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Chapter 5 – History and Structure of American Law Enforcement. The Limited Authority of American Law Enforcement. The United States has almost 18,000 public law enforcement agencies. The jurisdiction of each agency is carefully limited by law.

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Chapter 5 – History and Structure of American Law Enforcement

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The Limited Authority of American Law Enforcement

The United States has almost 18,000 public law enforcement agencies. The jurisdiction of each agency is carefully limited by law.

Law enforcement is also limited by the procedural law derived from U.S. Supreme Court decisions.


The Limited Authority of American Law Enforcement

Even compared with other democratic nations of the world, the U.S. has remarkably more police agencies that operate under far more restrictions to their authority.

Like much of the criminal justice system, this limited law enforcement model came from England.


English Roots

Our familiar law enforcement system, in which uniformed officers respond to calls for help and plainclothes detectives investigate, developed over hundreds of years in England.


The Tithing System

By the 12th century in England, the practice of resolving disputes privately gave way to a system of group protection, called the tithing system.


tithing system

A private self-held protection system in early medieval England, in which a group of ten families, or a tithing, agreed to follow the law, keep the peace in their areas, and bring law violators to justice.


The Tithing System

In larger areas, ten tithings were grouped together to form a hundred, and one or several hundreds constituted a shire. The shire was under the direction of the shire reeve.


The Constable-Watch System

The Statute of Winchester, in 1285, formalized the constable-watch system of protection.

  • One man from each parish was selected to be constable.
  • Citizens were drafted as (unpaid) watchmen, and were required to come to the aid of a constable or watchman who called for help.

constable-watch system

A system of protection in early England in which citizens, under the direction of a constable, or chief peacekeeper, were required to guard the city and to pursue criminals.


The peacekeeper in charge of protection in early English towns.


The London Metropolitan Police

  • The Industrial Revolution brought a huge influx of people into London, and along with them, increasing poverty, public disorder, and crime.
  • In 1829, Parliament created the London Metropolitan Police, a 1,000-member professional force.

The London Metropolitan Police

The police became known as bobbies or peelers after Robert Peel, who had pushed for their creation.


The London Metropolitan Police

The police were organized around Peel’s Principles of Policing.

  • The London Police were organized according to military rank and structure.
  • The main function of the police was to prevent crime by preventive patrol of the community.

The Development of American Law Enforcement

The United States has more police departments than any other nation in the world.

Virtually every community has its own police force, creating a great disparity in the quality of American police personnel and service.


Early American Law Enforcement

Settlers to the new American colonies brought with them the constable-watch system, which became common (although not necessarily effective) in cities.

In many rural areas, a sheriff and posse system was commonly used.

America developed with two separate law enforcement systems.


Municipal Police Forces

  • In 1844, New York City created the first paid, unified police force in the U.S.
  • Other cities followed suit, creating their own police departments, often merely an organization of the existing day and night watch.
  • It was not until after the Civil War that police forces routinely began to wear uniforms and carry nightsticks.

Tangle of Politics and Policing

  • Until the 1920s in most American cities, local political leaders maintained complete control over the police force.
  • The political and police systems in many cities were corrupt, and jobs, politics, and law enforcement all depended on paying money to the right person.

Southern Slave Patrols

  • In the South, the earliest form of policing was the plantation slave patrols.
  • Slave codes prohibited slaves from:
      • holding meetings
      • leaving the plantation without permission
      • traveling without a pass
      • learning to read and write
  • Slave patrols often whipped and terrorized slaves.

slave patrols

The earliest form of policing in the South. They were a product of the slave codes.


Frontier Law Enforcement

In the American frontier, justice often meant vigilantism.

Self-protection remains very popular in the South and West.


State Police Agencies

Growing populations, as well as the inability of some local sheriffs and constables to control crime, led states to create their own law enforcement agencies.

  • Texas officially created the Rangers in 1835.
  • Pennsylvania established the first modern state law enforcement agency in 1905.
  • By the 1930s, every state had some form of state law enforcement agency.

Professionalism and Reform

  • Until the late 19th century, there were no qualifications required for law enforcement officers.
  • Cincinnati was the first city to require qualifications of police officers:
    • High moral character
    • Foot speed

Professionalism and Reform

It was not until the early 20th Century that reformers began advocating training and education for police officers.

Reformers also aimed to remove the police from political influences.


The Structure of American Law Enforcement

American law enforcement agencies are extremely diverse in:

  • Jurisdictions
  • Responsibilities
  • Employers (hospitals, colleges, transit authorities may have their own police)

Municipal Police Departments

Most police departments (almost 90%) in the U.S. employ fewer than 50 sworn officers.


Organizational Structure

Large departments have many specialized departments.

Small departments rarely have specialized departments, or officers trained in complex investigation.


County Law Enforcement

A substantial portion of law enforcement work in the United States is carried out by the sheriff’s departments.


County Law Enforcement Functions

County sheriff and department personnel perform many functions:

  • Investigating crimes
  • Supervising sentenced offenders
  • Enforcing criminal and traffic laws
  • Serving summons, warrants, and writs



County Law Enforcement Functions

  • Providing courtroom security
  • Transporting prisoners
  • Operating a county jail

Politics and County Law Enforcement

Most sheriffs are directly elected and depend on an elected board of county commissioners or supervisors for funding.



State Law Enforcement

State law enforcement agencies provide criminal and traffic law enforcement, and other services particular to the needs of that state government.


State Law Enforcement

Each state has chosen one of two models for providing law enforcement services:

State police model

Highway patrol model

Example: Texas Rangers

Example: California Highway Patrol


state police model

A model of state law enforcement services in which the agency and its officers have the same law enforcement powers as local police, but can exercise them anywhere within the state.



highway patrol model

A model of state law enforcement services in which officers focus on highway traffic safety, enforcement of the state’s traffic laws, and the investigation of accidents on the state’s roads, highways, and on state property.


Federal Law Enforcement

Among the best-known federal law enforcement agencies are:

  • FBI
  • U.S. Secret Service
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
  • Drug Enforcement Agency

Federal Law Enforcement

Lesser-known agencies also exist. Their jurisdictions are narrowly defined by specific statutes.

  • Postal inspectors
  • Federal Protective Services

Federal Law Enforcement

Major differences between federal law enforcement and local and state police are:

  • Federal agencies operate across the nation.
  • Federal agencies usually do not have peacekeeping duties.
  • Some federal agencies have very narrow jurisdictions.

American Private Security

Private security in the United States is a huge enterprise.

The U.S. spends about 75% more on private security than on public policing each year.


American Private Security

Private security employment is often categorized two ways:

Contract security

Proprietary security

Example: security guards hired for a college football game

Example: the security force for a corporation’s manufacturing plants


contract security

Protective services that a private security firm provides to people, agencies, and companies that do not employ their own security personnel or that need extra protection. Contract security employees are not peace officers.



proprietary security

In-house protective services that a security staff, which is not classified as sworn peace officers, provide for the entity that employs them.


Reasons for Growth

A number of factors have stimulated the phenomenal growth of private security since the 1970s:

  • Declining revenues for public policing.
  • The private nature of crimes in the workplace. Companies can control and hide crimes by employees.



Reasons for Growth

  • Better control and attention to the problem, particularly within a business.
  • Fewer constitutional limitations on the actions of private security officers.