The American police system witnessed decentralized and unstructured beginnings. Much of this disorganized character is a result of the country's initial reliance on federalism. As Samuel G. Chapman notes in his book, The Police Heritage in England and America: A Developmental Survey, the Tenth Amendment technically reserves the power to organize police forces to the states. Still, modern sources of policing power have been molded by court decisions and statutes on both the national and state levels and thus are quite convoluted. In pre-Revolution America, figures like the night watchman or sheriff, who were often volunteers, provided the limited order that was necessary for the decentralized colonies. While small townships and limited geographic jurisdictions posed relatively few policing problems, the growing needs at municipal and county levels of post-Revolution America helped to foster the development of American policing systems. Through an act of the state legislature, New York City established America’s premier City Police Force in 1844. Other burgeoning metropolitan centers—including Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, and later the District of Columbia—soon adopted similar legislative measures.
The seemingly simple transition to uniforms signaled a larger move towards a more stratified system of policing that would become common especially during the growing prominence of state police systems. Chapman notes that “The fact that state police or highway patrol forces are a recent development and have not, in a tradition-bound sense, been subject to mistakes of the past, provides them with a professional quality that is found in few law enforcement agencies at other level of government” (36). Still, a continual complication of domestic affairs and a larger share of governing responsibility would precipitate significant changes in American policing in the coming decades, a trend explored throughout this website.
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