in the other.

For policing, or police behavior, theory, research, and common understanding has focused on three major correlates of police behavior being characteristics of the police officer, the police organization, and/or the community involved.  We can think of this as an equation where:

Policing = f (Officer + Organization + Community)

In this equation, policing (what happens on the street) is a function of (or product of) the combination of characteristics of the officer, organization, and community involved.  For example, police decision to arrest or to use force might be considered to be a product of these factors.  If so, how much force would you expect to be used by an experienced officer in a small police department serving a wealthy community with low crime rates?  Would you expect the use of police force to be different in cases involving a young officer in a large police department in a poor and high crime neighborhood of a large city?

Perhaps a more sophisticated understanding of policing would produce an expanded model or equation such as:

Policing  =  f ( (Officer X Organization X Community) / (Situation X Law) )

This is not an algebra class, but this second equation suggests that what happens on the street is a function of the combination of officer, organization, and community as modified by the situation and the law.  The use of multiplication and division symbols suggests interaction effects.  That is, certain combinations of factors are more or less likely to result in a particular police behavior.  While not impossible, arrest is much less likely when the citizen hasn’t broken the law.  Police use of force is more likely if the citizen is intoxicated (situation).

My plan is for us to recognize the big picture—to try to see the forest more than the individual trees.  My hope is that we can develop a broad, general understanding of policing in America.  If we are successful, we will have a perspective on, or approach to policing that will enable us to identify the key correlates that might be at work in any policing situation, and help us to analyze and understand policing in most circumstances.

To begin, we must define our terms.  Thirty years ago, Carl Klockars explained the problems with defining the police.  Some definitions are normative—based on what we think the police should do, while others are descriptive—based on what they actually do and how they do it.  Klockars argued that normative definitions (e.g., the police serve and protect, or the police enforce the law) typically tell us more about the person making the definition than they tell us about the police.  Descriptive definitions focus on what police actually do, or how they behave.  Egon Bittner (1970) identified the core of the police role as the ability to use coercive force.

            To Bittner, the police are a mechanism for the distribution of non-negotiable force in society.  We have police to deal with situations where, in his words, “something is happening, which ought not to be happening, about which something needs to be done now.”  Some problems and issues require an immediate response or solution, and we have police to deal with those issues. Additionally, police cannot fail or rescind once they attempt to solve a problem (otherwise they will be viewed as ineffective or illegitimate).

Building on Bittner’s understandings, Klockars defined the police as follows:

Police are institutions or individuals given the general right to use coercive force

by the state within the state’s domestic territory.

This definition lets us focus on both officers and police departments and organizations.  It recognizes that police are authorized to use force in a variety of settings and against anyone in those settings.  The definition clearly identifies the police as a formal government agency, and the focus on domestic territory separates the police from the military.

The police are an instrument of social control.  Every society needs rules and needs to insure that its members obey the rules so that behavior is predictable and orderly.  Social control is the mechanism by which social groups ensure predictable behavior.  This control can be either informal or formal, but for the group to survive, it must exist.  Informal social control exists when the individual chooses to abide by the rules without any official pressure or sanction.  Formal social control exists when the group applies pressure or sanctions to compel the individual to obey.  If you don’t steal because you believe stealing is wrong, informal social control has prevailed.  In contrast, if you don’t steal only because the police officer will arrest you, formal social control was required.  The police are an institution of formal social control.


At the conclusion of this module, you should be able to:

  • Describe our “big picture” approach to understanding policing.
  • Describe the conditions in which police develop and change.
  • Describe the evolution of policing in the United States.
  • Identify the English roots of American Policing.
  • Identify three “traditions” of policing in America.
  • Discuss whether and how the police and policing has changed over their history.
  • Discuss how the historical precursors of modern policing have influenced the structure and practice of policing today.
  • Write a supported argument about the origins of policing.

Reading Assignment:

  1. Walker and C. Katz (2008), “The History of American Police,” from, The Police in America: An Introduction, 6th ed.  Boston:  McGraw-Hill:  pp. 22-59.


  1. Travis & R. Langworthy (2008), Policing in America: A Balance of Forces, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Pearson/Prentice-Hall:  pp.  34-39.

National Research Council.  2004.  Fairness and Effectiveness in Police:  The Evidence.  Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices, Wesley Skogan and Kathleen Frydl, (Eds.), Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington DC: The National Academies Press. Chapter 3 “The Nature of Policing in the United States” pgs. 47-107.

Kelling, George L. and Moore, Mark H.  1988.  The evolving strategy of policing.  Perspective on Policing, volume 4.  Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.

Walker, Samuel.  1984.  “Broken Windows” and fractured history:  The use and misuse of history in recent police patrol analysis.  Justice Quarterly, 1: 75-90.


Sociologist Richard Lundman proposed a model of the development of policing in America.  He indicated that the police were a product of a particular set of characteristics of society and, as those characteristics change over time, so would policing.  In particular, he thought the police were a product of social organization, understandings of crime, and the interests of social elites.  These three factors combined, he suggested, to produce different forms or types of police.  Further, these types progressed historically from conditions where there were no formal police through times where there were what he called transitional police like city watchmen, to the formal governmental police of today.

Patterns of solidarity refer to how society is organized and structured.  In simpler societies, solidarity or social identity comes from shared experience and belief.  In a simple society, there is little specialization and little hierarchy, and there is mechanical solidarity.  This is associated with little conflict (everyone is basically equal and believes the same things) and no structure that would allow for the creation of a unique, specialized police.  In short, mechanically solidary groups have little need and little capacity for police.  As social organization becomes more complex, society members relate to each other more on the basis of social norms and rules.  There is more specialization and less consensus about beliefs.  These societies develop more conflict and have a greater capacity for specialized police.  As elites emerge, they are able to direct social efforts.  Not surprisingly, the efforts of formal police are designed to serve the interests of elites, such as protecting private property or the existing social hierarchy.  Finally, the creation and form of police are dependent on understandings of crime, or of the problems police are expected to solve.  If the problem is “street crime,” police are likely to be deployed to patrol and combat public threats such as robbery, theft, assault, and the like.  If the problem is “political crime,” the police might be organized and deployed as undercover operatives and informants.

Working from an understanding of the history of policing in America, Lundman identified three types of policing as informal, transitional, and formal.  Informal police have been described by others as “kith and kin policing” (Reith, 1938) or “avocational policing” (Klockars, 1985).  Informal policing might be vigilantes, the posse, or citizens responding to the “hue and cry.”  Basically, policing is rarely needed, but if required, it is the job of everyone.  There are no recognized “police.”  Transitional policing occurs when certain people, or at least certain people at specific times are defined as responsible.  The use of a “watch and ward” system, or city watchmen and the like are forms of transitional policing.  Finally, formal policing exists where specific individuals and organizations are authorized and required to serve police purposes.  In short, Lundman’s model seeks to explain how we went from virtually no recognizable police in the American colonies in the 17th and early 18th centuries through different forms of watchmen and civil guards, to the creation of formal police departments in the middle of the 19th century.

In our effort to understand the police in America, we will begin with an examination of the history of the American police.  Samuel Walker stated three reasons to study police history:

  1. To identify enduring aspects of policing
  2. To assess the effects of earlier reforms, and
  3. To predict future directions.


If these do not convince you of the importance of police history, consider this fourth reason.  I say that if is important that we study the history and I hold a red pen!

Before we begin, it is important that we understand the value and the limits of history.  Someone once said that history is written by the winners.  Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “All history is bunk.”  History is an interpretation, so there are or can be many histories.  Lundman’s history of the three types of policing in America was written after he recognized three different types.  A useful history is more than a chronology of events, or even an interesting story.  The point of history is to develop understanding.  How is it that things happened, how did we get wherever it is that we are?  What follows then is not so much THE history of American policing as it is A history.

You may have heard some “facts” about police history in other classes or other settings.  Several commentators have written about Sir Robert Peel’s principles of policing.  Peel never actually wrote a set of specific principles (Lentz & Charles, 2007).  Most histories of policing in America make no mention of the early slave patrols that existed in the Southern colonies.  Most histories suggest that the London Metropolitan Police were the first formal police in England, but they were actually preceded by officers known as “serjeants of the peace” in areas of Western England (Stewart-Brown, 1936).

The English Roots of American Police

Like so much else in American society, the American police were greatly influenced by developments in England.  Colonial America had few police roles and those were similar to traditional English offices of Sheriff and constable.  American police development mirrors the British, at least at its start.

In England, prior to the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century, there were few “policing” roles.  The British society was largely rural and agrarian and organized along kinship lines.  The basic political organization was the “tything” or the “hundred.”  These were groupings of families living in the same general area.  All members were responsible for each other.  If a member of your tything broke the law, the tything was held accountable.  It was in everyone’s interest, therefore, to “police” each other.  Friends and family exerted informal social control (shaming, shunning, and the like) to keep folks “in line.”  The British historian Charles Reith called this “kith and kin policing.”

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Normans were a foreign force occupying much of England and they establish a stronger feudal system with a series of noble ranks to which varying degrees of social and political power were attached.  This structure creates a “stratified” or layered society in which people are increasingly separated from each other.  No longer does everyone share the same beliefs, background, occupation, and the like.  Now there are peasants and nobles and other more specialized social and economic positions.  The Lord of the Manor is the political and social leader of location.  The Lord does not emerge from the local people, nor is he elected.  He holds his position as an appointment from the King.  To assist the Lord, there is the office of the constable (from the phrase, comes stabuli or “man of the horse)The Normans also institute the Shire Reeve as a local representative of the king (expected to maintain order, keep the King’s peace, collect taxes, and the like).  This officer, over time, comes to be known as the Sheriff.  The Shire Reeve is elected by members of the Shire (county) from candidates approved by the Manorial Lord.  The office of Shire Reeve continues today in the United States where County Sheriffs are elected and charged with a range of responsibilities in 48 of the fifty states (Alaska and Connecticut, which have no county governments, do not have sheriffs).

Developments over time including the growth of commerce and cities work to weaken local, informal social control and make groupings like the tything and the hundred obsolete.  In major cities, for example, one could have many “hundreds” operating within a few square blocks.  In several high-rise housing complexes, it might be necessary to organize more than one such group per building.  The breakdown of familiarity and kinship ties, coupled with economic competition contribute to a surge in crime.  Parliament became concerned about the perceived increase in crime and disorder and, over the years, took steps to fight crime.  The Statute of Winchester (1285) reaffirmed the “hue and cry,” and the office of constable.  The “hue and cry” was an obligation of Englishmen to come to the aid of their fellows whenever they might raise the “hue and cry.”  Basically, everyone was required to help if someone called for aid.  The Statute of Winchester relied on the traditional practice of the hue and cry to empower constables in urban areas to conscript citizens to serve as night watchmen.  It was the citizen’s duty to respond to this call for help.  Over the next couple of centuries, other social problems (such as wars, the bubonic plague, and the like) divert attention from crime.

By the 18th Century, England has several large towns and cities, and the discovery of gin democratized drunkenness.  Now nearly everyone could afford to get drunk.  There is a growing perception of social disorder and crime.  A movement for some sort of improved government social control is growing.  The dominant philosophy at the time is utilitarianism which, among other things, assumes that man is rational.  In an effort to achieve the greatest good at the lowest cost, Parliament first seeks to control crime by increasing the number of criminal laws and increasing criminal penalties.  What rational man would steal if it meant he would be hanged?  Of course, not all men are rational, or at least all men are not rational at all times.  It soon appears that simply stiffening the laws will not solve the problems of crime and disorder.

For decades some places in England experimented with a variety of “transitional police.”  There were places that tried paid watchmen, unpaid watchmen, and “entrepreneurs” who developed variations of private security.  In London, Henry Fielding organized the “Bow Street Runners,” also known as “thief takers,” who chased and arrested criminals for the reward.  The citizens of London developed a variety of “police” to supplement the protection provided by footmen, doormen, and other guardians.  London had the Thames River Police, who patrolled the docks and sought to prevent smuggling and theft of cargo.  There was a Horse Patrol outside the city to protect travelers from highwaymen.  In the city, there was, for some time, a foot patrol.  In time, there was a need for protection in the area between the foot patrol in the central city and the horse patrol outside the city.  A Dismounted Horse Patrol was developed to provide protection in areas on the outskirts of the city.

At the same time, the idea of crime prevention emerged.  The utilitarian practice of deterrence by threat of punishment was originally considered an effective crime prevention mechanism, but as we saw, it was not very successful.  What was needed was a way to convince would-be offenders that they would face the consequences.  Proponents of policing urged the development of uniformed patrol so that people would see officers on the streets and the odds of capture would be increased.  There was opposition of policing in Parliament.  Many opposed the development of police because of a fear that such officers would “chill the rights of Englishmen.”  Others were concerned about the costs of a police service while some objected simply because the word “police” was French, and the French were England’s traditional enemy.

The debate over the creation of formal police in England raged for decades.  Finally, in the early 19th Century, the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, managed to break the deadlock.  He proposed an “experiment” to create a police department.  After some time, Parliament could review the effects of the police and, if warranted, simply abolish the police.  In addition, the police would wear uniforms (no secret or hidden police) to reduce the threat to liberty.  Further, the police would be unarmed (no firearms or blades), and command of the police would be split between two commissioners, preventing any one person from commanding an “internal army.”  Finally, these police would not operate in the City of London proper, but rather, in the London Metropolitan area.  The City of London is a relatively small neighborhood near the center of the metropolitan area, but it was the place where most of the power elite lived and worked.  In short, there would be an experiment with police that would not directly affect the members of Parliament.  After decades of rancorous debate, the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 passed Parliament with no discussion.

The police were expected not only to catch criminals after the fact, but the mission or purpose of the police was to prevent crime from happening, or crime prevention.  To do this, the strategy adopted in London was to use preventive patrol.  Of course, for this to work, the patrolling police had to be noticeable or visible, so the police wore distinctive uniforms.  To enact this strategy, the London police adopted a quasi-military form for their organizational structure.  These three characteristics, mission, strategy, and organizational structure were carried over to American police and have had important implications for the American police.

In the early years there is a great deal of resistance to police.  The first officer was killed in 1830, and juries tended to exonerate citizens who assaulted or resisted police.  The department had 17 divisions with 165 officers in each.  Headquarters was established in a building that opened on a park in front of the place where the kings of Scotland traditionally stayed where visiting London, called Scotland Yard.  In time, London police headquarters became known simply as Scotland Yard.  In 1833, three police officers breaking-up a riot were killed.  The killings were ruled “justifiable homicide” by the coroner’s inquest.  It took several decades before British police, by virtue of their discipline, courtesy, and service came to be accepted and even supported by the public.  In time Parliament requires cities to create police departments and allows counties to develop police.  By the end of the 19th Century, England has almost 200 police departments.  A series of consolidation efforts result in England today having about 43 separate agencies.  Most other nations have one or a few national police.

The London police wore blue uniforms with copper buttons and badges.  The choice of blue was deliberate, to separate the police from the army.  British soldiers wore red uniforms.  Thousands of police in the United States wear blue uniforms today because British soldiers wore red uniforms in the early 1800s.  As a unit under the authority of Home Secretary Robert Peel, the police were sometimes known as “Bobby Peel’s men,” eventually being shortened to “Bobbies,” a term still used to identify British police.  The copper buttons and badges, some say, led to police being called “coppers.”  In time, this too was shortened to the point that police were simply called “cops.”  As for this last bit of trivia, there are other explanations.  Some say “cop” comes from “Constable On Patrol.”  Others note that the slang term for seizing someone or something was “to cop.”  As police were charged with arresting (seizing) offenders, they became known as cops.  Regardless, even our language about police in contemporary America reflects developments from the early English experience.


The Police in America


American police grow from the English tradition where individual rights are valued and the power of the government is suspected and controlled.  Most colonies in America had the traditions of constables, sheriffs, and marshals.  As in England, as cities grew and people became concerned about crime and disorder, some called for police.  Unlike England, people in the United States had the example of the London Metropolitan Police on which to base their recommendations.

There are at least three developmental traditions in American Policing.  The Northeast tradition is the one that is most commonly reported in historical discussions of police development.  As with London, in this tradition, growing urbanism and crime lead to the creation of police.  There is also a Southern tradition, where an agrarian economy and rural society creates a form of policing more focused on the office of Sheriff than local police.  The South also had the legacy of slavery, so that some of the first “police” in the South were slave patrols or other organizations created specifically to control the slave population.  Charleston, South Carolina created a 100 officer strong “police” force in the early 1830s specifically to control slaves working in the city.  Finally, America also has a Frontier Tradition of local autonomy and self-reliance with the posse and vigilantes.  All of these influence contemporary policing and, as importantly, our perceptions and understandings of the police.

The first formal, modern police in the United States were created in New York.  This was a city-wide police department with general jurisdiction and charged with enforcing the law and maintaining order throughout the jurisdiction.  Other, earlier “police” agencies did not have this broad, jurisdiction-wide responsibility.  The Charleston police were charged with controlling the slave population, not general law and order.  The Boston police were initially comprised of a dozen officers linked to the court, and not required to patrol or to provide general services city-wide.  In 1845, the City of New York created a police department that was modeled on the London Metropolitan Police, but was also uniquely American.

Waves of immigration coupled with rapid population growth supported a view of New York as facing a crisis of crime and disorder.  Crime was increasing the press coverage of crime created an image (if not reality) that the city was unsafe.  At the same time, urban elites needed to maintain a docile and controlled labor supply and to protect commerce.  Finally, not only was the city diverse and the city population stratified in a number of ways, there was an emerging government bureaucracy and a capacity to create and manage a police department.  According to Lundman’s model, the time was ripe for the creation of formal police in New York.

The New York police are organized by neighborhood (political “ward”) and tied directly to local politics.  Officers are recommended by ward leaders and appointed by the elected mayor.  The superintendent of police serves at the pleasure of the mayor.  Police are uniformed and unarmed (to start), and charged with patrolling neighborhoods and preventing crime.  In addition, as the basic representative of government in the community, police are assigned or assume a variety of social service tasks such as transporting sick and injured, providing shelter to the homeless, handling lost children, controlling traffic, and the like.

Soon after New York, other major American cities created police.  Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Cincinnati soon create police departments to deal with issues very similar to those faced by New York (and earlier, by London).  In subsequent years, the idea of police and the creation of a police department spreads across the country.  Eric Monkonnen (1981) argues that police in America follow a “diffusion of innovation” model.  While the first cities to create police may have done so in response to specific problems and issues, later cities appear to have followed the “fashion” of having police.  In short, leaders in the City of Podunk think that if all the “big cities” have police, they too should have police.  In this way, American policing, perhaps originally based on London, becomes increasingly distinct over time.  In the United States, there are thousands of local police departments and there are police at all levels of government.


Three Eras of American Policing


Kelling and Moore (1988) identify three eras of policing development in America.  In the beginning, they see a “political” era characterized by decentralization, neighborhood recruitment, and direct links between the police and politics.  There is weak police leadership with police commanders appointed by political officials.  The work of the police, especially their service mission is frequently tied to the local political machine.  The police support political patronage.  A second, “professional” era emerges when police leaders and political reformers seek to wrest control from politicians.  Responding to the corruption and inefficiencies of the political era, reformers seek to change the police (and local government).  Science and specialization are viewed as a means to improve policing.  Police leaders wanted independence and freedom from political interference.  Social/political reformers wanted to break the power of machine politics and they wanted “universalistic” or fair policing based on law.  They wanted to reduce vice offenses and better control of the urban poor and immigrants.  This reform led to police being held responsible for crime and crime rates and the police were isolated from the public.  The relationship between police and public became increasingly adversary.  Finally, we are now in a “community problem solving” era.  This era emerged in the past thirty years as a result of several developments, including improved understandings of crime and police impact on crime.  The police are expected to join with the community to identify problems, understand their causes, and develop effective responses.


Other Police Developments


The police in the United States developed haphazardly in communities reflecting the nature of American political structure.  Americans value local autonomy and limited government power.  The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reserves powers not previously identified in the Constitution to the states.  States in turn tend to reserve certain powers to local governmental entities.  Over time, governments at all levels encountered problems and issues that appeared best resolved by police.  In addition to municipal governments, states and the federal government also developed police.

The first modern, general purpose state police were created as the Pennsylvania State Constabulary in 1905.  Recognizing problems of crime and disorder, notably labor unrest in the coal mining regions of Western Pennsylvania, the state created police to respond to the problem.  In other states such as Massachusetts and New York, state leaders created police, in part, as a response to what they saw as ineffective or corrupt local city police.  As suburbs developed and commerce and travel increased, crime in the areas between cities became a problem and states increasingly developed police agencies to deal with these problems.  There are two basic models of state police.  Highway patrols, for the most part, are limited to policing and traffic control on state and federal highways.  State police, in comparison, are general purpose police who have jurisdiction statewide, with primary responsibility for unincorporated areas (typically locations without local police).  In addition, a variety of state functions resulted in the creation of state police.  State taxation, liquor control, parks, colleges and universities and the like are often the jurisdiction of special purpose state police agencies created specifically to provide police services for those functions.  The only state that does not have a general purpose police agency is Hawaii, despite the popularity of the television series.  It is ironic that a slang term for the police, “five-oh,” derives from the fictional Hawaii state police.

The federal government operates at least 70 agencies with some police powers ranging from the U.S. Coast Guard (really a hybrid of police and military) to specialist agencies like the National Zoological Park Police.  Most cabinet departments and agencies have an office of the inspector general.  There are nearly 20 federal police agencies that employ over 500 officers and agents.  As with specialist state police, federal police develop haphazardly to respond to problems as they emerge.  There is no national police in the United States.

The federal Judiciary Act of 1789 created the post of U.S. Marshal and President Washington appointed 13 officers.  This was the basic federal police for nearly 70 years.  However, Congress created watchmen for the Capitol and the President’s residence in the first years of the 19 century.  As the federal government grew and its responsibilities expanded, so did federal law enforcement.  Protection of the U.S. mail, customs and tariff collection, and prevention of counterfeiting all contributed to growing federal law enforcement problems.  The creation of the Bureau of Investigation in the Justice Department led eventually to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is arguably the premier and best known federal police agency in the United States.  Throughout the 20th Century, the activities of the federal government expanded and the number and size of federal police or law enforcement agencies grew.  Today, the majority of federal law enforcement officers work in the Department of Homeland Security.  These include Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Secret Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard.  The Department of Justice oversees the F.B.I., U.S. Marshals, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the U.S. Courts, among others.  Each branch of the military has its own police in the Department of Defense, and the National Park Service is housed in the Department of the Interior.

Federal law enforcement, similar to states with state offenses, deals with offenses having a “federal interest.”  Unlike states where most criminal offenses are defined in state law, for federal agencies, most offenses such as burglary or robbery do not raise to a federal interest.  The crime must be against a federal law, agency, on federal land, or involve some other jurisdictional characteristic, such as offenses across state lines.  Federal agencies, like state agencies, also provide assistance and technical support to local police.


Private Police

We will not spend much time dealing with private police, but it is important that we remain aware of their existence.  Most private police fall into a category of private security.  Recall that the public police grew from private efforts such as “thief takers,” footmen, watch men, and the like.  Private policing employs more personnel that public police and private policing often augments the public police.  There are some concerns about equal protection when police protection is available to those who can pay for it, but there is a long tradition of private initiative in policing and protection.  The growth of private policing in recent decades has been viewed as reflecting concerns that the public police have not been effective in preventing crime.

We are probably all familiar with private security/police companies such as Burns, Wells Fargo, Wackenhut, and the like.  We have also probably encountered private security at shopping malls or theaters, or we may live in “gated” communities.  In some places there are also actual, sworn police officers working for private concerns.  Not only do hundreds of thousands of police officers work private “details” each year, or companies contract with police or sheriffs for special services, some private institutions are authorized by state law to operate police departments, although these are relatively rare.  Nonetheless, private police and security add to the overall complement of policing in the United States.

The Historical Legacy of the American Police

The American police have evolved over time and both their creation and changes in policing reflect changes in the social environment in which they exist.  Kelling and Moore argue that police organizational strategies reflect seven interrelated categories:

  • Sources of legitimacy & authorization
  • Police function or role in society
  • Organizational Design
  • Relationships with external environments
  • Nature of police efforts to market or manage demand for their services – demand management
  • Principal programs, activities, tactics, technologies
  • Measures used to define operational success or failure.

Changes in organizational strategies produce changes in policing.  We have described their three eras:

  • Political Era
  • Reform Era
  • Community Era

Kelling and Moore describe the eras in great detail.  However, we must be aware of the importance of strategy to their position.  They distinguish between strategies and tactics.  They say a strategy is the process of planning and directing, a larger, broader approach to a problem or issue.  In contrast, a tactic is a specific method or process aimed at achieving the strategy.  This distinction is important because it requires that there be a fundamental change in how the police approach their job, not just what they do if there is to be a change in eras.  Dr. Robin Engel has explained this distinction:

The difference between a strategy and a tactic is important because if we are really in a community “era” of policing, it has to be more than simply a change in tactics – it has to be real organizational change – a change in the strategy.

For example, team policing was a radical innovation in the early 1970s.  Team policing was initially very popular, but had nearly vanished by the late 1970s.  According to Walker (1999), the concept of team policing involved the restructuring of police operations along neighborhood lines and decentralizing decision-making authority.  The goals of team policing included: 1) developing a neighborhood focus, 2) making police operations relevant to particular neighborhood problems, and 3) increasing interaction with citizens.  Sound familiar? — perhaps rather similar to community policing?

Team policing attempted to decentralize decision-making in police organizations by giving rank-and-file officers greater decision-making responsibilities. Teams of officers were assigned to particular neighborhoods on a semi-permanent basis and were responsible for all police services in those areas.

But, as noted by Walker (1984), team policing ultimately failed for a number of reasons.  First, the experiments were poorly planned and hastily implemented (officers did not have a good understanding of what they were supposed to do).  Second, many middle managers and supervisors felt threatened because decentralization undermined their authority, and as a result, some supervisors sabotaged the experiments.  Third, teampolicing areas were not well integrated into the main operations of the department (one part of a department had a neighborhood focus while all the rest had a city-wide orientation).  Finally, advocates of team policing did not develop a different view of police work – the program emphasized restructuring but not a different style or philosophy of policing (team police officers engaged in traditional forms of police work – responding to calls for service, deterring crime through patrol, and apprehending criminals).


Essentially, team policing was supposed to be a strategy, but it was approached as a tactic.  This is why team policing was not successful.  Team policing was not strategically compatible with the type of reform policing that departments were engaged in at the time.


It is often very difficult to tell if there has been any change in policing and, if so, how great the change has been.  I have often heard people say that a police officer from one hundred years ago would notice much as being different about the job of policing today.  Apart from the technology and gadgets available to today’s officer, the basic job still entails interacting with people to enforce the law and maintain order.  In terms of the day-to-day practice of policing, it may be that fundamental change is both unlikely, and unnecessary.  What is more likely to change is the organizational approach to policing, or the definition of the most important goals of policing.  Those changes will have influences on officer behavior, but the influence on how officers relate to citizens are limited.  In the next module we will explore the role and function of the police in American society.  For now, we will examine how the history of the American police continues to influence and, in some ways, limit change in policing.

The Community Problem Solving Era of Policing described by Kelling and Moore is supposed to reflect contemporary policing, or at least was supposed to describe modern policing at the time they were writing.  The rhetoric of police leaders still reflects an emphasis on problem solving and community engagement.  Indeed, given the rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and contemporary controversies around police practice, especially the use of force, there is even more concern about engaging the community in policing.

As the Professional Era was a response to perceived problems and limits of the Political Era, the Community Era is a response to problems with the Professional Era.  In the professional era, police were recognized as experts and charged primarily with law enforcement and crime fighting.  As a result, the police were isolated from the community and most often placed in conflict with citizens.  The role of the police was defined as crime fighting, so the officer was no longer expected to help solve non-crime problems.  When citizens encountered officers, it was as victims, suspects, or witnesses.  Officers were insulated from community control and police agencies, as professional institutions, were shielded from accountability.  In theory, at least, this was a product of the movement to professional police.

By the late 1960s, however, the professional police faced several challenges.  In no particular order, it appeared the police were not very effective at preventing or controlling crime, which questioned their professionalism.  The “due process revolution” reflected a challenging of police authority by citizens and, most often, the courts ruled in favor of citizens.  Long-standing police practices of interrogation and search were found to be abusive and illegal.  Research into police crime control tactics revealed that they were largely ineffective.  Preventive patrol, the staple of professional policing, did not appear to prevent crime.  The detective, the pinnacle of the police career, was not some mythical crime solving genius but rather, a glorified paper-pusher.

The civil rights movement and the anti-war (Vietnam War) movements combined to challenge the police on the streets and resulted in poor public perceptions of the police.  One need only think of the television coverage of police using fire hoses and dogs to break-up demonstrations to recognize the public relations crisis of that era.  Further, these two movements created a very powerful and self-aware political opposition to police authority.  Commission reports, such as the Kerner Commission report on Civil Disobedience identified poor police community relations as the cause of most riots.  Most of the “race riots” of that era were triggered by police use of force against minority group members.

Research on policing recognized that the role of the police involved a variety of tasks and demands.  Citizens were concerned with disorder and low level offenses while police focused on more serious crimes.  It became clear that police could not prevent or control crime without citizen cooperation.  Citizens and police were co-producers of order and had to cooperate to deal effectively with crime.

All of these observations and conclusions undermined the idea of professional crime fighting police.  In the end, the professional era, like the political era before it, was found wanting.  The solution, it seemed, was to change policing so that it was more responsive to and engaged with the community, and to link police efforts to community-defined problems.  Of course, one major hurdle to this reform was the need to define community, but we will deal with that topic in Module 5.

The question that remains is, did the American police ever actually enter a community era?  Are we still in that era?  What has happened?  A great deal of research in the 1990s and early 2000s reported little change in policing in America.  In very short order, and emphasis on the community was replaced with an emphasis on crime problems (harkening back to the professional era).  The terrorist attack of 9-11 in 2001 focused attention on homeland security and resulted in attempts to enlist the police in counter terror efforts.  Nonetheless, in most police departments today, most officers are assigned to routine preventive patrol.  Really, how much has policing changed and , perhaps more importantly, how much change can we reasonably expect?

Most police organizations today still have military ranks and uniformed personnel, reflecting the continuing influence of the original paramilitary structure adopted by the London Metropolitan Police in 1829.  It is paramilitary because, while the police use ranks and wear uniforms and can apply coercive force, their focus is domestic.  Unlike the military which has national security as its purpose, the police are charged with domestic security.  They are authorized to use force on community members (if necessary) to insure order and control crime.  The adoption of a paramilitary structure was at least partly a function of the times.  The military model was the only organizational model available that was designed to coordinate and control the actions of large numbers of people.

The first two Police Justices (commanders of the London Police) were attorney Richard Mayne and former cavalry officer Charles Rowan.  Not surprisingly, when given the task of organizing a large number of men, Rowan applied his military experience.  The military pyramidal structure and the use of ranks is the common organizational structure of American police.  There have been several critiques of the military nature of American police and of the “militarization” of the police.  The addition of counter terror tasks to the police portfolio has only added to this conception of the police as military.  The availability of military surplus materials, including automatic rifles, armored vehicles, surveillance equipment and similar military surplus has become controversial recently.  This controversy has spurred the federal government to suspend the distribution of at least some military surplus to civilian police.  The military structure of the police is part of their historical legacy.

Egon Bittner (1970) argues that the quasi-military structure of police organizations actually encourages police misconduct.  He suggests that in early police departments, there were no incentives to do well and few standards.  With the military model, there is a fairly well-defined and understood set of internal standards that officers should follow.  Supervisors in the organization can (and do) enforce these standards, so discipline focuses on things such as appearance, properly completing paperwork, maintenance of equipment and all sorts of “internal” organizational things.  The work of officers, however, is largely unstructured and unsupervised.  In response, supervisors can (and do) establish standards of performance.  These, however, tend to be simplistic.  The focus is on the number of citations written, or arrests made, or warrants served.  It is almost impossible to monitor and assess the quality of that performance.

The net result is that officers learn to follow internal rules and also to “produce” activity that is counted.  The emphasis on outcomes, however, encourages officers to make arrests or write citations regardless of circumstances.  That is, the supervisory limits that come with the quasi-military organizational structure encourage officers to lie and/or to exceed their authority in dealing with citizens.  Spending a half hour talking with a citizen to defuse a situation and avoid an arrest is, from the perspective of the officer, counterproductive.   The officer will get more “credit” for making a quick arrest, even if, in the grand scheme of things, arrest is a poor solution to the problem.  Bittner argues that some other form of organization (he doesn’t specify what) might better encourage officers to improve their craft of policing.

Bittner urges the development of greater emphasis on police performance as decision-making and the exercise of discretion.  While difficult, he suggests that if police leaders could define what is good policing, they could then develop a system of rewards that encourages officers to do good policing.  Current rules stressing outcomes and internal procedures do not, Bittner claims, help police officers to deliver good policing.

Whether the quasi-military structure or the apparent cycle of reform in policing, it seems clear that like any other social institution, the police are influenced by the legacy of their history.  Our understanding of the police and our hopes for change or reform in policing have to be cognizant of this legacy.  The past does shape the future and our understanding of the past helps sharpen our understanding of the present and the future.