Eras in American Policing

Policing in America has been a work in progress and continues to evolve to find the balance between protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and providing law and order while serving and protecting. To date, there are three (3) recognized ears of American policing.

The Political Era (1840-1930)

The Political Era (1840-1930)During the political era of policing, the function of law enforcement was to provide a wide range of social service to the community. The police department was decentralized and held an intimate relationship with the community. Police patrol were mainly conducted by foot and bicycle patrols. Police officers walked a beat establishing and building relationships with the shop owners and citizens who worked, lived, and played in the neighborhoods within the officer’s assigned beat. The police officer’s job was to serve the community and met the needs of the local political bosses.

Policing was very corrupt during this era and the police departments ruled with an iron fist for anyone who disrupted the peace. Police officer’s brutality ruled over their assigned beats during this era of American policing and forcing confessions from suspects. During the political era of policing, prohibition gave rise to organized crime and this caused widespread police corruption.

The 1929 Wickersham Commission established by President Herbert Hoover is a set of reports on the United States criminal justice system and law enforcement strategies and operations. The Wickersham Commission findings led to the reform era of American policing (Walker, 2013).

The Reform Era (1930-1980)

The first graduates of the Bureau's training program for national police exectives, the forerunner of today's National Academy, in 1935.
The first graduates of the Bureau’s training program for national police executives, the forerunner of today’s National Academy, in 1935.

During the reform era of American policing, a crime control model was established and the police departments became centralized. The police relationship with the community became professional and officers were distant and gave the impression they were non-approachable and did not care for building an intimate relationship with the citizens and businesses in their jurisdictions. Technology was changing policing and officers were patrolling in police vehicles with the goal of decreasing response times of calls for service. The 911 emergency telephone system reduced police response times even further. The goal of policing was crime control by visible police patrol vehicles during peak hours of service.

The police relationship with the community deteriorated during this era with officers not as approachable as they once were when they were patrolling on foot. The community started mistrusting their local police department because officers no longer took the time to get to know the citizens they served, and seemed only to care about aggressive policing and the police were no longer viewed as the community protectors but the agitators who harassed communities.

During the reform era of American policing, corruption was targeted by establishing law enforcement ethical codes of conduct. Policing was becoming a profession with better pay, training, using scientific methods in crime solving, and adopting other technologies that made law enforcement more efficient.

In 1974, one of the most influential criminal justice research studies was published. The research study was the Police Foundation sponsored study entitled: The Kansas City preventive patrol experiment: A summary report (Kelling, Pate, Dieckman, & Brown, 1974). The findings of this report and the political pressure for police reform in law enforcement led to the community era of American policing.

The Community Era (1980 to Present)

Community Policing
Community Policing

The community era of American policing encompasses the strategy of crime control along with providing community services by collaborating with the local community to help provide for a safer neighborhood. The policing philosophy went back to decentralizing and creating special units of community policing officers. Policing efforts were in re-building relationships and demonstrating that the local police department cares about the communities they serve by improving the quality of living and encouraging the community to work with their local police department and officers.

Some critics of this policing style argued that this turns the police into social workers distracting from their mission of crime fighting. Others who support this policing reform argued that crime fighting is secondary to being community protectors.

The Future of American Policing

American law enforcement faces many challenges from fighting international and domestic terrorism, cybercrimes, to building sustainable working relationships with the communities they serve.

As the class progresses, we will dive into the history, jurisdictional responsibilities, and law enforcement strategies associated with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

Our learning team we will explore the US court dual system, and learn about landmark court decisions that have changed American policing.


Kelling, G. L., Pate, T., Dieckman, & Brown, C. E. (1974). The Kansa City preventive patrol experiment: A summary report. Police Foundation. Retrieved from

Walker, S. (2013). The engineer as progressive: The Wickersham Commission in the arc of Herbert Hoover ’s life and work. Marquette Law Review, 96(4), 1165-1196.

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.