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Early History of Policing

The idea of a professional, uniformed policeforce is so firmly ingrained into our concept
of society that it's easy to think of the police as one of the most ancient governmental
institutions. It may be surprising, then to learn that the idea of police officers as we know
them is an extremely young concept, dating back to only the 19th century. As did most
governmental institutions, law enforcement agencies in society evolved slowly over
time.

Ancient Practices

In ancient societies, there was no official law enforcement function and very little, if any,
attempts at organization. Instead, individuals, families, and clans took it upon
themselves to take revenge against those who may have injured or offended them. The
idea of crime prevention was almost nonexistent in the early history of law enforcement
and criminology.

Military Might and Social Order

As cultures and societies developed, the law enforcement function became a role of the
military. In the Roman empire, in particular, the military played an extremely important
role in maintaining civil order. To be sure, throughout the history of the Roman empire
there were riots and uprisings, but they were quickly put down.

The sight of Roman centurions patrolling the markets and common areas of towns was
a normal occurrence. Simply by their presence, Roman military personnel went a long
way toward ensuring that laws were obeyed. This notion of crime prevention would lead
to more modern views of criminology much later in human history.

My Bother's Keeper: Clan Control and Blood Feuds

After the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the responsibility for maintaining order fell
once again to local authorities. In England, society reverted to the ancient notion that
individuals were responsible for themselves and their own protection.
English law provided individual subjects with the authority and responsibility to use force
to maintain control. Neighbors were expected to help each other. This form of social
control was referred to as "Kin Policing" by English historian Charles Reith because it
relied on the idea that families and clans were responsible for the actions of their own
members. Just as in ancient societies, clans would take revenge for transgressions and
blood feuds prevailed, sometimes wiping out entire families.

Community Policing and the Frankpledge

To establish a more uniform measure of social order, a new method was required to
maintain control. As a result, a new concept of policing was developed in which the local
citizens were charged with protecting their local communities.

This community policing model was called the "frankpledge," and required all males
over the age of 12 to join a group of 9 of their neighbors. This group of 10 was called a
"tything," and its members swore to capture and detain any member of their group or
clan who committed a crime. Each "tythingman" was sworn to protect his fellow
subjects, and service was obligatory and unpaid.

Ten tythings were grouped together to form a "hundred," and were placed under the
supervision of a constable. With the constable came the first notions of a modern police
officer, as it marked the first time an individual was given the specific, full-time task of
maintaining order.

All of the constables in a region or shire were placed under the control of the Shire
Reeve (sheriff), who was appointed by the king, marking the beginnings of the system
of law enforcement we are familiar with today.

Parish Constable System

Lack of oversight by the crown lead to a breakdown of the frankpledge system, and it
was eventually replaced with a more manageable parish constable system. Unlike the
frankpledge, males in a parish, or town, served a 1-year term as constable. The
constables were responsible for organizing night watchmen to serve as guards at the
town gates at night.

Constables were given the authority to raise the "hue and cry," which was a call to
action in the event of a crime or emergency. At the sounding of the hue and cry, all
males in the parish were required to drop what they were doing and come to the aid of
the constable. The hue and cry would travel from parish to parish within a shire until the
criminal was apprehended or assistance was no longer required.

Justices of the Peace and the Beginnings of Modern Policing

Near the end of the 14th century, justices of the peace were appointed by the king to
provide support to the shire reeves and constables. The justices of the peace had the
authority to issue warrants and held arraignment hearings for suspected criminals. They
also tried cases involving misdemeanors and civil infractions.

A system gradually developed wherein the shire reeves served as assistants to the
justices of the peace and employed the local constables to supervise the watchmen,
take suspected criminals into custody and serve warrants.

This system of local law enforcement served the small communities that existed at the
time well into the 19th century and was brought to the American colonies, as well. It was
not until the population explosion of the late 18th century in the United States and
Britain that there became an apparent need to professionalize the police force.