Law enforcement in colonial New York worked similarly to law enforcement in England. It was the responsibility of the local government to protect its citizens.
There were three main categories of criminal behavior dealt with by the courts in colonial New York: thefts, acts of personal violence, and disruptions of public order. Without an effective police force, which didn’t come about until the 19th century, these crimes put tremendous strain on the welfare of the community and individuals responsible for law enforcement. There was a severe shortage of able night-watchmen, constables, sheriffs, jail-keepers, and justices of the peace.
Sheriffs, appointed by the governor, enforced the laws, collecting taxes, supervising elections, and taking care of the legal business of the county government. Constables, elected by the people, could make arrests, serve warrants, and testify in court. Night-watchmen were merely responsible for patrolling the city at night, looking for fires, crimes, or riots.
There were three forms of peacekeeping in colonial New York. The first of which included the obligation of the citizens to take their turn as watchmen. If they didn’t want to do it, they had the option to pay for a substitute. Other times, the government paid constables to do the job, but they lacked authority and resources to prevent crimes and maintain order. Their only real choice was to apprehend a criminal in the act. The third option occurred during times of war. The governor sent militia to take over the watch. However, this was an expensive and unpopular choice.
Paid constables were often hired from among artisans and tradesmen. With little pay and a lot of responsibilities between their regular profession and work in law enforcement, it was hardly worth the dangers the job presented. Since there weren’t enough constables, they were rarely able to subdue suspects who resisted arrest, especially when the suspect resorted to violence.
Law Enforcement Stretched Too Thin
In 1765, a mob of over 200 men ousted four families from their homes in Dutchess County in protest of the Stamp Act. Nothing was done about the 200 men since it was too difficult to arrest all 200, let alone ten. Law enforcement lacked the resources to stop the unrest.
A Lack of Quality Law Officers
Because of the dangers implicit in the job, and the lack of resources, many New Yorkers preferred to pay a fine than serve as law officers. If they couldn’t afford the fine, they took the job but were often negligent in their duties by, for example, not showing up to testify in court. Another problem law enforcement faced was the inclusion of those with questionable integrity. They would take bribes to release prisoners or fix juries; extort money from prisoners in exchange for preferential treatment; assault innocent citizens without just cause; charged suspects excessive fees — food and lodgings were paid by suspects held in jail; committed a variety of crimes without consequences; and used the office to advance their personal interests.
A Lack of Quality Prisons
Prisons in the Province of New York were not fortified places. For those awaiting trial, many escaped. The sheriffs were faced with a dilemma. They were criminally liable if suspects escaped, but were not given enough jail-keepers or more secure jails to do their job. Further, if a suspect crossed county lines, they could not be apprehended because arrest warrants issued by county.
A Lack of Quality Judges
If a suspect didn’t escape prison or evaded recapture, they would appear before a judge. Depending on who was sitting on that particular bench could make a big difference in the suspect’s case. There is much evidence to indicate that judges of colonial New York were, on the whole, an ignorant lot, ill-suited to hold office, and often anxious to abuse the power which such office afforded them. (Greenberg, Douglas)
In 1763, fifty-nine percent of justices of the peace in New York had no legal training. Some could neither read nor write! One can only imagine their ability to uphold the law. In fact, 36% of criminal cases in court records from 18th century New York were never resolved.
The Province of New York wasn’t lawless, but it had its challenges. Law Enforcement was neither setup to succeed, nor respected for its authority. As a historical romance writer, these facts give me a lot of fodder with which to torment my characters.
- Early Policing in Colonial America
- Greenberg, Douglas. “The Effectiveness of Law Enforcement in Eighteenth-Century New York.” The American Journal of Legal History, vol. 19, no. 3, 1975, pp. 173–207. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/844881.
- Policing Colonial America