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two views of police officer

By Paula Nechak

August acknowledges the anniversary of America's first public police force (of 10), formed in 1658 in old New Amsterdam (New York City).

Today there are thousands more law enforcement officials and crime scene investigators all over the U.S., and online law enforcement schools allow students with a flair for cracking the case an opportunity to earn a law enforcement degree.

The First Sheriff

Over 400 years ago there was no such thing as an official police department, and there was certainly not a law enforcement school or police academy. As early as 1625, the very first police officer patrolled New Amsterdam's fort and colony streets. The New York City Police Museum records that this officer was known as a "Schout-fiscal," or sheriff-attorney, and it was his job to keep the peace and warn the community if a fire broke out.

The need for law and order increased as the settlement grew, so a group of colonials—called the Rattle Watch because of the wooden rattles they carried in order to alert the pioneers to danger—was formed. Rattles were used because the whistle had not yet been invented. They also carried lanterns that had a green glass insert which they hung on a hook by the door when they were finished with their watch. This tradition became a standard that still exists today, and it survives as a symbol of the "watch" presiding over its precinct.

A Public Police Force is Created

The very first public, but not organized, police force was created in August, 1658, and it consisted of 10 watchmen who were paid what would equate to approximately 50 cents per night. This "salary" was collected from members of the community on a monthly basis.

New York's first real, organized police force was finally established in 1844 (as early as 1838 in Boston), when the High Constable of New York City, Jacob Hays, retired and the Governor of the state and Mayor of the City gave permission to create a Police Department. Some 800 men, under the aegis of Chief of Police George W. Matsell began to patrol the city streets in the summer of 1845. They wore badges that had an eight-pointed star, which represented the original eight paid members of the Rattle Watch. The seal of the City was etched into the stamped copper badge.

Star Police and Coppers

The local newspapers called this new brigade, who basically wore the badge on their civilian clothes, the "star police," but citizens preferred to nickname the bearers of the shiny copper badge "coppers," which was over time, shortened to "cops."

Having begun as a force of 10 and increasing to 800 nearly two centuries later in New York City alone, there are now—according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2016-17 Occupational Outlook Handbook—some 806,400 police officers and detectives in the U.S. Online law enforcement schools are making it more convenient for students and already established law enforcement career professionals to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree in order to combat crime, maintain justice and uphold the law.

Make a Difference in the World

Law enforcement jobs are in high demand. Browse our comprehensive list of available online law enforcement schools. Find out what it takes to get an online law enforcement degree, or earn a degree in homeland security, corrections, crime investigation and more.

Sources: New York City Police Museum, nycpolicemuseum.org; U.S. Department of Justice, opj.doj.gov.