The Origin and Evolution of Law Enforcement in the U.S. (Part 3)


As we discovered in Part 1 and Part 2 of our series, local law enforcement agencies were originally created not to fight crime, but to serve as instruments of social control for the powerful. Their purpose was to “maintain order”, which meant protecting the economic interests of the elite by suppressing and oppressing the marginalized: slaves (and former slaves), immigrants, Catholics, Native Americans, the poor.

Eastern Kentucky University Police Studies professor Dr. James Potter picks up where we left off:

“By the end of 19th century municipal police departments were firmly entrenched in the day-to-day political affairs of big-city political machines…[They] were in fact, the primary modality through which crime was organized in urban areas…At the dawn of the 20th century, police were, at least de facto, acting as the enforcement arm of organized crime in virtually every big city.

Police also helped organize widespread election fraud…In return, police had virtual carte blanche in the use of force and had as their primary business not crime control, but the solicitation and acceptance of bribes. It is incorrect to say the late 19th and early 20th century police were corrupt, they were in fact, primary instruments for the creation of corruption in the first place.

The advent of Prohibition (1919-1933) only made the situation worse…Organized crime was able to emerge from the shadows and deal directly with corrupt police… By the end of Prohibition, the corrupting of American policing was almost total.”

It should be said that during this time, many brave individuals serving in law enforcement attempted to stand up to the political machines and organized crime. But it was (and remains today) an uphill battle.

There were also several police reform movements during the 20th century. While real improvements have certainly been made, mileage has varied on the lasting effectiveness of various reform movements over the years. Unfortunately, it is not in the nature of the wealthy and powerful to readily give up their wealth and power; for every structural shift implemented in law enforcement, those in power have simply adapted their methods of corruption.


Except for a brief period during Reconstruction, U.S. law enforcement agencies remained almost exclusively white until well into the 20th century.

With the advent of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s came pressure on police departments to hire more officers of color. Change came slowly. For years, departments might hire officers of color, but would place heavy restrictions on those officers. For instance, racial minorities were often only allowed to patrol their own communities, and only on foot. Some were not allowed to wear a police uniform. Many did not have the power to make an arrest. Many more certainly did not have the power to place a white person under arrest.

It took even longer to see people of color appointed to major leadership positions in law enforcement. It wasn’t until 1976 that an African American was named police chief of a major city (Detroit). The first Hispanic chief was 1992 (Chicago). The first Asian American chief was in 1996 (San Francisco). And the first (half)-Native American chief was in 2012 (Minneapolis). Many departments across the U.S. have never had a chief of color…even departments where the population of their jurisdictions is majority people of color.*

There is still a huge racial gap in the makeup of U.S. law enforcement agencies. In hundreds of police departments across the country, the percentage of whites on the force is more than 30 percentage points higher than in the communities they serve.

*The dates for the first police chiefs of color in major American cities were the most accurate I could discover through my research. If you have better information, please let me know, and I’ll be happy to make any corrections.