“The police are the public and the public are the police.”
— Sir Robert Peel, 1829
In colonial America, there were no police. Order was maintained mainly through the folkways (informal codes of behavior which should be followed) and mores (strict norms which must be observed). Laws were basically derived from religion, specifically the Ten Commandments.
It must be remembered that the people who formed the first colonies were, with the exception of a small number of Jews (mostly from Holland), European Christians, predominantly Protestants. Even the earliest Irish to settle this country were from Northern Ireland, called the “Scotch Irish,” and also Protestant. So, there was a general consensus about proper behavior and observance of civility.
“The Law” was administered by local governors or other heads of the various colonies. The fear of public ridicule kept people who might be disposed to committing a crime from doing so. But, if a crime were committed, and if it were egregious enough, ostracism (banishment) might be imposed on the offender.
A new American religion
In this regard, the case of Roger Williams offers an interesting example. In 1634, Williams became the acting pastor of the Salem church in Massachusetts. However, he believed that the Church of England was so corrupt that its infamy influenced related churches. He taught that people should have freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
As a result, the General Court found him guilty of spreading “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions,” and he was ordered to be banished from the colony. However, Williams was in poor health, so his banishment was postponed. But he managed to slip away from the colony, find shelter with the Wampanoag Indians, and flee during the spring season to an area that would later be named Rhode Island. There, he and John Clarke founded the Baptist faith in America.
Williams argued that the state could legitimately concern itself with matters of civil order only, not with religious belief, as was the case in the other colonies. “Forced worship,” he declared, “stinks in the nostrils of God.” His sentiments may have been the foundation for the clause in the U.S. Constitution that dictates the separation of church and state, about a century and a half later.
Even when the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, there was no police force. George Washington spoke about liberty being dependent upon citizens taking individual responsibility for observing proper conduct. He was wary of government gaining excessive power by trying to impose “right” and punish “wrong.”
In his Farewell Address, he advocated six principles: 1) maintain the union; 2) keep the principles of the Constitution intact; 3) preserve independence; 4) support behavior with religion and morality; 5) be watchful of public credit; and 6) adopt only peaceful policies. Note that there was no reference to any governmental or civic organization that would be chartered to maintain order among the people.
A couple of decades later, in England, the home secretary (and future Prime Minister), Sir Robert Peel, conceived a citizen-oriented police force for the city of London. However, the public was suspicious of any large force that might be used to suppress protest or support unpopular rule, as had been the case in Paris. So, Peel championed the development of a police department that would prohibit any military man (either active or retired) from becoming a law enforcement officer.
In 1829, he managed to get Parliament to pass the Metropolitan Police Act, which established a full-time, professional, and centrally-organized police department for London and its surrounding areas.
His guiding principles were to prevent crime and disorder; to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public; to understand that the authority of the police is dependent on public approval; to recognize that the cooperation of the public reduces the necessity of the use of physical force by police; to exercise absolute impartiality; to promote the idea that police are members of the public who are paid to operate in the interests of the community; and to judge the success of the police by the absence of crime, not by the number of arrests.
Respect and responsibility
To me, the singular factor that stands out from the list of Peelian principles is the emphasis on mutual respect between police and community. Historian Gary Potter points out that “the development of policing in the United States closely followed the development of policing in England.” The first municipal police force in this country was organized in Boston in 1838; New York City followed in 1845; New Orleans, in 1853; Philadelphia, in 1855; and Baltimore, in 1857. Potter claims that by the 1880s all major U.S. cities had municipal police forces in place.
Although the concepts of mutual trust and policing by consent held up for a while, it was diminished when factory owners utilized police departments to put down protests by factory workers. In turn, this raised the issue of “dangerous classes” which were stereotyped with claims of hooliganism, worker riots, public drunkenness, and crime.
The “underclass,” which epitomized these conditions, became a particular focus of police attention in many cases. Naturally, this led to profiling and surveillance as means of preventing crime. Actual events then supported the stereotypes. Between 1880 and 1900, New York City had 5,090 strikes, involving almost one million workers. The sheer numbers convinced civic authorities that police officers should carry firearms and use as much force as necessary to discharge their duties.
As new waves of crime proliferated during the 20th century (especially organized crime) and civil turmoil (e.g., commodity and antiwar riots of the 1960s and 1970s, the growth of drug trafficking in the 1980s, and the disruptions by opponents of globalization in the 1990s), police were called on to perform actions that did not seem to be in keeping with Peelian principles.
In recent weeks, police who were not part of that history, have become targets of frustration. We now have the opportunity to return to the concept of policing by consent by utilizing the power of the public to protect police as they — citizen officers — go about doing our mutually beneficial tasks. Let’s begin this journey on August 2 by attending the National Night Out, an occasion when cops and citizens can socialize and build bridges.