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The History of Modern Policing

How the Modern Police Force Evolved

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During the early history of policing, individual citizens were largely responsible for maintaining law and order among themselves. Those who served as constables and justices of the peace did so voluntarily and were not typically paid for their services. Shire reeves, or sheriffs, were employed full-time to oversee law enforcement activities within their shires in England and their counties in the colonies.

This loosely-based system of social control worked quite well for centuries, particularly in more rural and less populated regions. However, the late 1700's and early 1800's saw a population explosion in major cities in the United States and England. Riots and civil unrest was common, and it became increasingly clear that there was a need for a more permanent and professional form of law enforcement that would carry the official authority of the government.

The Beginning of Modern Policing

Philosophers, sociologists and those in the newly evolving field of criminology, including legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham and his accolades, began to call for a centralized police force to protect the citizenry and to maintain order.

Perhaps the most powerful advocate for a professional police force was Sir Robert Peel, a Minister of Parliament who served as Home Secretary for the United Kingdom in the 1820's. In 1829, Peel established the Metropolitan Police Services in London. With the founding of London's police force, Peel became widely regarded by criminologists and historians alike as the father of modern policing. British police officers are still known affectionately as "Bobbies" in honor of his first name, Robert.

Public Opposition

The concept of a centralized, professional police force was a tough sell initially, and was met with a tremendous amount of resistance. There was a fear that a police force would essentially behave as another arm of the military. As result, there was an understandable reluctance to agree to be controlled by what many assumed would be an occupying force.

In order to overcome this opposition, Peel is known for laying the framework for what a police force should be comprised of how a good police officer should conduct himself. While there is debate as to whether he ever clearly enumerated his ideas in any sort of list format, it is generally agreed that he created what are to this day considered to be the primary principles of policing.

Principles of Policing

The "Peelian Principles," as they are often called, insist that:

  • The purpose of the police force is to prevent crime and maintain order.
  • Police depend on the approval and trust of the public in order to effectively do their jobs.
  • The ultimate goal of policing is to achieve voluntary compliance with the law in the community.
  • Police must be unwavering in their duties and adherence to the law, maintaining impartiality and avoiding the temptation to be swayed by public opinion.
  • The use of force and physical control is to be used as a last resort, only when other forms of persuasion have failed.
  • Police officers must remember that they, too, are members of the public and that their purpose is to serve and protect the public.
  • The true measure of the effectiveness of any police force is not the number of arrests or police actions taken, but the absence of criminal conduct and violations of the law.

Public Support for Police

Peel's efforts were very effective in assuaging public fears and concerns. In addition to the principles of policing, Peel and his supporters took other measures to ensure that there was a clear distinction between professional police officers and the military. Police wore blue uniforms in contrast to the bright red of the Royal armed forces, they were forbidden to carry guns, and at all times the importance of maintaining the public trust was impressed upon members of the force.

Coming to America

This concept of the modern police force soon found its way to the United States, though it was not implemented in exactly the same manner as it was in London. Over the next century and beyond, the concept of policing evolved in the U.S. The principles and ideas of Sir. Robert Peel and his adherents were expounded on by law enforcement professionals around the globe, with the input of officers and criminologists alike.

Career Opportunities Abound

Thanks largely in part to the efforts of men like Sir Robert Peel, the field of criminology has expanded greatly, paving the way for new innovations and establishing new opportunities for rewarding careers in law enforcement and criminal justice.

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