Under Anglo-Saxon rule it was the duty of the citizens themselves to see that the law was not broken, and if it was, to catch the offenders. All the males in the community between the ages of 12 and 60 were responsible for this duty. They were organized in groups of about ten families, and each group was called a “tything”: At their head was a “tythingman.” Each member of the tything was held responsible for the good behavior of the others. Ten tythings were led by a “reeve.” If one member committed a crime, the others had to catch him and bring him before the court, or the “moot” as the Saxons called it. If they failed to do so they were all punished, usually by paying a fine. If anyone saw a crime he raised a “hue and cry” and all men had to join in the chase to catch the criminal and bring him before the court. Under Alfred the Great, (A.D. 871-901), reeves began to be combined, forming “shires” or counties. Each shire was led by a reeve. For minor offenses, people accused of crimes were brought before the local “folk moot.” More serious cases went to the “Shire Court,” which came under the “shire reeve” (meaning “keeper and chief of his county”), who came to be known as the Sheriff. After the Normans conquered England in A.D. 1066, they adopted many Anglo-Saxon law keeping methods, including the system of tythings, the use of the hue and cry, and the Sheriff’s courts. In A.D. 1085, King William ordered a compilation of all taxable property in a census, and decreed that the Sheriff was to be the official tax collector of the king.
Read the whole thing. I found it to be quite interesting.
UPDATE: If you think about it, this type of system is probably what made English liberty possible. If the King was dependent on the community to enforce the King’s law, then the laws had to largely reflect the values of those communities. You wouldn’t be much interested in catching law breakers over laws that went against the values held in that community, would you? You’d probably spend a lot of time looking the other way. So English law didn’t develop in the same manner as other countries, and when they came here, they brought the law with them. Obviously neither the English nor Americans use this type of system for law enforcement anymore, but the American distrust of centralized police forces is probably rooted in this tradition, and has probably helped keep locally controlled policing, despite the efficiencies that could be gained from centralized police forces. Though most states have State Police, at least in Pennsylvania, they have jurisdiction over our highways, and in any communities that don’t hire local police.