Policing | Section 1.3

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

This content is released as a draft version for comment by the scholarly community.  Please do not distribute as is.    

Peel and the Met

The United States has followed a different path than many other countries.  Whereas many western nations have national police forces, the United States is still very fragmented.  Policing is done mostly on the local level. One term for this decentralized.

While there are some rather abstract political advantages to a decentralized system of law enforcement, it is not without cost.  Many critics call for the amalgamation and centralization of police forces, citing a wide variety of reasons such as preventing wasted effort and wasted resources.

In 1748, Henry Fielding was appointed Magistrate of Bow Street in London.  As an early police reformer, he introduced the concept of prevention as a responsibility of the police.  Fielding first came up with the idea that crimes should be reported to the police. John Fielding, brother to Henry, succeeded his brother as Magistrate of Bow Street.  John established a group of thief-takers known as the Bow Street Runners.

In 1829, Home Secretary Robert Peel convinced the Parliament in England to pass the Metropolitan Police Act.  The primary purpose of the Act was to do away with the ineffectual patchwork of policing measures then practiced in London, and establish an around-the-clock, uniformed police force charged with preventing disorder and crime.  Peel is credited with many innovations that became standard police practice around the world. A major shift was an effort at crime prevention rather than “raising the hue and cry” after a crime was committed. In other words, the focus of police efforts shifted from reactive to proactive.  This meant that the new police force was tasked with preventing crime before it occurred rather than responding to it after the fact.  

The House of Commons

The House of Commons, also called simply the Commons, is a popularly elected legislative body of the bicameral British Parliament. Although it is technically the lower house, the House of Commons is predominant over the House of Lords, and the name “Parliament” is often used to refer to the House of Commons alone.

The “New Police,” as the force was called, was organized into a hierarchy of ranks in military fashion. Ranking officers were to be promoted from within, on the basis of merit. The basic police officer, the uniformed constable, was unarmed and had limited authority. Unlike other municipal police forces in Ireland and continental Europe, the London Metropolitan Police Department was designed to maintain close ties with and to draw support from the people it policed. The primary function of the force was crime prevention, and officers were instructed to treat all citizens with respect. Crime was to be controlled and public order maintained by preventive patrols; police were to be paid regular salaries, and no stipends were to be permitted for solving crimes or recovering stolen property. Constables also inherited many functions of the watchmen, such as lighting street lamps, calling time, watching for fires, and providing other public services.

A key element of this proactive strategy was preventive patrol.  Police constables became known as “Bobbies” after Robert Peel.  The city of London was divided up into beats, and the Bobbies were ordered to patrol their beats on foot.  The idea was that the presence of these uniformed officers on the streets would deter crime.

The militaristic nature of most modern police forces was also one of Peel’s innovations.  He used a military-style organizational structure, complete with ranks like sergeant, lieutenant, and captain.  While commonplace now, military-style uniforms were an innovation. Command and discipline were also conducted along military lines.

The metropolitan constables were not immediately popular. Most citizens viewed them as intrusive and illegitimate, and they were often jeered at. However, they eventually overcame the public’s misgivings, and they gained a worldwide reputation for the excellence of their leadership. Peel appointed Charles Rowan, an army colonel, and Richard Mayne, an Irish barrister, as the first commissioners of the force; both men were strong leaders and effective administrators who instilled in their officers the values embodied in a mission statement popularly known as Peel’s Principles.

Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Law Enforcement

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. The police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain public respect.

4. The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes, proportionately, to the necessity for the use of physical force and compulsion in achieving police objectives.

5. The police seek and preserve public favor, not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to the law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws; by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of society without regard to their race or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

6. The police should use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to achieve police objectives; and police should use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

7. The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police are the only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the intent of the community welfare.

8. The police should always direct their actions toward their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary by avenging individuals or the state, or authoritatively judging guilt or punishing the guilty.

9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

The preventive tactics of the metropolitan police were successful, and crime and disorder declined. The force’s pitched battles with (and ultimate victory over) the Chartists in London and in Birmingham (where a group of London officers was specially dispatched) proved the ability of the police to deal with major public disturbances and street riots. Yet, despite those early successes, the expansion of police forces to rural areas was only gradual.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 ordered all incorporated boroughs to set up police forces under the control of a watch committee, but police forces for the provinces were not mandated until 1856 when Parliament passed the County and Borough Police Act. The principles embodied in the Metropolitan Police Act—in particular, that officers should be uniformed, that command and control should be exercised through a centralized, quasi-military hierarchy, and that the authority of the police should derive not from politicians but from the crown, the law, and the consent of the citizenry—shaped the development of modern policing in Britain and in many other countries throughout the world.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading



Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  08/27/2018

[ Back | Content | Next]

This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.