A Brief History of Policing in the United States

The new 1854 regulation uniforms of the New York City Municipal Police were the first and earliest police uniforms worn in the United States. Photo by Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room on WikiMedia Commons

By Aman Mehrota, age 10 and IndyKids Staff

The United States police forces are a pretty modern invention. Early police forces were privately funded systems governed by the rich white elite to protect property. Some say that systemic racism has always been the foundation of policing in the United States and slave patrols of the past are not at all different from today’s policing system. 

The first forms of policing in the United States were slave patrols and Indian constables. In the early 1700s, New England and Midwestern regions appointed Indian constables to police Native Americans, whom they viewed as primitive and untamed. Slave patrollers were created in the South to enslave and control Black people. This could be seen as the first form of policing, and it was inherently racially charged. 

By 1838, the city of Boston had created the first publicly funded police force in the United States. Being a large shipping center, the police force was hired primarily to protect property and police new immigrants, according to Gary Potter, a crime historian at Eastern Kentucky University, in an interview with Time magazine. By the 1880s, all major U.S. cities had police forces.

Jim Crow laws were enacted in the 1870s and, for the following 80 years, dictated where Black people could live, work and eat. Enforcing these laws became part of a police officer’s job. According to Connie Hassett-Walker, assistant professor of justice studies and sociology at Norwich University, Black people who broke these laws or violated social norms were subject to police brutality.  

In an interview with NPR, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor at Harvard University, said that police officers have been “policing the racial norms of white supremacy from the very beginning.” Black skin was equated with criminality, and the police system in the United States today has not fundamentally changed from these roots.


The Black community began to challenge the police brutality inflicted upon them by the 1960s, something that the Black Lives Matter movement of today is still attempting to do. Gibran Muhammad says that highlighting the problem is not enough, as “police officers and police agencies are incapable of fixing themselves.” Many protesters have now been calling for demands to reform or defund the police entirely.



Inherently: Something that is built-in or a part of the makeup of a person or thing
White supremacy: A belief that white people are better than other races

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