What the Police Looked Like in Different Ancient Societies

The modern police force is a relatively recent institution. It was only in the 1800s that uniformed, paid police began enforcing laws in the US and England. Police in ancient societies were usually volunteer magistrates or private security hired by wealthy landowners. Beyond that, citizens enforced laws, and settled disputes with violence.

While Ancient Rome and Egypt had what could be deemed police, they looked and acted very differently than what we’re used to. In fact, even since the advent of the modern police force, myriad attempts have been made to change the mission of police, usually through innovations in uniform or behavior. Read on to discover how police looked and behaved previous to the industrial revolution.

For Most of Local Militias Did the Policing

 For most of human history, the task of enforcing laws was left to citizens, elected sheriffs or constables, and/or hired posses. Spain had an organized police force in the late 1400s, but they were essentially mercenaries paid by the King. England and France had primitive versions of police in the Middle Ages, but they were mostly unpaid constables with little power.

Ancient Egyptian Police Had Trained Monkeys

The earliest reference to organized constabulary forces come from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Open air markets in Ancient Egypt had private armed guards, as did temples and the homes of rich landowners. It appears that these early guards even used trained monkeys to help them chase down thieves. By the 15th century BCE, Egypt had an elite paramilitary police force called the Medjay, which protected the kingdom’s borders and palaces.

Rome Had Organized Police Who Fought Fires

Ancient Greece had but a small force of armed slaves as law enforcement, with citizens picking up the slack. Ancient Rome, on the other hand, saw the formation of a group called the Vigiles, or “watchmen of the city.” The Vigiles was a highly-organized, paid, sequestered group of trained men – a total departure from the unorganized, citizen-led militias that existed previously.

While the Vigiles functioned primarily as firefighters — in those days, even a small unauthorized fire could burn a whole city down — they also had police functions, such as dealing with disturbances of the peace, chasing down thieves, and guarding buildings.

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Ancient China Had a Complex Legal System with Female Enforcers

Law enforcement in Ancient China was carried out by prefects for thousands of years. Prefects were spread across the state, appointed by judges, and had limited authority. The judges in turn reported to governors, who were appointed by the emperor. Subprefects worked under prefects, helping settle disputes, enforce laws, and investigate crimes – tasks most European police wouldn’t do until the modern era. In a reflection of the progressive of dynastic China, some prefects were women.

The concept of the prefecture system spread to other cultures, including Korea and Japan, and the nomenclature is still in use today.

Before England Introduced Constables, Citizens Settled Disputes Through Violence

Criminal justice in the Middle Ages in Europe consisted primarily of violent feuds between accusers and the accused and payouts to the families of victims. After the Norman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon monarchy introduced the concept of the parish constable, a town officer who prevented and punished theft, tended the village stocks, drove away vagrants, and enforced weights and measures. The tradition of parish constables, who were unpaid volunteers, lasted in England until 1829.

19th Century Paris Had the First Uniformed Police in History

After the urban upheaval of the French Revolution, Paris’s small civilian police force was reorganized by Napoléon I. On February 17, 1800, the Prefecture of Police was created, along with police forces in all French cities with more than 5,000 inhabitants.

Thirty years later, the first uniformed policemen appeared in Paris, after a  decree in 1829 created  sergents de ville, or “city sergeants.” The Paris Prefecture of Police’s website claims were the first uniformed policemen in the world.

London, 1829 – the First Modern, Paid Police Force

A few months after France introduced uniformed police, England, dealing with a rash of and a volunteer watchman force unable to stop it, took a step farther. The Metropolitan Police Act, signed in September 1829, introduced the concept of paid, organized, civilian police who served not just to punish crime, but to prevent it.

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London’s revolutionary Metropolitan Police was the brainchild of British politician Sir Robert Peel.Responding to public fear of soldiers conducting law enforcement, Peel made the force answerable to civilian authorities. Their uniforms were blue, rather than military red. To allay fears of brutality, officers were armed with a wooden truncheon and a whistle. Each officer had a number, to ensure easy identification. They also got a nickname – “Bobbies.” 

Early US Police Forces Had to Wear Civil War Hand Me Downs

The success of the London Police led to police forces in US cities. Boston was first, in 1838, then New York, in 1844, and Philadelphia, in 1854. However, these forces refused to wear uniforms, due to public ridicule. It wasn’t until an NYPD mandate in 1854 that police in began wearing uniforms. Many early forces made due leftover Civil War uniforms, which ushered in the iconic blue, military-esque look that dominated police forces in the 19th Century. 

US Sheriffs Didn’t Wear Uniforms For Decades

Sheriffs in rural areas of the US resisted uniforms, preferring to simply wear a badge over their clothes, in an effort to foster with community members. Well into the 20th Century, some sheriff’s deputies still didn’t wear uniforms – Orange County, CA got uniforms in 1938, and Manatee County, FL, deputies went without them until 1955.

In the Late 1960s, Cops Suddenly Started Wearing Blazers

Faced with enormous social upheaval and backlash against perceived violence by police against protestors, some police departments began to dial things back. In 1969, police in Menlo Park, California, traded in their navy blue uniforms for forest green blazers, black slacks, white shirts, and stored under the coat. In Madison, Wisconsin, the new chief of police implemented the blazers/slacks style. Cities began asking police to remove their hats on patrol, take off sunglasses, and make eye contact.

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These approachable, civilian-style uniforms had a positive effect. Injuries inflicted both on and by police dropped, while events that had been plagued by violence became arrest-free. But the good times didn’t last, and police found their blazers stopped commanding respect. Assaults on police began rising, and the hundreds of communities trying the blazer experiment went back to military uniforms.

Richard Nixon Put the White House Police in Euro-Style Uniforms

In 1970, President Nixon decided to outfit White House police in garb inspired by the ceremonial uniforms European police and military forces wore. The redesigned uniforms had white tunics, gold buttons, epaulettes, and high hats. In practice, they looked like an armed marching band – or like an Italian junta had broken out. The uniforms were ditched quickly, and ended up as actual matching band uniforms.

Post 9/11 Police Look More Like Soldiers Than Ever

The security apparatus that arose after 9/11, combined with a flood of surplus gear from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, made police departments more militarized than ever. of local police battering down doors with tanks, armed with assault rifles, ran contrary to the ethos of the Metropolitan Police of 1820s London, and were beamed around the world. However, in the second decade of the 21st century, police departments began slowly turning toward less militarized stances, with some refusing to buy military equipment and others reverting to more traditional uniforms.

Police Forces in Modern Countries Are Consistent in and Mission

As police forces began modernizing, they began to have more unity in both mission and dress.  European civilian police forces are now local law enforcement, leaving large tasks up to militarized units, or federal police. In developing nations, or those at war, police forces can take on a much harsher role, extorting citizens and enforcing doctrine.