The History of Policing in the United States, Part 2

Written by Dr. Gary Potter

Maintaining a stable and disciplined work force for the developing system of factory production and ensuring a safe and tranquil community for the conduct of commerce required an organized system of social control. The developing profit-based system of production antagonized social tensions in the community. Inequality was increasing rapidly; the exploitation of workers through long hours, dangerous working conditions, and low pay was endemic; and the dominance of local governments by economic elites was creating political unrest. The only effective political strategy available to exploited workers was what economic elites referred to as "rioting," which was actually a primitive form of what would become union strikes against employers (Silver 1967). The modern police force not only provided an organized, centralized body of men (and they were all male) legally authorized to use force to maintain order, it also provided the illusion that this order was being maintained under the rule of law, not at the whim of those with economic power.

Defining social control as crime control was accomplished by raising the specter of the "dangerous classes." The suggestion was that public drunkenness, crime, hooliganism, political protests and worker "riots" were the products of a biologically inferior, morally intemperate, unskilled and uneducated underclass. The consumption of alcohol was widely seen as the major cause of crime and public disorder. The irony, of course, is that public drunkenness didn't exist until mercantile and commercial interests created venues for and encouraged the commercial sale of alcohol in public places. This underclass was easily identifiable because it consisted primarily of the poor, foreign immigrants and free blacks (Lundman 1980: 29). This isolation of the "dangerous classes" as the embodiment of the crime problem created a focus in crime control that persists to today, the idea that policing should be directed toward "bad" individuals, rather than social and economic conditions that are criminogenic in their social outcomes.

In addition, the creation of the modern police force in the United States also immutably altered the definition of the police function. Policing had always been a reactive enterprise, occurring only in response to a specific criminal act. Centralized and bureaucratic police departments, focusing on the alleged crime-producing qualities of the "dangerous classes" began to emphasize preventative crime control. The presence of police, authorized to use force, could stop crime before it started by subjecting everyone to surveillance and observation. The concept of the police patrol as a preventative control mechanism routinized the insertion of police into the normal daily events of everyone's life, a previously unknown and highly feared concept in both England and the United States (Parks 1976).

Early American police departments shared two primary characteristics: they were notoriously corrupt and flagrantly brutal. This should come as no surprise in that police were under the control of local politicians. The local political party ward leader in most cities appointed the police executive in charge of the ward leader's neighborhood. The ward leader, also, most often was the neighborhood tavern owner, sometimes the neighborhood purveyor of gambling and prostitution, and usually the controlling influence over neighborhood youth gangs who were used to get out the vote and intimidate opposition party voters. In this system of vice, organized violence and political corruption it is inconceivable that the police could be anything but corrupt (Walker 1996). Police systematically took payoffs to allow illegal drinking, gambling and prostitution. Police organized professional criminals, like thieves and pickpockets, trading immunity for bribes or information. They actively participated in vote-buying and ballot-box-stuffing. Loyal political operatives became police officers. They had no discernable qualifications for policing and little if any training in policing. Promotions within the police departments were sold, not earned. Police drank while on patrol, they protected their patron's vice operations, and they were quick to use peremptory force. Walker goes so far as to call municipal police "delegated vigilantes," entrusted with the power to use overwhelming force against the "dangerous classes" as a means of deterring criminality.

Read Part 1
Read Part 3
Read Part 4
Read Part 5
Read Part 6

Dr. Gary Potter is a professor of online and on-campus courses for the EKU School of Justice Studies. His current research areas include transnational organized crime, human trafficking and the sex industry, and drug trafficking by teenagers in rural Kentucky.


Lundman, Robert J., Police and Policing: an Introduction, New York, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1980.

Parks, Evelyn, "From Constabulary to Police Society: Implications for Social Control," In Whose Law? What Order?, edited by William Chambliss and Michael Mankoff, New York, New York: Wiley (1976).

Silver, Andrew, "The Demand for Order in Civil Society: A Review of Some Important Themes in the History of Urban Crime, Police and Riot," in The Police: Six Sociological Essays. edited by David Bordua, New York New York: Wiley, 1967.

Walker, Samuel, The Police in America: An Introduction, New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.

Published on July 02, 2013