The Historical Evolution of American Policing

american-revolution-colonial-militia-soldier-randy-steeleIn early American, the new settlers from England established colonies in North America. The new arrivals also brought with them the practice of seeking volunteers to form a constable-night watch system that they were familiar with in England. These informal groups of volunteers usually consisted of older men who carried a lantern and bell as their tools. If a security problem occurred during the night, the constable-watchman would ring his bell to alert others of trouble. This informal system was the first attempt to provide security to the new settlers.

The first American settlers relied mostly on British military and local militia

George Hardin, Portland's first African American police officer, in 1884. Courtesy of the Portland Police Historical Society
George Hardin, Portland’s first African American police officer, in 1884. Courtesy of the Portland Police Historical Society

units to maintain order. Other settlers who expanded westward were mostly on their own to protect themselves and their property.

With the birth of a new nation, the United States of America settled into its place among nations and formed a government that recognized the need for law enforcement agencies to establish law and order.

The Birth of Modern Policing

Sir Robert Peel established the first organized police force in London, England in 1829 (Shockey-Eckles, 2011). Sir

Sir Robert Peel
Sir Robert Peel

Robert Peel adopted a quasi-military structure and organization for the new London Metropolitan Police Force to establish authority and respect (Shockey-Eckles, 2011). The new police department needed a new uniformed that was distinguishable so that citizens could recognize police officers on duty, and soon the department adopted a dark blue uniform with a police badge worn in the center of the new headgear called a cockscomb (Shockey-Eckles, 2011). Sir Robert Peel’s new police force established standards for members and organized the first ever police training for new officers (Shockey-Eckles, 2011).

It was not long before that the police experiment created by Sir Robert Peel and the idea to create a professional police department to establish law and order found its way to America (Shockey-Eckles, 2011).

American Policing in the 1800s  

Boston police officers in uniform from 1877
Boston police officers in uniform from 1877

The Boston Police Department was created in 1838, and has the honor of being the first organized police department in the United States (McCaffrey, 1912).

In 1845, The New York Police Department was established (Kelly, 1993). In 1851, the Chicago Police Department officially formed (CPD, 2015). In 1852, the New Orleans Police Department started operations (NOPD, 2015). By 1855, most major city in the United States formed their own municipal police departments protecting and serving in their city jurisdiction.

As policing in America became a recognized profession the need to study modern policing and applying scientific methods to crime fighting led to the creation of police science and criminal justice studies as a formal academic discipline to support the research required to enhance law enforcement practices, strategies, and policy recommendations based on academic research.


Shockey-Eckles, M. L. (2011, August). Police culture and perpetuation of the office shuffle: The paradox of the life behind the blue wall. Humanity & Society, 35(3), 290-309. doi: 10.1177/016059761103500305

About the Author

Mark Bond

Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms instructor for more than 33 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in criminal justice, and M.Ed in educational leadership with Summa Cum Laude honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education (EdD) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.