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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Policing America

Wilbur Miller investigates the historical background to law enforcement in the United States.

American police forces, in the modern sense of patrols to prevent and detect crime and maintain general order, are products of the nineteenth century. Like their predecessors of colonial times – constables, sheriffs, and nightwatchmen – they were adaptations of English institutions to American social conditions and political ideology.

Before the rise of large cities and mass immigration in the nineteenth century, policing relied heavily on community consensus and the willingness of citizens to assist in capturing criminals. Able-bodied men were liable for service in the ancient institution of the sheriff’s posse, and for election (or conscription in some places) as constables. County sheriffs were usually more occupied with collecting taxes or supervising elections than leading posses or serving warrants. Night-time, always regarded as an especially dangerous time, was enlivened by nightwatchmen calling the hour and sometimes giving weather reports while they were looking out for suspicious characters. The heart of colonial policing was not policemen but punishments. Public punishments – the ducking stool for gossips, stocks for petty criminals, branding of thieves, hanging for murderers and other serious offenders – were meant to induce shame in the people and provide moral lessons for the spectators. Jails were only pens for holding offenders between arrest and trial, or trial and sentencing, not places of punishment or rehabilitation.

The Puritan colonies in seventeenth-century New England relied on neighbours to watch each other’s behaviour and report deviance to the magistrates – the ‘holy enterprise of minding other people’s business’. Among Puritans, there was no boundary between crime and sin. If control within the community failed, there was always exile. Religious heretics, such as Baptists or Quakers, or persistent criminal offenders, were simply ordered out of town.

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