Chapter 6 Police Systems in the United States: History and Structure summary

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C H A P T E R 6
Police Systems

in the United States:

History and Structure


The police represent the largest and most visible segment of the criminal justice system and are charged with enforcing the law and keeping the peace. In the United States, the decentralized organizational structure of police agencies has meant that they operate independent of any national police force. Despite their autonomy, most law enforcement agencies are organized and operated in an essentially similar fashion.

While the rise of organized law enforcement agencies has been a relatively recent phenomenon, modern policing has its roots in the latter part of the 9th century, with the mutual pledge system of England’s Alfred the Great. By the 17th century, thief-takers were being used by the Crown as private detectives paid on a piecework basis to apprehend highway robbers, burglars, housebreakers, and footpads. The foundations for the first modern police force were established by Henry Fielding in 1748. His Bow Street Runners comprised an organized investigative division that earned the standard thief-takers’ rewards. In the years that followed, Patrick Colquhoun’s proposal to establish a new science of police and a large, organized police force was ultimately rejected by Londoners suspicious of such centralized enforcement powers — but his work served as a basis for Sir Robert Peel’s successful bill that established the London Metropolitan Police and ushered in the era of modern policing.
In the United States, constable and night watch systems were common in most colonial communities. In many cities, these early forms of policing lasted through the early 19th century. They were eventually replaced with more formally organized agencies, following problems with corruption and ever-increasing crime rates. As settlers moved west, sheriffs emerged as active agents of law enforcement. Their duties often included apprehending criminals, conducting popular elections, collecting taxes, and assuming custody of public funds. Because most sheriff’s departments did not employ more than one or two people, they were often forced to rely on the posse comitatus to assist in enforcing the law and capturing wanted criminals. Such posses generally consisted of all able-bodied men in the community. In addition, settlers in various western communities soon established more localized police agencies.
The 19th century also saw the establishment of state police agencies. In general, such agencies were created following the increasingly nomadic character of crime and the inability of local police agencies to coordinate their crime-fighting activities. State police agencies provided an organized means to enforce the law throughout the entire state. In addition, cities set up metropolitan police forces after the London model.
Today there are 23,000 to 25,000 public police agencies across the United States at the federal, state, and local levels. Federal law enforcement agencies enforce specific statutes as contained in the U.S. Criminal Code, and their units are highly specialized. Because these agencies serve as the enforcement branches of the federal court system, their activities are confined to specific jurisdictional boundaries that are defined by congressional mandate. In response to the terrorist attacks of 2001, federal law enforcement agencies have been dramatically reorganized and resources shifted. Specifically, the Department of Homeland Security was created by merging 22 previously disparate domestic agencies into one entity whose first priority is to protect the nation against further terrorist attacks. Component agencies each have unique law enforcement roles to carry out, many of which are now specifically directed at dismantling terrorist networks and preventing future attacks.
State police agencies generally fulfill a number of the regulatory and investigative roles of the federal enforcement groups as well as a portion of the uniformed patrol duties of the local police. However, the majority of modern policing is provided by county and municipal authority.
Police in the private sector became well known in this country during the 19th century, with the efforts of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Today, private security companies like the Wackenhut Corporation and Pinkerton have become part of a major growth industry that provides a range of services beyond the mere provision of rent-a-cops and private detectives. Private police include a variety of organizations and individuals who provide guard, patrol, detection, and alarm services, as well as armored car transportation, crowd control, insurance investigation, and retail and industrial security.
Other nonpublic police agencies include civilian police auxiliaries and neighborhood watch groups. In general, both types of groups appear to arise from an American tradition of vigilantism. Among the least controversial of modern civilian groups are auxiliary forces that work in conjunction with local police agencies. Their duties are numerous, and some have full enforcement powers and are authorized to carry weapons.

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