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Law Enforcement Agencies, Local Agencies

night watchmen, appointed justice, investigating accidents, law enforcement system, equal justice

In the 18th century, the law enforcement system existed only informally at the local level. Often an appointed justice of the peace served as judge and jury, while an elected county sheriff or constable was the principal law enforcement officer. However, as cities began to grow in the early and mid-19th century, many workers began to migrate to these new urban centers to find jobs. Workers came from other parts of the United States as well as from abroad. Conflicts often arose between native-born workers and immigrant workers because of competition for jobs. Police forces began to be needed to keep order and protect property. From their early beginnings in Boston in 1838, local police units, in county or city, have developed into the most important crime-fighting organizations in the United States.

At first police functioned as little more than night watchmen. Gradually they gained authority from their visibility and their uniforms, and they soon became an accepted first line of defense for maintaining order and safety. However, most local police were appointed by city officials and poorly trained. As a result, police officers were responsible for occasional episodes of brutality against citizens as well as for a failure to deliver equal justice to minority groups. By the 1920s, cities demanded more professional police forces that were better trained and not appointed by politicians.

Since that time, local forces have increased substantially both in size and in professionalism. But city sizes and crime rates have also increased, and local police are often hampered by a lack of funds and facilities. Also, modern city life requires much more from local police than detective work and crime fighting. Many of the functions of today’s police have little to do with maintaining law and order, and a great deal to do with investigating accidents and dealing with the problems of incapacitated adults, missing children, and corner drug sales.

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