In the news lately in the USA there has been a lot of talk about defunding or abolishing police. Its been claimed by some that US police forces have their root in slave-catching, and are thus irredeemably racist at their core. Others are horrified at the implication of there suddenly being nobody trying to enforce laws or investigate crimes.

There's also right now a question on the Politics site about what this might mean practically (Can society function without police?), but that site (understandably) isn't doing a super job of providing a historical perspective. They are instead concentrating on clearing up the political policy theories behind that movement, which is what a Politics site should be doing. However the history of the matter, that's a thing I'd think we should be able to get into well here.

We know that modern professional police forces are a relatively new phenomenon, starting in the 18th and 19th centuries. So the question is, how was law enforcement and crime investigation carried out in large US cities like New York prior to the institution of their professional uniformed police forces?

(I just want to make clear that I'm not claiming anyone is currently promoting rewinding the clock to the 1700's. I'm just interested in getting down the facts of what life w/o modern police used to look like, for those who can't imagine it)

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    Tying in the serious issues of the behaviour of some police officers specifically with slavery is problematic I think, especially for large northern cities. Kappeler makes too much of it, too many years have passed and too many changes in police organization have happened. While there may be elements of such legacies mentioned by Kappeler in some southern areas of the US, I think the prejudices in police forces in the US (and elsewhere) are more a reflection of the prejudices of society as a whole (but that's just my opinion so that's why I'm putting this in a comment rather than my answer). Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 6:32
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    This is a great question. One could imagine it like this: Suppose I was living in colonial Philadelphia before professional policing started. One day, I discovered that someone broke into my stable and took one of my horses. What was I expected to do? Did I hire a private investigator and then petition a judge for an arrest warrant when we had a suspect? Did I rouse the local amateur community militia? Did I grab a gun and summarily shoot whomever I felt might be responsible? Did I just accept that there was no justice?
    – Robert Columbia
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 17:44
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    If the police forces should be abolished because they "have their root in slave-catching, and are thus irredeemably racist at their core", then according to the same logic the Democratic Party should be abolished too, because they were the pro-slavery party during the Civil War.
    – vsz
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 4:44
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    @vsz - ...and the US Constitution. In fact, its a better argument for the Constitution, as US "parties" are really just a loose agglomeration of political wings, and that particular wing has long since switched parties. The Constitution on the other hand was (purposely) made very hard to change, and quirky foundational things like the makeup of the legislative branch and the Electoral College have their roots in slavery.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 12:34
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    @johndoe : and this is why strong family ties and the local community was so important. Today many people in developed countries don't even know who their second cousins are. In the middle ages, you had to belong to a community, to a clan, to a guild, and if someone hurt you, they were there to support you. This is also why immigrants coming from third-world countries are so difficult to integrate: they often come from a place where the police isn't helping the common people (extorting them instead), so they trust their own community much more than the government, thereby forming enclaves.
    – vsz
    Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 14:57

2 Answers 2


General observations on early urban policing

In 1800, only four cities in the US had populations of around 25,000 or more - the largest of these was New York with 60,000 (the others were Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston) - so the challenges of policing in the US up to the early 1800s were much less than in the major cities of Europe where London was just short of 1 million, with Paris over 500,000. However, population growth over the following decades was rapid and from around the 1830s, city authorities began to make major changes in the organization of law enforcement.

Looking in general at the early history of urban policing,

Police are relative newcomers to the Anglo-American criminal justice system. The Constitution does not mention them. Early city charters do not mention them, either, for the simple reason that, as we know them, police had not been invented. Instead, cities had loosely organized night watches and constables who worked for the courts, supplemented by the private prosecution of offenders through lower-level courts (Steinberg 1989). The night watch and day constable, dating from the Middle Ages... were not replaced until the 1820s, when London police were reorganized by Robert Peel. The police precedent for the United States, as is well known, came from the establishment of the Metropolitan Police of London in 1829.

Source: Eric H. Monkkonen, 'History of Urban Police'. In Crime and Justice, Vol. 15, Modern Policing (1992), pp. 547-580

On these early constables and the night watch,

Constables were responsible to civil and criminal courts. They supported themselves by fees, which came from serving warrants and civil papers and arresting offenders. The victim of an offense had to seek a constable, paying for his actions...

Night watch did just that: they were to raise the hue and cry in case of an offense or to sound an alarm for a fire. The usual criticism of them was that they slept, used their noisy rattles to warn off potential offenders, and ran from real danger....the night watch, who were either citizens doing required volunteer service or, more likely, their paid substitutes, were not in any way a serious crime-fighting organization.

Source: Monkkonen

Also 'imported' from Britain, and operating in American cities from at least the 17th century, were thief catchers and coroners. The former were often, but not always, thieves themselves; despite their name, their job was primarily to recover stolen property and act as informers rather than actually catch thieves. Coroners, on the other hand, played a more active role in actually examining evidence and determining cause of death.

New York

The NCJRS' website has an article on the development of the city's law enforcement, History of New York City Police Department

In the Dutch era from 1625 to 1664, the first professional police department was created in New Amsterdam. Police officers used hand rattles as they patrolled the streets to discourage crime and apprehend criminals. Under British rule from 1664 to 1783, constables were charged with keeping the peace. They focused on such offenses as excessive drinking, gambling, prostitution, and church service disturbances. During the Revolutionary War, the British appointed a military governor and employed citizen patrols to protect New York City residents. After independence, New York adopted the London police model and established a paid professional police force in 1828. The first set of printed rules and regulations was issued to the police force in 1845, and full uniforms were adopted in 1853.

Note that New York had a small population even in 1800, around 60,000 - making it the US' largest city. This was up from just 25,000 in 1776 and just 5,000 in 1700.

Going into more detail and starting from the early days of Dutch settlement (then New Amsterdam, 1625 to 1664), the new arrivals

formed a council to make and interpret the law. The council then appointed a schout-fiscal - Dutch for legal officer - to see that its edicts were obeyed. It was the schout-fiscal's job to punish each lawbreaker in a manner befitting the crime. He served as both sheriff and prosecutor throughout New Netherland, an area covering what is now lower New York State and eastern New Jersey.

Then they got a bit more organized:

In 1651, the first professional police department was created in New Amsterdam – the Rattlewatch. It was a voluntary patrol composed of citizens appointed by the council. In addition to muskets, its members were equipped with the hand rattles that gave the fledgling police force its name. They strolled the streets to discourage crime and search for lawbreakers. In times of emergency, they noisily spun their rattles to summon assistance from fellow Rattlewatch members.

In late 1658, the eight members of the Rattlewatch began drawing pay, making them the first municipally funded police organization.

This seems to have worked reasonably well as, when the British took over in 1664, few changes were made. One was that,

Instead of a schout-fiscal, there was an English constable. His job was to keep the peace, suppress excessive drinking, gambling, prostitution, and prevent disturbances when church services were in progress.

However, this soon changed due to the French and Indian wars:

During the late 1600's, with the first of the French and Indian wars underway, the military assumed responsibility for maintaining law and order in the City. Officials appointed a bellman to do the job. His title came from the bell he rang while making his rounds and calling out the hours. In addition to the bell, he was issued a gun, uniform, badge, shoes and stockings, becoming the City's first uniformed policeman.

In the next stage of development,

The start of the 18th century brought radical changes to the City's system of public protection. The post of bellman was abolished and the English introduced the constable's watch to protect New York's 6,000 residents. What is now lower to mid-Manhattan was divided into six sectors, with a High Constable and 12 sub-constables sworn to "take care, and keep and preserve the peace" throughout the area. In 1731, a watch-house - or Jail - was built at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets. Punishment for "ruffians and evildoers" was carried out in the "cage, stocks, whipping post or ducking stool" in front of City Hall.

Things seem to have worsened after the revolution, though:

By the time the Revolutionary War ended, the City's population had grown to 60,000 - and police protection had become a major problem. But little was done to deal with it. Crime continued to increase through the late 1820's. Although more watchmen were hired, they were widely regarded as incompetent and the protection they provided was considered inadequate. . . For years the situation remained this way. Nothing was done until contempt for the City's weak police force finally gave way to fear - fear that the City's social disintegration was imminent. And with that fear came the realization that something had to be done about providing New York with a strong, effective police department.


The US' second largest city in 1800 had no professional police force at the time. Like New York, policing evolved as the population grew, from the Town Watch in around 1700 to the first paid (but limited) police agency in 1751:

This agency, comprised of wardens and constables, patrolled the city on a limited basis, usually stationed in "watch boxes."

Then, in 1830,

An ordinance of December 30 of that year first established a "police patrol" which served throughout the day as well as night. Many ordinances extended the scope of the system; in 1833 the City Commissioners' function of lighting the streets was transferred to it and in 1841 a full-scale Police Department was created under the direction of the Mayor.

In common with New York, it steadily developed with guidelines becoming more clearly defined and responsibilities sometimes added and then later transferred:

...in 1859 a Detective Division was formed within the Department and in the following year a River and Harbor Police were added to it. In 1864 the office of Fire Marshal was created within the Department, where it remained until 1937.

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    It might be worth noting that around the turn of the 20th century (the Tammany Hall era), the NYC police force was notably corrupt.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 1:22
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    @jamesqf Yes, very true - but they were supposed to be professional by then! (which is why I left that out - the OP asked for 'before professional police). Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 2:01
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    So police in New York actually continues from Dutch tradition? Is that where Peel got the idea from?
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 4:28
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    @gktscrk He may have been aware of it but the use of constables dates back much further in England, to 1252 - see Assize of Arms of 1252 - and watchmen date back even further than that. Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 5:50
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    Fair point. For some reason I'd never thought of the constables and sheriffs as "police" though I suppose they really were an ancient form of it. The Sheriff of Nottingham and some of these US police characters seem to have some similarities now one thinks about it... But, yes, Peel's honour is to be the "father of modern policing"...
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 5:57

Crime investigation was minimal, particularly because forensic science was non-existent or very crude. No fingerprinting. No autopsies to determine cause of death. No investigation of the crime scene for subtle clues like hairs or carpet pieces.

They might use superstitions as well. It was a common practice as late as colonial Massachusetts to force a suspect to approach or touch a dead body in the belief that were the suspect the murderer, the body would start to bleed.

Furthermore, there was little if any attempt to pursue suspects who escaped the jurisdiction. When the Texas Rangers began their "Book of Rogues" with descriptions of convicted criminals and wanted suspects, that was the first systemic attempt to seek out people who had fled.

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