The Origin and Evolution of Law Enforcement in the U.S. (Part 1)

(Much of this post is taken directly from an excellent series of articles entitled The History of Policing in the United States, by Dr. Gary Potter, professor of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. I highly recommend reading the whole series, as well as the other resources I’ve linked to throughout this post.)

In order for us to better understand the current dynamics between race and law enforcement in our country, it’s important for us to have some context. Over the next few posts, I’m going to share a brief overview of the origin and evolution of policing in the U.S.


American law enforcement organization actually began in the South, with the formation of the slave patrol. Slave patrols apprehended and returned runaway slaves to their owners, provided a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts, and violently punished slaves if they violated plantation rules. The first formal slave patrol was established in the Carolina colonies in 1704.

Modern Southern police departments evolved directly from these slave patrols. After the Civil War, Southern law enforcement created a formalized system of forced labor for freed slaves (“chain gangs.”) Later they would enforce Jim Crow segregation laws and work to deny African Americans equal rights and access to the political system. It should also be noted that even though public lynchings of people of color—so common between the Civil War and WWII—are often defined as “extrajudicial,” local law enforcement officers clearly condoned, and often colluded, with the practice.


Although informal policing modalities such as the “constable” and “watch” systems had been employed in the Northern colonies since their establishment, centralized municipal police departments didn’t appear until the 1830’s.

Cities were growing rapidly, as was the gap between the rich and the poor. The exploitation of workers through long hours, dangerous working conditions, and low wages was creating political unrest. The only strategy available to workers was what economic elites referred to as “rioting,” which was actually a primitive form of what would become union strikes.

Economic elites needed a mechanism to maintain a compliant workforce and an orderly environment in which to conduct their business. Publicly-supported police forces were created out of this need: not so much for crime prevention, as for social control.

By the late 19th century, union organizing and labor unrest were widespread in the United States. Police—who were under the control of local politicians, who in turn were in the pockets of the wealthy business owners—increasingly focused their attention on strike-breaking through the use of 1) extreme violence to forcibly disperse demonstrators, and 2) staggering numbers of “public order” arrests. One scholar concluded that 80% of all arrests during this time were of workers charged with “public disorder.”*

This designation of the “dangerous classes” (i.e., the poor, immigrants, and free Blacks) as the embodiment of the “crime” problem shaped a philosophy that persists to today: that policing should be directed toward “bad” individuals, rather than social and economic conditions that are criminogenic in their social outcomes.

Main Image: Members of the Boston Police Department prepare for May Day riots in 1920

*Harring, Sidney, “Policing in a Class Society: The Expansion of the Urban Police in the Later Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” In Crime and Capitalism, edited by David Greenberg, Palo Alto, California: Mayfield, 1981.

To read Part 2 in this series, click here.