Wednesday, December 3, 2014

New Ideas about Policing -- from 1829

The very idea of a "police force" in the modern sense was in every way a Victorian invention. In London in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, crime was fought by an unwieldy array of forces: parish officers (beadles), private night watchmen, and the infamous "Bow Street Runners," whose principal job was apprehending persons wanted on charges to ensure their appearance in court, but who did little or nothing of what we'd conceive of as "patrolling."

The force behind this force was British PM Sir Robert Peel, whose name gave us two popular early nicknames for officers of the police he established ("Bobbies" and "Peelers"). In 1829, in the Police Act, he set forth a clear set of guidelines for these officers, which became known as Peel's Principles. Peel realized that, absent the public's trust and co-operation, the very idea of a police force was doomed to failure.

The police -- in London and elsewhere -- have changed in many ways since 1829. The MET, as it's known for short, has had to expand its mission and learn to tackle new challenges. The realization that plain-clothes police could help solve crimes led to the establishment of the Detective Division; the challenge of the Fenians, who were willing to blow things up to advance the cause of Irish independence, led to the creation of the Special Branch. The Met now even has special riot control units, some of members of which conducted themselves very poorly indeed in the killing of Ian Tomlinson in 2009, an event which -- though absent the element of race -- had much in common with recent American incidents.

But despite that, Peel's original principles would make as much sense for reforming the police in the UK as for reforming them here in the US where I live. The biggest difference is that the police were imagined primarily as a force to prevent crime, rather than merely apprehending criminals after the fact. But just as important was Peel's insistence that the police must be thought of -- and must think of themselves -- not as a special class of persons with unusual powers, but simply as "members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence."

"The police are the public and that the public are the police" -- that's the way Peel put it. We could hardly do better to "reform" the police than to re-assert this one-hundred-and-eighty-five year old sense of values.