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History of constable system as old as the United States

History of constable system as old as the United States


The history of the nation’s constable system is as old as the nation itself.

Law enforcement efforts in the United States — on a local level — began during the 17th century. Gary Potter, a criminal justice professor at Eastern Kentucky University, said efforts began with a watch system, a private-for-profit policing system.

The watch system was composed of community volunteers whose primary duty was to warn the public of impending danger. Boston created its first night watch program in 1636, New York in 1658 and Philadelphia in 1700, the professor wrote in “The History of Policing in the United States.”

The night watch was not a particularly effective crime control tool, as watchmen often slept or drank on duty, Potter wrote.

The criminal justice professor said a system of constables augmented the watch system. Constables were official law enforcement officers, usually paid by the fee system for warrants they served, he explained. Constables had a variety of non-law enforcement functions to perform as well, including serving as land surveyors and verifying the accuracy of weights and measures.

In many places, constables also supervised night and day watchmen.

What did constables do during the Colonial era? They often brought in suspects and witnesses to court — frequently for such conduct as working on the Sabbath, cursing in public and failing to pen animals properly, according to the National Law Enforcement Museum.

Colonial governments also appointed sheriffs, who worked alongside the watchmen and constables.

It wasn’t until the 1800s when the idea of a municipal police department emerged in the United States. In 1838, the city of Boston — which already had a watchmen and constable system — established the first American police force.

With police forces in existence in practically every municipality in the country, the constable system has gradually disappeared. Many states no longer permit constable appointments or elections.

Tennessee continues to have constables, elected by voters, while Virginia has abandoned the constable system. | 276-645-2531 | Twitter: @RSorrellBHC |

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