It happened today - September 29, 2015

Sir Robert PeelIt feels like something from a vanished era in all kinds of ways. On September 29, 1829, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel’s metropolitan London police force began operation.

First, it’s hard now to imagine not having an official municipal police force. And by 1829 the older decentralized and more citizen-based system, with some police, some militia and some informal “watches” was having trouble coping with the vast metropolis the industrial revolution had created.

Second, it’s hard now to imagine there being any issue over such matters as blue uniforms and organizational structure. But Peel believed that it was important that the police force should be clearly seen to be an extension of the public and accountable to them, not a military or paramilitary outfit. Hence the uniforms were blue instead of standard military red, there were no military ranks other than sergeant, and the “Peelers” or “Bobbies” carried no weapons beyond a truncheon and a rattle to summon assistance.

Third, the moral authority of established order was such that, while the Bobbies did have weapons for exceptional circumstances, generation after generation of these was retired to museums with very little use. For instance, flintlock pistols were replaced by revolvers in the 1860s but not until 1887 did a constable fire a revolver in the course of duty… to warn people of a fire. And this in a populace then enjoying the right to bear arms and frequently bearing them.

Fourth, as has often been noted of late, nine principles were incorporated into the “General Instructions” issued to every new officer from 1829 on. Peel helped devise them but was not apparently the author of the formal list. But consider that it includes such core constitutional notions as “To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that 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 on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.” And to remember always that they are part of the executive branch of government. And such advanced “criminological” insights as “To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.”

I have enormous sympathy for the police, who perform a difficult and dangerous job in an increasingly unruly and self-absorbed society. But when I look at today’s police, in their scary black SWAT outfits, or hear them involve themselves in politics via their unions, or witness the deliberate seizure of firearms from law-abiding citizens’ homes in High River, or see them acting as armed social workers who treat self-defence as a menace to decency, I fear that they have forgotten that they are the public and the public are the police.

It may be time to refound the Bobbies on those principles from a sadly vanished era.