By C. Jeff Oakes
Policing the population has been an activity carried out by governments for thousands of years. It was not until Sir Robert Peel persuaded the British Parliament to create the London Metropolitan Police in 1829 that policing took on the professional auspices known today (Villiers, 2006).
Both the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution contain passages indicating that the country of England used military troops in much the same capacity as police are used today. The use of military forces in this manner was distasteful to the Colonists; this was part of the reason given for the revolution. Only 15 years after the Revolutionary War between England and America, the Gordon riots erupted causing England to look inward for a better solution (Walker-Katz, 2008).
Eight years later, Robert Peel (Gale, 2006) was born into a world rapidly changing as a result of industrialization and urbanization and by the time he reached Parliament, he had found a way to create what was lacking in empires of the past: A social control mechanism with the strength and discipline of the military but the heart of the public.
Today, much of what Sir Robert Peel formed and envisioned continues with but minor changes. For example, the uniforms, ranks, and discipline are still an integral part of the modern police force. Of greater interest and importance are the principles of policing that Peel espoused, for through these principles, the police are not simply soldiers occupying the homeland, but rather, citizens protecting for the good of all.
The Policing Principles of Sir Robert Peel
As Lee describes the first, “The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment (1901).” Today, most Americans still consider sacred the Bill of Rights, which prevents the use of military forces against the citizenry as well as “cruel and unusual punishments.” The various police forces around the nation act in a quasi-military fashion for safeguarding the public without encroaching (ideally) on their rights as free citizens. This is wise, for history provides many examples of revolutions resulting from abuse at the hands of occupying soldiers.
Lee adds, “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect (1901).” Respect is a vital ingredient in creating an effective police force. Police posts were often granted because of political contributions, family connections, and other such reasons. This occurred frequently with Tammany Hall, a socio-political group in New York City. In addition, when law enforcement officials do not obey the law themselves, as was frequently the case with Tammany Hall, respect, along with public approval and support, are lost (Walker-Katz, 2008).
Finally, civil rights violations by police tend to erode their power as well. During the 1960s, riots spread from New York City to Los Angeles because of such violations. “Police departments responded to the crisis by establishing police–community relations (PCR) units,” according to Walker-Katz (2008). PCR units dispatched with the goal of winning back the hearts of the public failed to reach their desired objectives.
However, the riots and resultant attempts to regain control over the population brought about new and innovative studies and tactics. Over the course of the next few decades, police departments adopted a number of strategies and created numerous programs all aimed at winning the hearts of the public. Women and minorities entered the profession in growing numbers; deadly force policies were enacted; and agencies were encouraged to become accredited. Finally, community-policing, citizen policing and problem-oriented policing became part of the nationwide effort to increase public support for law enforcement agencies (Walker-Katz, 2008).
As a result, police departments have found that Sir Robert Peel’s second principle as well as his third is vital to their mission of safeguarding the public (Lee, 1901).
Sir Robert Peel’s Most Important Principle?
Much could be said of the principles Sir Robert Peel considered important to the profession he created, but in closing, one final principle should be considered. As Lee put it, “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them (1901).” Crime and punishment remain hotly debated issues. With the expansion of police powers granted in the USA PATRIOT Act (Grant & Terry, 2008) Americans are presented with a large show of force (“visible evidence”), but “crime and disorder” continue. Peel established policing on sound principles; the extent to which those principles are applied will dictate the efficiency and effectiveness of modern policing. As the world is again rapidly changing, this time due to the Information Revolution, there will surely develop radical changes to the way policing is conducted (Villiers, 2006). Regardless of the changes, the principles and concepts established by Sir Robert Peel are certain to endure.
Gale (2004). Encyclopedia of World Biography (2nd ed.). Detroit, MI: Author.
Grant, H., & Terry, K. (2008). Law Enforcement in the 21st Century. : Pearson Education.
Lee, W. (1901). A History of Police in England. : .
Villiers, P. (2006). World Encyclopedia of Police Forces and Correctional Systems (2nd ed.). Detroit, MI: Gale.
Walker-Katz, . (2008). The Police in America: An Introduction (6th ed.). : McGraw-Hill.