Early History of Policing

An illustration of an 1800's policeman directing traffic

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The idea of a professional, uniformed police force is so firmly ingrained into our concept of society that it's easy to think of the police as one of the most ancient governmental institutions. It may be surprising, then to learn that the idea of police officers as we know them is an extremely young concept, dating back to only the 19th century. As did most governmental institutions, law enforcement agencies in society evolved slowly over time.

Ancient Practices

In ancient societies, there was no official law enforcement function and very little, if any, attempts at organization. Instead, individuals, families, and clans took it upon themselves to take revenge against those who may have injured or offended them. The idea of crime prevention was almost nonexistent in the early history of law enforcement and criminology.

Military Might and Social Order

As cultures and societies developed, the law enforcement function became a role of the military. In the Roman empire, in particular, the military played an extremely important role in maintaining civil order. To be sure, throughout the history of the Roman empire there were riots and uprisings, but they were quickly put down.

The sight of Roman centurions patrolling the markets and common areas of towns was a normal occurrence. Simply by their presence, Roman military personnel went a long way toward ensuring that laws were obeyed. This notion of crime prevention would lead to more modern views of criminology much later in human history.

My Brother's Keeper: Clan Control and Blood Feuds

After the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the responsibility for maintaining order fell once again to local authorities. In England, society reverted to the ancient notion that individuals were responsible for themselves and their own protection.

English law provided individual subjects with the authority and responsibility to use force to maintain control. Neighbors were expected to help each other. This form of social control was referred to as "Kin Policing" by English historian Charles Reith because it relied on the idea that families and clans were responsible for the actions of their own members. Just as in ancient societies, clans would take revenge for transgressions and blood feuds prevailed, sometimes wiping out entire families.

Community Policing and the Frankpledge

To establish a more uniform measure of social order, a new method was required to maintain control. As a result, a new concept of policing was developed in which the local citizens were charged with protecting their local communities.

This community policing model was called the "frankpledge," and required all males over the age of 12 to join a group of nine of their neighbors. This group of ten was called a "tything," and its members swore to capture and detain any member of their group or clan who committed a crime. Each "tythingman" was sworn to protect his fellow-subjects, and service was obligatory and unpaid.

Ten tythings were grouped together to form a "hundred," and were placed under the supervision of a constable. With the constable came the first notions of a modern police officer, as it marked the first time an individual was given the specific, full-time task of maintaining order.

All of the constables in a region or shire were placed under the control of the Shire Reeve (sheriff), who was appointed by the king, marking the beginnings of the system of law enforcement we are familiar with today.

Parish Constable System

Lack of oversight by the crown led to a breakdown of the frankpledge system, and it was eventually replaced with a more manageable parish constable system. Unlike the frankpledge, males in a parish, or town, served a one-year term as constable. The constables were responsible for organizing night watchmen to serve as guards at the town gates at night.

Constables were given the authority to raise the "hue and cry," which was a call to action in the event of a crime or emergency. At the sounding of the hue and cry, all males in the parish were required to drop what they were doing and come to the aid of the constable. The hue and cry would travel from parish to parish within a shire until the criminal was apprehended or assistance was no longer required.

The Beginnings of Modern Policing

Near the end of the 14th century, justices of the peace were appointed by the king to provide support to the shire reeves and constables. The justices of the peace had the authority to issue warrants and held arraignment hearings for suspected criminals. They also tried cases involving misdemeanors and civil infractions.

A system gradually developed wherein the shire reeves served as assistants to the justices of the peace and employed the local constables to supervise the watchmen, take suspected criminals into custody and serve warrants.

This system of local law enforcement served the small communities that existed at the time well into the 19th century and was brought to the American colonies, as well. It was not until the population explosion of the late 18th century in the United States and Britain that there became an apparent need to professionalize the police force.