The History of Law Enforcement in US

Like with any other institution as fundamental as law enforcement agencies, the history of their formation and development is rich and stretches far in the past. Law enforcement in the US alongside two other crucial components of criminal justice builds its basis. These three elements function independently to a certain extent; the three combined, however, serve to detect and investigate criminal activity and then administer the criminal punishment. The primary agents of law enforcement in the US are police agencies. It is their duty to investigate suspected criminal activity, report their findings to courts, and arrest suspected individuals until their innocence or culpability is proved. All in all, law enforcement agencies are an essential element of the US criminal justice system. The US law enforcement history will be the focus of this paper.

Formation of Law Enforcement

As suggested by Potter (2013), “the development of policing in the United States closely followed the development of policing in England” (para. 1). There were two forms of dispensing justice in the newly-formed colonies: informal and communal. Communal policing of that time had been referred to as the “Watch.” Policing agents that received some profits for their activity received a name “The Big Stick.” Although publically recognized, these efforts did not operate properly or anywhere near professionally. There was no training, no specialized equipment, and no instructions to follow. The sole purpose of these groups was to prevent disorder in their communities.

The bulk of the communal policing consisted of volunteers that accepted this duty based on their desire to make their community safer. However, their first and foremost duty was to warn others of any threats that occurred (fire, theft, homicide, etc.). Such watches were created in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in the years 1636, 1658, and 1700 respectively. Needless to say, such watches were not particularly effective means of preventing or fighting off crime. The problem was presented in the fact that most of the volunteers simply tried to avoid military service by applying tonight watches.

The centralized municipal police first crossed the minds of the US leaders in the 1830s. The first American police force was then established in Boston in 1838, then in New York in 1845, and Chicago in 1851. The established organizations had bureaucratic nature, were publically supported, had full-time personnel, fixed rules, and established procedures, and had to obey central authority.

Further Development of Policing

By the late 19th century, every major city in the US had a police department. Waxman (2017) claims that “fears of labor-union organizers and of large waves of Catholic, Irish, Italian, German, and Eastern European immigrants, who looked and acted differently from the people who had dominated cities before, drove the call for the preservation of law and order, or at least the version of it promoted by dominant interests” (para. 8). A significant shift in people’s mindset caused law and order to become far more important in their lives. Many things that had been a part of their daily lives turned into potential threats to peace and community order.

At the same time, the late 19th century in America was a time of various political fraudulent activities, and police forces were also involved in those. Police captains and sergeants were often pressured or bribed by a local party leader to threaten and suppress their opposition. Also, police officers were often provided with payoffs to ignore certain criminal activities (illegal drinking, gambling, prostitution, etc.). In 1929, President Hoover called for the Wickersham Commission to investigate the lack of law enforcement agencies’ effectiveness that became evident. In order to prevent party leaders from bribing and otherwise illegally cooperating with police officers, precincts structure was changed so that political wards and police precincts would not have a possibility to collaborate somehow. This initiative had been followed by increasing the professionalization of the police forces.

Modern Law Enforcement

Modern law enforcement agencies of the US possess a highly advanced base of knowledge in various crime-related disciplines. Furthermore, police officers must undergo excessive training and education to carry out their duties with the most effectiveness. As concluded by Roufa (2017), “thanks largely in part to the efforts of men like Sir Robert Peel, the field of criminology has expanded greatly, paving the way for innovations and establishing new opportunities for rewarding careers in law enforcement and criminal justice” (para. 14). Currently, the structure of law enforcement agencies is rather complex and sophisticated. There are four main types of police forces: federal, state, county (further divided into county and sheriff’s police), and municipal. The type is determined by the region in which a police department is authorized to operate. High-quality equipment, excessive training, and inherent professionalism remain the determining qualities of the modern law enforcement agencies in the US.


Thus, although the US law enforcement had its weak points in history, a significant amount of effort allowed authorities to overcome challenges and establish a properly functioning system of criminal justice. Moreover, since the American system of law enforcement is relatively young, its development is still in full swing. A significant number of obstacles that prevent law enforcement agencies from successfully fighting off crime still require resolutions and innovative approaches. The community also requires law enforcement system to be adjusted as the modern police forces often overextend their authority.


Potter, G. (2013). The history of policing in the United States, part 1. Web.

Roufa, T. (2017). The history of modern policing. Web.

Waxman, O. B. (2017). How the U.S. got its police force. Time. Web.

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1. LawBirdie. "The History of Law Enforcement in US." October 13, 2023.


LawBirdie. "The History of Law Enforcement in US." October 13, 2023.