Sir Robert Peel and Modern Day Police

The early roots of policing encompassing Sir Robert Peel’s nine principles have a distinct application to modern day policing. It is important to understand the genesis of policing and the development prior to Sir

Robert’s codification of the role of police in the 1820’s. Prior to 1829, law enforcement in England and America had principally been in the hands of ordinary citizen volunteers, night watchmen, sheriffs, or constables. It was generally unorganized and informal in its application. As early as 1215, with the acceptance of the Magna Carta in England, the first serious interest to solve abuse at the hand of the policing authority and for the general maintenance of order originated. Peel recognized these same problems and suggested solutions to the traditional problems of recruitment of qualified policemen, a uniform application of penalties for official misconduct, and the creation of an independent method of control of the police. These issues had been debated for centuries but with the introduction of these principles Peel started the ultimate professionalization of modern police management.

The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the connection between Sir Robert Peel’s nine principles and their connection to modern policing. Any attempt to understand a connection to the nine principles Peel espoused requires a brief description as depicted by the New Westminister Police Service. The first principle states that basic reason for having a police force is to prevent crime and disorder. The second principle suggests that police must have public approval to be effective. Third, the police must secure the willing cooperation of the public to obey the law in order to have the respect of the public. Next, the degree of cooperation from the public declines with the use of force. Fifth, the police secure public favor by observing impartial service to the law. Sixth, the police must use force only after exhausting all other means to obtain compliance. Seventh, the police are members of the public who are discharging their official duty to secure the welfare of the public. Eighth, the police enforce laws and do not exercise the right to impose punishment. Last, the measure of police effectiveness is in the absence of crime and disorder and not just police activity.

The growth of American policing is closely related to the English legal traditions. However, the American police developed under different circumstances, despite the similarities with the English. Three major characteristics that mirror the English system are principles of limited authority, local control, and fragmented organization. Sir Robert Peel, as Home Secretary in the British Cabinet, recognized the major failings of the prevailing policing practices and successfully orchestrated the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. This was the Act that ultimately created the London Police Force. It provided for a uniformly recruited, organized, paid, professional police force that we would recognize as very similar to those seen today. Further, the Metropolitan Police Act authorized Sir Robert to establish the police force with the quick recruitment of one thousand men in what would resemble military regiments.

Sir Robert and his subordinates, known as commissioners, were faced with many obstacles with regard to organization and management of the new force. These problems are the same faced by modern Chiefs of Police. They include the thoroughness of training of police recruits, aptitude, maturity, and suitability of candidates, and the standardization of policy, discipline, and the maintenance of community relations.

The stage for modern American policing was set in the 1830s following the English model. Large and diverse urban centers, similar to those in England’s industrialized areas, contributed to the growth of professional police beginning in New York and Boston. The presence of social disorder forced the civil governments to take action, albeit slowly and with some suspicion of uniformed agents in the civil setting. The influence of Sir Robert’s principles was felt and progress was substantial in the Northeastern States. This was in contrast to the role of law enforcement in the Southern and Western states. The various geographical areas of the United States evolved differently and can still be seen in the philosophical approached used by modern police agencies.

The effect of the nine principles took hold in distinct phases of American History up to the present day. The first, the Political Era (1840-1920), showed the shortcoming of contemporary policing due to political interference and official corruption. It was probably the most substantial obstacle to Peel’s reforms. Political machines generally influenced hiring, salary, and even investigative activities. The Professional Model Era (1920-1970) recognized the shortfalls of previous era and focused on hiring competent, qualified applicants and in curbing police abuses and inefficiency. The most changes occurred during the 1960s primarily due to civil rights abuses. From 1970 to the present the police focus has been called the Community Model Era which has sought to put the police into more contact with the public it supports and to improve quality of police through higher standards.

The evolution of modern day policing has had many failed attempts and false starts since the early Nineteenth Century and Peel’s principles. While the principles represent an idealized vision of police activity, they have served as a touchstone for modern law enforcement theorists and criminologists. The concept of community policing can be attributed to Sir Robert Peel in the sense that his principles form the core of police-community interaction.

Cole, George & Smith, Christopher. (2004). The American System of Criminal Justice.
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Cromwell, Paul & Dunham, Roger. (1997). Crime and Justice in America.