Criminal Justice Paper on Law Enforcement in the United States

Structural Evolution of Law Enforcement in the United States


            Lately, policing in the United States has gained notoriety in the international media for its perceived or alleged maltreatment of young African American men. Police officers have been accused of using disproportionate force in their response to activities and behaviors that they have perceived as criminal. Whether these police responses are racially motivated or there is a problem with how the law is enforced in the United States, it remains a controversial subject of debate.

This research focuses on the evolution of law enforcement in the United States, and how such evolution has led to changes in the structure and manner of law enforcement. Through refereeing to available literature, the development of policing is examined in a chronological manner, from its inception to its current form. The history of policing, commercial and political influence on policing, professional reformation of policing, and, finally, community oriented policing are examined in that order, in an endeavor to reveal the evolution of the structure and method of policing in the United States, how authorities, events, circumstances and Acts of law have influenced that evolution, and the effect the evolution had on policing.


Definition of Policing

            According to Gaines and Kappeler, policing is a responsibility undertaken by officers (called police officers) entailing enforcement of law, detection crime, prevention of crime, investigation of crime, and maintenance of public safety (2011).


The History of United States Policing

At its infancy, the development of law enforcement in the US is followed from the development of law enforcement in England, then a colonizer of the United States. In England’s first colonies, law enforcement was administered both communally and informally, a system that was known as the “Watch”, or, alternatively, “The Big Stick” (Spitzer, 1979).

At the center of this form of law enforcement were volunteers from the community, whose main role was to warn the authorities of potential imminent crime perpetration or any form of danger. The states of New York, Philadelphia and Boston created night watches as early as 1700, but these night watches were not an effective form of crime prevention and control. The volunteers were not really volunteers as the word suggests; rather, some of them were just men exploiting law enforcement as a way of avoiding military service, some were forcefully conscripted into law enforcement by the towns, while others were forced into law enforcement by the authorities as a form of punishment.  While, theoretically, or at least from the perspective of the authorities, these so-called community volunteers were there to enforce the law, most of them only drunk and slept on duty, or did other irrelevant things (Gaines and Kappeler, 2011). The states of New York and Philadelphia became the first to introduce day watch, in the early 1800’s to supplement their newly formed municipal police forces (Gaines and Kappeler, 2011).

In addition to community volunteers, there were official police officers (also called constables), who were paid for their services. In most cities, the constables were responsible for the supervision of night watches. However, both the constables and the watchmen did not have sufficient manpower and knowledge of crime investigation to properly perform their duties. More undermining of their effectiveness was that fact that besides law enforcement, the constables were involved in activities like the verification of the accuracy of weights and measures and land survey, all of which had nothing to do with policing (Gaines and Kappeler, 2011).. The result was inefficiency in law enforcement, resulting in failure to efficiently curb crime perpetration.

This system of partially informal law enforcement was continued till a period after the American Revolution, and continued until the emergence of the idea of centralized system law enforcement in the 1930’s (Lundman, 1980). By the 1800’s, the institution of centralized systems of law enforcement was fully realized in most of the major cities in the Northern States.

The newly formed police organizations had a number of characteristics in common: though supported by the public, they were riddled with bureaucracy; in place of the community volunteers, there were now full-time employees, called police officers; the organization was departmentalized, with each department having its own rules, regulations and procedures; and the law enforcement departments were answerable to the central government (Lundman 1980).

The development of law enforcement in the Southern States, however, took a different trajectory to that of the North. The economy of the South was heavily reliant on slave labor; and, owing to uprisings and escapes by slaves, the Southern States had tailored a form of law enforcement that was geared towards the control of slaves. The form of policing in this part of the United States mainly took the form of slave patrol, with the colonies of Carolina being the first to have it implemented in them (Lundman 1980). The system of slave patrol sought to achieve three major objectives: to hunt down escaped slaves, apprehend them and see to it that they return to their slave-owners; to instill a type of organized terror as an avenue of deterring slaves from revolting; and, to discipline and punish slaves who failed to conform to the rules of the plantations for which they worked.

After the civil war, whose outcome was the complete abolishment of slavery across the United States, the slave patrol form of policing evolved into a form of police departments whose functions were not very different to the forms from which they had evolved. The new departments’ main interest was the control of laborers, who were actually former slaves still working in their former jobs; and the implementation of the then-American regime’s system of racial segregation designed to distance former slaves (or African Americans) from the political system and deny them equality of rights to whites.


The Era of Commercial and Political Entrenchment

The historical account of the evolution of law enforcement in the United States from its early crude form does not appear to offer an explanation for the localization, centralization and bureaucratization it evolved into. An answer suggested by most scholars is that there was an accelerating growth of cities. The country was urbanizing so fast, and with the urbanization came an increase in the rate of crime at so fast a pace that the old form of constables and community volunteers were unable to adequately enforce the law. Some of the crimes that were associated with urbanization were racist mob violence by whites against African Americans and other non-white immigrants, and the growth of prostitution and other forms of public disorder (Spitzer, 1979).

The emergence of modern law enforcement in the United States was therefore motivated by a need to respond to the public and social “disorder” that had resulted from urbanization. But what is considered public and/or social disorder depends on the definition of those terms, or rather who is involved in their definition. On the 1800’s United States, the definitions of the terms were hugely skewed in favor of commercial activities in the country, a bias that was facilitated by political influence and taxes. The commercial interest saw to the modeling of the policing departments in a form that favored commercialists’ interest in social control, rather than crime control.

However, the then-private and profit oriented form of law enforcement was too focused on certain particular forms of crime to adequately take care of all the needs of the commercialists. To stabilize and streamline their workforce, sustain and improve business environment, and maintain what they called ‘collective good’, the commercialists wanted in place an ‘appropriately tuned’ law enforcement mechanism (Spitzer, 1979). The commercial interests also sought to transfer to the state the cost of protection of their enterprises.

Beside the interests of the commercial elites, another element in the organization of law enforcement in this era of transition, which the commercialists actually influenced, was the direct political link to policing. During the period, the decision on who would be offered a job as a police officer and who would be refused rested with the politicians of the time (Gaines and Kappeler, 2011). This direct link between politics and law enforcement resulted in corruption and patronage – there were not proper background and qualification checks, and government agencies were not transparent in their recruitment and hiring processes either.

During this era, from 1840’s to 1900’s, the United States’ law enforcement departments were decentralized. The substantial influence on neighborhoods by politicians inextricably linked politicians to the police, the result being full control of cities by political machines.

The Era of Professionalization of Law Enforcement

The era of reform, which actually overlaps with previous eras, started in the 20’s. This era was marked with the institutionalization of standards of eligibility, process of recruitment and proper training methods. To rid law enforcement of political control and influence, the making of decisions regarding policing was decentralized.

During this period, the position of the chief police and police departments were integrated into the civil service (Gaines and Kappeler, 2011). Their being made part of the civil service meant that, like any other civil service, the selection of prospective police officers for employment was based on merit in examinations. This form of hiring had the effect of eliminating political interest from the process.

While the professionalization of law enforcement improved record keeping and instilled strict and effective chains of command, it came with a downside that is increased bureaucracy. Two of the results of professional reform of policing were that operations were consolidated and middle management was implemented, away from the previous decentralized and precinct systems, towards a centralized bureaucratic system (Gaines and Kappeler, 2011).

            Another prominent feature of this era is the process of recruitment into law enforcement. In the beginning, before politicians could decided on who got recruited and who didn’t, anyone in the community could ‘volunteer’ to be part of law enforcement – either willingly, to avoid something else (for example conscription into the army) or as a form of punishment. Today, prospective police officers are taken through intensive training, which they have to pass in order to be accepted into law enforcement.

In police academies, prospective police officers are not just trained in crime prevention, crime investigation, prosecution and others areas directly related to law enforcement; they are also trained in such areas as leadership skills, professionalism, ethics, and cultural intelligence, among others (Peak, 2014). This follows from the realization that these extra skills helps make the process of law enforcement easier for police officers. Upon graduation, the successful students are attached to practicing police officers for exposure to practical policing and acquisition of experience in the field. This form of training is arguably responsible for effective policing, though what ‘effective’ means in this case is quiet controversial, in light of current  allegations of reported inappropriate policing in African American communities.

The training in law enforcement does not end with the graduation of prospective police officers, their attachment to experienced police officers and their final recruitment into the police force, but practicing police officers are also trained for the purposes of recertification, refreshment and provision of new information pertaining to the certain aspects of law enforcement (Peak, 2014). This extra training is believed to improve law enforcement as what is taught is actually new findings from researches by academics and other relevant institutions regarding understanding of crime and criminal justice.

Today, specialization and hierarchy are features that are prominent in policing. Today, policing is subdivided into specialized units, which include the following: criminal investigation bureau, detective divisions, juvenile units, drugs units and canine units (Peak, 2014). Besides subdivision is the element of hierarchy, where there are the chief police, deputy chief police, captains, sergeants, lieutenants, and patrol officers (Peak, 2014). It has been observed that the implementation of hierarchy system has eliminated the problem of replication of direction and supervision (Peak, 2014).


Community-Based Law Enforcement

All forms of policing advocate for a proactive approach to law enforcement, but community oriented policy has an extra element to it – police officers are urged to involve the communities under their service in their solution of problems in those communities. Community-based policing manifests in various forms but, all in all, it aims to forge cooperation between the communities concerned and police service in those communities. Though the definition of community policing is not clear-cut, the general consensus is that community oriented policing considers law enforcement as a function of both the police and the community, not just the police alone (Mastrofski, 1995).

In general terms, community-oriented policing is a law enforcement service, where the same police officer works with the same community permanently, and in partnership with members of that community, to identify sources of problems and solve them cooperatively (Mastrofski, 1995).

Community-Oriented Policing Services (or COPS) was established in 1994 as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (or VCCLE Act). Following the passage of the Act, a hundred thousand more police officers deployed to the United States’ streets. At its inception, community policing had three objectives: to encourage cooperation between communities and law enforcement; to enable police officers identify, target and address problems before they spiral into crime; and to allow police officers the freedom to decide what to do in criminal situations. Community-oriented policing is thus a move from a paramilitary approach to law enforcement, towards a flexible cooperative relationship with police departments (Mastrofski, 1995).


Law enforcement in the United States has evolved from a virtual inexistence to the form it is in today, and the effectiveness of these changes has been felt.

In the colonial times, policing was almost fully undertaken by community volunteers and, later, joined by official police officers (called constables). This early form of policing lacked structure and organization, and was therefore not effective.

Later, with the growth and development of commerce, commercialists used their taxes and political influence to shape law enforcement in favor of their own interests. Policing was tailored towards the protection of commercial interests, resulting in the neglect of criminal activities that did not affect businesses. In this same period, politicians had the power to decided who was hired in the police force, which meant that they literary headed law enforcement in regions under them.

The era of professional reformation, which came after the era of political and commercial entrenchment, was marked with the institutionalization of standards of eligibility, process of recruitment and proper training methods. It was characterized with specialization and the implementation of a form of hierarchy. This new form of policing turned out to be more effective than the forms that preceded it.

As a refinement of the professional reformation, community-oriented policing was introduced. This new element of law enforcement integrates the community into law enforcement in terms of cooperating with the police force and hence making policing easier and more effective.

Policing has greatly improved since its inception in terms of structure and method. This improvement has been a result of an evolution that has greatly been influenced by commercial interest, authorities and new knowledge regarding law enforcement. It can be argued that this improvement has led to a reduction in the perpetration of crime. However this is undermined by the fact despite being at its current form, law enforcement in the United States is still mistrusted for its allegedly inappropriate handling of African Americans and Hispanics.




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Mastrofski, S. D., Worden, R. E., & Snipes, J. B. (1995). Law enforcement in a time of

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Peak K.J. (2014), Policing America: Challenges and Best Practices. Pearson, NY New York.

New York Times April 6, 2013.

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