Police History: Constable vs. Paramilitary

by | Jul 1, 2020 | The Early Modern Age, The Recent Modern Age, Current Politics, Legal History

Calls to abolish or massively reform America’s police sound new and radical. Yet history offers a very old model for those reforms: an alternative to our current military style of policing. In the world of the Founding Fathers, civilian constables enforced the law. They had done so for 150 years in the American colonies and for longer in England. And they would continue well into the 19th Century.

1st Lieutenant General of the Paris police

Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, Paris’ first Lieutenant General of Police

In America today, local police wear army-style uniforms, give and receive orders, and use military ranks like sergeant and lieutenant. They also train like soldiers, practicing drill formations, snapping to attention before superiors, and even polishing boots. In other words, they operate a lot like soldiers — like troops in a “standing army.” How did we get here?

The Sun King Invents the Police

For most of history, kings, nobles, and their soldiers kept the peace. So it’s no surprise that modern policing grew out of the military. Historians generally cite 1667 as the birth-date of the police force. In that year, King Louis XIV of France consolidated Paris’ various guards and magistrates into a single force, commanded by a Lieutenant General of Police. This was largely a military operation, and the general commanded hundreds of uniformed soldiers, both foot and cavalry. But he also commanded inspectors and commissioners with judicial powers.

King Louis ordered the new police force to prevent riots, to protect the houses of the rich, and to keep a lid on Paris’ incessant crime. And they did, giving the city safer streets (though still crime-ridden by our standards). So the Parisian paramilitary model soon spread across France and on to the rest of Europe — but not to England.

The Constable Model in England

a constable or beadle: police reform option

An English constable (technically, a beadle)

In Pre-Victorian England, most law enforcement lay in the hands of civilian officers known as beadles or constables. The latter title comes from the Latin comes stabuli, for attendant of the stables. It once meant a soldier charged with protecting towns and villages. But by the 1600s, the constable had lost any connection to soldiering. He was a merchant or farmer who served part-time, usually for a year. The constable wore no uniform, wasn’t necessarily skilled at arms, and wasn’t part of a police force. Rather, he served as the lone officer in a village or parish or as one of a few. If he needed men, he would recruit volunteers. Or the community might appoint night watchmen, warders, or other civilians. Some of these constables’ deputies and associates were paid, but the constable himself generally was not.

The constable did more than enforce the law, even though the title suggests police-work to modern ears. His duties included collecting taxes, licensing alehouses, lighting beacons, mediating disputes, and killing rats.

England’s 17th and 18th Century legal administration left much to be desired by our standards. But by the standards of the time, the constables ran an effective yet lenient justice system.

Constables in the Colonies and the Early U.S.

Virginia colonial sheriff Augustine Washington (the president's father)

Augustine Washington, a colonial sheriff (with his son, George, suspected of assaulting a cherry tree)

The American colonies relied on constables too, as well as sheriffs. The latter title comes from the Anglo Saxon shire reeve. In medieval England, it referred to the highest-ranking royal official in each shire or county. But by the 17th Century, the title had become largely ceremonial in England. The colonists gave the sheriff new life as a more exalted constable.

Like their English counterparts, colonial law enforcers wore no uniforms, had no regular force of armed men, and did both civil and criminal duties. Some were paid and some were not.

Colonial and early U.S. law enforcement did include partially militarized police. The notorious slave patrols of the South captured runaways and generally restricted and menaced the slaves. In some colonies/states, the patrols were civilians. But in others, they were drawn from the militias and army cadets, and they operated like paramilitaries. Either way, they gave American law enforcement an early stain of racism.

Racism probably was not unique to the slave patrols, but the military model was, at least at first.

England Adopts Military-Lite Policing

Peel, founder of London police: police reform in reverse?

Sir Robert Peel, father of London’s bobbies

In 1829, Parliament superseded the constables in England’s capital by creating the London Metropolitan Police. We’re not entirely sure why. The Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, argued that crime was rising, but the evidence never clearly supported him. It’s possible that, instead, the constable system had become inefficient for the enormous city. Each parish appointed its own constables and night watchmen, and that meant the city’s wealthier parishes got better service. Plus, the night watchmen were often too drunk or too old to do much good.

police history: an early peeler/bobby

An officer of the London Metropolitan Police, 1850s

Whatever the reason, Peel and Parliament created a military-style force for London, complete with uniforms and a hierarchy of ranks. But Peel knew Englishmen would oppose a “standing army” as a threat to their civil rights, not to mention an abominable French import. So he disguised the new force’s military structure. He gave the men blue uniforms — complete with tails and top hats — instead of the red worn by British soldiers. Thus he created the tradition of “men in blue.” Peel also avoided most military ranks. And he armed the London police with wooden nightsticks, rather than guns.

Peel’s strategy strategy worked, tamping down concern for civil liberties and giving London a “lite” version of France’s paramilitary police. Londoners even gave their police a friendly nickname: “bobbies,” after Bobby Peel. Gradually, the model spread throughout Britain.

Militarized Police Come to the U.S.

The American cities started down a similar road soon after London. Northern merchants had begun hiring night watchmen to protect their wares, but by the 1830s, they were lobbying their cities to fund law enforcement. Boston was first to hire full-time, public police in 1838. And New York City established the first American police department in 1844. Other American cities followed soon after. These new forces used the London Metropolitan Police as a model, including its blue uniforms and military-lite organization.

Americans opposed standing armies as much as the English. In fact, the Founding Fathers rebelled in part to terminate Britain’s use of soldiers on colonial streets. But Peel’s military-lite policing model worked in the U.S., just as it had in England. It disguised and softened the return of uniformed law enforcers to American cities.

New York policemen, 1871

New York Metropolitan Police, 1871

Rural America went down the military path too, but much later. The sheriff evolved into the chief law enforcer in each county, generally focused on the countryside. He still relied mostly on citizen volunteers during the 19th Century, like the sheriff’s deputies of the Old West. But during the 20th Century, sheriff’s departments expanded and hired full-time, paid deputies. And eventually, they adopted the training, ranks, and structure of the urban police. That includes uniforms, though the sheriffs prefer khaki to blue.

a sheriff's SWAT team -- police reform image

Not your grandfather’s sheriff’s deputies

During the 21st Century, American rural and urban police grew even more militarized, putting aside Peel’s “lite” style of law enforcement. They added more military tactics and acquired equipment from the Pentagon, including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and bayonets.

The Constable Option for Police Reform

a police paramilitary assault vehicle -- police reform

A police assault vehicle

Imagine Parliament, Peel, and the American cities had resisted the military model during the early 1800s. Imagine they’d instead reorganized the constables into civil service agencies. Today’s local law enforcers might look more like armed social workers than a force “dressed like you’re goin’ to invade Poland,” as Matt Daemon put it in The Departed.

Minneapolis police color guard - police reform

Military precision in Minneapolis

What if America restored the constable model? Local law enforcers would walk their beats without uniforms — like today’s detectives and FBI agents — identified by badges and maybe arm-bands. They’d be trained on citizen support, multicultural communication, and self-defense, not soldiering. And they’d operate without military ranks or assault weapons.

Most important, the constable model would likely reduce racist violence, like the murder of George Floyd. It’s not that past civilian law enforcers necessarily operated without racism. But soldiering involves enemies. So like racism, it’s about “the other.” The constable model does not need an “other.”

Of course, America still needs heavily-armed SWAT teams. And there, the military model makes sense. But those forces could form separate agencies, ideally at the state level. They’d assist the city and county constables only in emergencies. And we’d have no standing armies on our streets.


© 2020 by David W. Tollen



    I enjoyed the history lesson, but I can’t agree with your conclusion about switching to the constable model: “Most important, the constable model would likely reduce racist violence, such as the murder of George Floyd.”

    I wish this were true, but racist people may be drawn to any policing group, modeled on the military or not. I have a hunch that people who have personal power agendas may be drawn to the constable model at this point in our history. Until we all grow up and accept the sins of our past as a nation and punish anyone who refuses to respect everyone’s rights regardless of race, this problem will not go away, no matter how the police are organized.

  2. OG

    Interesting ideas about de-militarizing police.
    They sholu still have uniforms and be armed.

    Some of our criminal laws could be repealed which would take enforcement out of the criminal courts. Relief could be found and handled by the civil courts. Civil lawsuits instead of criminal trials.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *