Law enforcement in the United States has gradually developed into a system that has been used to justify or illustrate those differences that exist between ethnic groups and social classes. These relationships, though strained often serve as a microcosm of the relationship between social classes and ethnic groups throughout the general population. In this way, the history of law enforcement can be held up as a mirror of the social issues of the time.
Early American law enforcement was based upon the English standard of hue and cry. Hue and cry operated under the principle that anyone who witnessed a crime was responsible for raising an alarm to the community and apprehending the offender. In this sense, anyone and everyone was responsible for law enforcement. While this could be an opening for vigilante justice, it also provided an opportunity for all people to have a positive hand in the justice system. However, as law enforcement began to become more organized and professionalized, the way was paved for discrimination.
A combination of the organizational efforts of Sir Robert Peele, as well as the social reorganization brought about by the Industrial Revolution, law enforcement entered the world of professionalism. The rise in disparity between social classes and greater crime rates, led to further reformation of law enforcement practices. Rather than being reactionary, it became preventative (Johnson, 1981). However, this new pay for service policing combined with preventive measures had the potential to spark a large amount of corruption.
This corruption eventually played out during the period of Prohibition. While the “noble experiment” was meant to curtail the issue of alcoholism, what it did was highlight the tendency of policing, or more notably, the lack thereof if the offender could pay the right price (Lerner, 2011). Once it could be determined that police officers could be paid to look away, such as with organized crime families, or even paid to show up quicker, it was clear that those of a higher social class had better access to the safety and protection the police provided. During this time, the great majority of upper class families were White. This, in turn, increased the appeal of organized crime to various ethnic groups as it appeared to be the best way to increase monetary gains and win the favor of the police. However, this only worked if the officers were corrupt. This set up a dichotomy which pit officer against officer, money versus duty.
With that, the new archetype of the corrupt cop took hold in America. In fact, it has become so ingrained into our national identity that many children are raised to fear the police rather than see them as community helpers. This is particularly true in African-American communities. However, this trepidation in not without warrant as studies have shown that police officers have faster response times as well as increasing follow-up effort if the victim is white (Howerton, 2006). As illegal immigration becomes an increasingly hot-button issue, there is some evidence to suggest this pattern is emerging in Hispanic Americans as well.
All of this worry about police corruption is further stressed by police hiring processes, particularly of the early twentieth century. While ethnic minorities and women were eventually given the same opportunities for employment, they were not given the same opportunities for advancement. Many offices made certain height requirements for certain law enforcement positions, such as Captain, or to be able to patrol in the field. These requirements excluded the majority of women as well as men and women of certain ethnic groups (The Criminology and Criminal Justice Collective of Northern Arizona University, 2009). Eventually, this was deemed discriminatory as the officer’s height has little to do with the actual job. This is yet another instance where law enforcement reflects the changing times.
Throughout the various changes law enforcement has been through, it continues to act as a mirror of society, discrimination, and disparity. While the relationship between police and society continues to be strained, we can count on law enforcement to illustrate those elements of society that make the American criminal justice system unique.
Howerton, A. (2006). Police response to crime: Differences in the application of the law by race. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 4(3), 51-66.
Johnson, D. R. (1981). American law enforcement: A history. Wheeling, IL: Forum Press.
Lerner, M. (2011). Prohibition: Unintended consequences. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/unitended-consequences/
The Criminology and Criminal Justice Collective of Northern Arizona University (2009). Investigating difference: Human and cultural relations in criminal justice (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.