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This summer’s high profile violence by and against police officers has focused public attention on the politics of policing. In a 1978 paper for Social Science History, Robert Liebman and Michael Polen looked at the very start of policing as we know it in the nineteenth century.

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Liebman and Polen point out that policing—which they define as the use of coercion with the official goal of maintaining public order—hasn’t always been done by police. Early in the nineteenth century, deputized posses made up of private citizens took on some of the responsibility for policing many urban areas. Elsewhere, particularly in large, lightly populated expanses in the West, vigilantes with no formal authorization took on the role of keeping order.

These unprofessional forms of policing existed alongside professional police—both the government-employed kind we typically think of now and private forces employed by businesses to protect their property.

Over the course of the nineteenth century policing became increasingly professionalized. With this shift, the role of the police expanded from simply catching criminals to including social surveillance. In many places, police became a continuous presence within communities, creating what one scholar calls a “policed society.”

While private police forces became more active during the course of the century, public police departments grew even faster. Increasingly, policing was directly under the control of governments, turning it into an inherently political issue. For example, Liebman and Polen note, “in a society which guarantees the rights of property, policing inevitably serves the interests of the propertied more than the propertyless.”

Through the late nineteenth century, as more people moved to dense urban areas and industrial elites gained more power, new political questions arose. The now-omnipresent police forces cracked down on offenses like public drunkenness and vagrancy that violated middle-class norms. They also focused particular scrutiny on working-class public events and protests.

In some cases, political battles occurred over which level of government should be responsible for the police. In a dozen major cities, state legislatures seized control over policing from urban party machines between 1857 and 1915. This often benefited business interests. In Boston, for example, state-controlled police forces were willing to protect company property during strikes, something that was unpopular at the city level.

Today, the policed society is universal and unremarkable in American cities. But the political questions about what police do, and who benefits from policing, are as controversial as ever.


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Social Science History, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Spring, 1978), pp. 346-360
Cambridge University Press