The Principles of Policing (1829)

images-3 The development of uniformed, public police took place much more slowly in England than in the rest of Europe. Public police were already established in Paris by the time the English did so. Before this time, a system of privately funded rewards was created to apprehend thieves and burglars. This private model continued well into the 19th century. There were privately funded police organizations in no fewer than 45 governmental units or parishes within a 10-mile radius of London. As one can imagine, there was little coordination, information-sharing, or discipline among or in these jurisdictions.

However, in 1829, a Metropolitan Police Act was passed by Parliament, which enabled the Home Secretary to establish a unified public police force in London. This significantly reduced the function of private police and brought the modern governmental function of policing a democracy into existence. Robert Peel was the Home Secretary.

As time went on, the London Metropolitan Police essentially became the model for police forces in most democracies around the world, including ours. Our system of policing and Great Britain’s differ significantly from many other countries’, in that our police exist to protect a citizen’s rights just as much as those of the state. This is what makes policing a democracy unique among the world’s police—the function isn’t just about order, but also about rights. It is what makes it a challenging enterprise.

                Peel’s Principles of Policing

  1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
  2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions.
  3. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observation of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
  4. The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
  5. Police seek and preserve public favor not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.
  6. Police 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.
  7. 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 being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions, and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.
  9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it..

Peel’s nine principles laid out the framework for police conduct in any society in which it is necessary for the police to work closely with citizens and have their respect. Remarkably, these principles are as valid today as they were when they were first developed over 150 years ago.

The first principle is a powerful statement regarding the role of police; they are to prevent crime and disorder, as well as apprehend offenders. They don’t serve primarily to control and arrest criminals. Instead, they have a responsibility to prevent crime from ever happening in the first place, which means police must be willing and able to work upstream in society regarding the causes of crime and create and maintain an effective system of preventing it.

The second and third principles state that police cannot function effectively in society unless they have the approval of the public. Good relationships, cooperation, trust, and confidence between the community and the police are paramount to having an effective police. Ultimately, the greatest way to foster adherence to the rule of law isn’t through threats, but by creating a social climate wherein people voluntarily observe the law because they can see that it benefits themselves as well as the society of which they consider themselves to be members.

The fourth and sixth principles are the result of a wise observation about human behavior and the use of force. The public’s cooperation with the police diminishes as increased force is used by the police. How police make arrests and take offenders into custody is often an area of contention and conflict between police and the community. The fourth principle states that if police want cooperation from the community, they need to use coercive force carefully and judiciously. The sixth notes that when physical force must be used, it should only be when persuasion, advice, and warning are found to be insufficient—that is, as a last resort.

The fifth principle is one of the primary ethical principles of democratic policing. Images of Lady Justice can be seen in many of our nation’s courtrooms, with the scales of justice in her hands, but her eyes blindfolded, so she cannot see whether those who come before her seeking justice are young or old, rich or poor. She also cannot see the color of their skin. So too, police must be like Lady Justice, blind to an individual’s race, gender, or socioeconomic class. They must be absolutely impartial when operating as agents of government, and not be influenced by illegal or improper public pressure or prejudicial attitudes.

The seventh principle reminds us that everyone is responsible for the peace, welfare, and harmony of our society, not just the police. As representatives of that society, police must be recruited from the community to serve the community. Police are those who are paid to give full-time attention to the public’s responsibility of maintaining a safe, peaceful, and orderly society. The police are the public and the public are the police.

The eighth principle identifies the necessary checks and balances that need to exist between the police and those of the judiciary. This necessary separation helps balance the power that each possesses; one to arrest, the other to judge. In America, we intentionally created a separation of the three powers of government: executive, legislative, and judicial.  Each balances the other’s unique power. The executive power of the police is balanced by that of the legislature and the judiciary. The legislature creates the law, the police enforce, and the judiciary reviews.

The ninth principle reiterates what the first principle says about the primary role of police. Police should be judged by the absence of crime and disorder in their community and not by their activity or how many arrests they make. Although it is necessary and essential for police to apprehend criminals, an ideal community isn’t one in which police focus on apprehension. An ideal community exists when police and citizens work together to prevent crime from ever occurring in the first place.

These are the kind of principles that are needed to guide police in a democracy—they seem reasonable and clear. Why, then, do police often fall short of them?

In a totalitarian system of government, the harsh treatment by police of perceived offenders is the way business is done. In a democracy, however, social control must be accomplished by government while individual rights are protected and police are expected to be fair and just. Therefore, people who live in democracies have a different set of expectations than those living under other forms of government.

In a democracy, police have a very complex role compared to what is expected of the police in other systems. The power of the state must be balanced with the rights of an individual; other systems have no balance requirement—only to use the power given them by the state.

Uniquely, police in a democracy don’t exist solely to maintain order on behalf of the state, but also to assure that the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen are protected in the process.

FN: Lentz, Susan A. and Robert H. Chaires, The invention of Peel’s principles: A study of policing ‘textbook’ history. Journal of Criminal Justice 35: 69–79. 2007. doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2006.11.016. Note: While Robert Peel has received the lion’s share of citations down through the years, the Principles were actually a collaborative effort of Peel, Richard Mayne, and Charles Rowan.

[From my book, “Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police” (2012).]