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It may be hard to believe in our current era of heightened police presence and increased reports of brutality, but the concept of “police” as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon. By the 18th century, however, small groups of law-abiding citizens were organizing to fight crime and reduce public disturbances.

Law enforcement in the 1700s consisted of localized groups of watchmen who typically patrolled the streets at night. Colonial America’s earliest watchmen forces were formed in Boston in 1631 and New York City (called New Amsterdam at the time) in 1647.


Across the Atlantic, the writer Henry Fielding worked to analyze the high crime rates seen in London during the mid-18th century. Fielding postulated that government corruption and the breakdown of family values among London’s poor contributed to crime. He became chief magistrate at Bow Street in 1748 and was succeeded by his brother Sir John Fielding upon his death in 1754. Sir John enlisted a group of paid constables to keep the peace in London. They were known as the “Bow Street Runners.”


The Bow Street Runners were the predecessors of modern police forces, and they were generally looked upon with favor. Today, police are typically regarded in a less positive light, for many reasons.

Changed Perceptions Regarding the Police

In the U.S., the civil unrest that dominated the 1950s and ‘60s led to a change in public feelings towards law enforcement. The civil rights movement protests against the Vietnam War and the rise of the counterculture all contributed to the change. But one of the most prominent events that led to widespread distrust of the police occurred in December 1969, when African-American activist Fred Hampton was ambushed and murdered by police while he slept.


Hampton was only 21 at the time of his death, and his murder was one of the first major instances of targeted police brutality reported in the U.S. Since that time, there have been a number of similar cases of police brutality across the country, many of which led to riots and protests against law enforcement.


The Los Angeles riots of 1991, which occurred over five days and resulted in 50 deaths, more than 12,000 arrests, and nearly $1 billion in property damage, stemmed from the beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers. The infamous event was caught on tape, yet the four officers charged in the beating were acquitted of all charges, leading to the riots. More recently, Philando Castile was fatally shot during a routine traffic stop in Minnesota in 2016. He was unarmed, yet the officer who shot Castile was found not guilty of the crime.

Law Enforcement and Racism

It’s important to note that the majority of police brutality cases involve black men shot by white officers. And racism within law enforcement is nothing new: In the American South, the earliest organized police forces were designed to preserve the system of slavery. Slave patrols were tasked with tracking runaway slaves and preventing slave revolts, and the first of these patrols was established in 1704 in the Carolina colonies.


Unfortunately, the racist legacy of law enforcement remains a stark reality in modern times. What’s more, race-based stress and trauma can lead to a number of negative physical and emotional symptoms, including depression, anger, and substance abuse. Studies show that minority groups turn to illegal drugs and alcohol at rates that are typically higher than the national average. Systematic racism and discrimination are likely a factor.


Minority groups are also incarcerated at higher rates than whites, in both America and the U.K. In 2018, The Guardian found that 12% of U.K. prisoners are Black, yet the group makes up only 3% of the overall population. Conversely, African-Americans makeup 13% of the U.S. population but account for 35% of prisoners. Those disproportionate numbers indicate that racism is alive and well within the modern criminal justice system.

The Rise of Vigilante Justice

In modern times, vigilantes are a popular trope within superhero stories, with Batman and Deadpool standing out as fan-favorite characters who take on criminals without help from police. These underground enforcers of the law have roots in the 18th century American frontier. In the 1700s, the majority of the American West was uninhabited, and those in early settlements and areas without a formal justice system often took matters into their own hands.


At the time, few cities and townships existed in the American West, with the exception of Santa Fe, New Orleans, and Chicago. One of America’s earliest police departments, in fact, was established in New Orleans in 1796. In other areas, citizen vigilantes formed groups to fight crime and corruption, often resorting to lynching, whipping, and banishment as forms of punishment.

Final Thoughts


While the legal system was firmly in place in the 1700s, police were not yet a major part of the equation. As cities, urbanization, and crime grew in both England and the American colonies in the 18th century, the need for organized law enforcement became apparent. Those early watchmen and vigilante groups evolved into the police departments of the modern era, but serving justice today is often pushed to the wayside if disproportionate incarceration rates and cases of police brutality are any indication.

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. 
Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.