Policing Colonial America

Many European law enforcement institutions were transplanted in the colonies.

The county sheriff

The most important law enforcement official in colonial America was the county sheriff. The sheriff was responsible for enforcing the laws, collecting taxes, supervising elections, and taking care of the legal business of the county government. The sheriff job was reactive—after a citizen filed a complaint or provided information about a crime, the sheriff would initiate an investigation or arrest a suspect. The sheriff did not patrol areas or take other actions that might prevent crime.

Fragmentation of law enforcement authority

Villages and cities added other law enforcement authorities. In New York City, for example, the mayor, constable, police justices, marshals, and night watch all had some responsibility for protecting the city. The mayor was the chief law enforcement officer, whose law enforcement duty consisted of taking charge of the protection of the city during riots. The mayor hired constables and marshals as assistants. Constables and marshals had law enforcement powers similar to the sheriff's. They could make arrests, serve warrants, and testify in court. The night watch consisted of a group of citizens who patrolled the city at night, looking for fires, crimes, or riots. The night watch served during the night, while the constables and marshals were the main law enforcement officials on duty during the day. Eventually, cities added the day watch. Whenever riots broke out, colonial authorities called out the militia.

Benefits and costs of fragmentation

The wide distribution of police authority in colonial times still exists in the United States today. Whereas many countries in the world have a national police force, police power in the U.S. has always been decentralized. Just as citizens in colonial America would have viewed such a centralized police force with deep suspicion, Americans today would fear that a national police might be misused by a leader seeking to set up an authoritarian regime. The decentralization of police authority, which began in colonial America, is a safeguard against the subversion of democracy.

Although it has benefits, the fragmentation of law enforcement authority also carries costs. The multiplicity of policing agencies at various levels of government results in duplication of effort and wasted resources. Fragmentation remains an obstacle to efficient law enforcement today.