History of Law Enforcement

Law enforcement exists to maintain peace and order and to protect property and citizens from criminals. The history of law enforcement dates back to pre-civilization when certain individuals were responsible for administering justice based on the customs of a clan or tribe. In some instances, that "kin policing" led to feuds that ultimately destroyed entire clans. Over the centuries, law enforcement roles and responsibilities have evolved to the point that anyone entering a law enforcement career today must, in addition to enforcing the law, be an expert at public and community relations.

Looking back to about 3000 B.C.E., the earliest law enforcement careers appeared in ancient Egypt, where policemen guarded public places as well as tombs. Each jurisdiction in the Egyptian empire had its own official who was responsible for maintaining security and administering justice.

Ancient Mesopotamia, like Egypt, was divided into provinces, each with its own governor who was responsible for enforcing the laws. Captured slaves, with a highly visible presence in a marketplace, for example, served as a deterrent to anyone considering committing a crime. It was circa 1780 B.C.E. that Babylo nian King Hammurabi codified the laws of Mesopotamia and Sumeria.

With the development of the early Greek city-states, community and city policing became the norm, thereby ending the kin style of policing. In the sixth century B.C.E., Athenian ruler Peisistratus is believed to have created the first formal system for policing, where he created such early law enforcement careers as guards who protected the rulers and the highways. Sparta's authoritarian regime is thought to have developed the first secret service, with the police force being appointed by the ruler.

History of Law Enforcement Careers Ancient Rome has also influenced modern-day police systems. Augustus Caesar, the first emperor, created the Praetorian Guard in about 27 B.C.E. These select guards were responsible for protecting the emperor. Augustus Caesar later created a city police force, referred to as the "urban cohort." Its role was to preserve citywide peace. Another job in ancient Roman law enforcement included that of the "vigiles," or watchmen. The vigiles, although non-military, were charged with keeping peace in the city and also with fighting fires. They were armed with clubs and swords and had the authority to arrest lawbreakers. The vigiles were considered the first formal civilian police force.

In the fifth century, Germanic tribes invaded and conquered Western Europe, initiating the decline of the Roman Empire and the start of medieval times. The Germans, referred to as "barbarians," were an uneducated people living in tribes that were governed by a chief. They had no formal system of laws, but rather they based their laws on tribal customs and superstitions, and battled fiercely with spears and clubs. Although lawlessness and corruption were prevalent during the more than 1,000 years known as the "Middle Ages," policing did eventually occur in order to keep an eye on vagabonds and thieves. Mayors and councils were formed, and concerned citizens joined vigilante groups to fight against crime.

The next several hundred years saw urban and industrial development. The peasant class became dispossessed and arrived in cities. Crime soared as these unskilled and uneducated farm workers contributed to overcrowding and unemployment in the cities. Law enforcement consisted of volunteer constables and watchmen, as well as vigilante groups, but with the tremendous increase in crime, their efforts were largely ineffective.

To combat the increase in crime, London's Henry Felding established mounted officer and foot patrols in the mid-1700s. The Bow Street Horse and Foot Patrol was formally established in 1805 and consisted of inspectors, deputy inspectors, mounted patrol officers, and street patrol officers. The modern-day police force started with the creation of the London Metropolitan Police by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, located at the original Scotland yard. This force of 1,000 constables was successful at cutting crime in London.

Early policing in the United States consisted of town constables and sheriffs who protected the colonists. As the nation gained independence and towns and cities developed, law enforcement in the north continued to be based on traditional English law enforcement. In addition to sheriffs and constables, night patrolmen were employed. The southern and western regions of the United States relied on county sheriffs as their traditional law enforcers.

The first full-time, formal municipal police force in the United States was established in New York City in 1844. This force consolidated its day and nighttime patrols into one force, and within a few short years eight other cities had followed suit. Law enforcement careers (and related criminal justice careers) in the United States have been dictated by politics, reform, and professionalism. A career in law enforcement today involves more than solving crime and maintaining the peace; public and community relations are also a large part of the job.

Last Updated: 08/20/2013

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