Peelian Principles and American Policing

Originally a Twitter thread, April 24, 2021


A long thread on the primary alternative to the US model of policing, with some history, mostly for context.
Long thread. References used at end. (And yes, there is synthesis here.) 

The US police system is an independent evolution vs the rest of the Anglosphere. And a blighted evolution, since ours developed out of systems specifically intended to support racist institutions. The American system started with slave patrols. It’s fruit from a poisoned tree.

But our system is not the only system.

The French gendarmes has roots in 13th and 14th century France, and by the 18th century, were a couple of centuries into an established urban police force and a political police force under Royal authority. Which… came with its own issues.

Gendarmes were a factor in the French Revolution, & were agents of abuse under Bonaparte & remain agents of state authority to the present day. They were antagonists in the uprisings and rebellions that followed the Restoration. (Javert in Les Miserables being THE example from mid 19th c.)

Across the channel, Londoners had been side-eying Paris and the gendarmes for many decades, and at best, were generally skeptical about the idea of a metropolitan police force. The idea would be proposed, but nobody trusted a consolidated system. The informal system felt fine.

Before the 1740s, public order was based at the parish (community) level. What we think of as Metro London has always been a collection of villages, each with their own selected/elected constables, coroners, and magistrates. This was prone to the same problems still apparent in small town policing — It was a semi-volunteer position, so tended to attract people who weren’t in the job for public service minded reasons; rich dudes could pay someone else to be constable for them; local corruption was easy to maintain, there was no effective whistleblowing — but community based public order worked okay in a world that was still credulous enough to believe a woman gave birth to rabbits. (Mary Toft)

Many historical novels aside, we’re not yet talking about a world with functional forensics or solid investigative procedures.

We know now that community based policing — police as members of the community, who live in the place they patrol and know their neighbors — is the most stable form of policing and the least likely to result in police riots or violence. And Londoners liked their ability to protest.

In 1740, a London magistrate set his base at 4 Bow Street and recruited a small constabulary. A few years later, Henry Fielding took over and did something revolutionary: his Bow Street constables would investigate and prosecute crimes for free (thanks to a government grant)*. Before then, if you were poor and someone hurt you or stole from you, judicial aid required the ability to pay a constable/agent to figure out the crime and bring it to a magistrate. Making policing available to all, regardless of wealth, was incredibly progressive.
*
YAY FEDERAL SPENDING!!

After Henry died, his younger brother, John Fielding, took over the same job, and between the two of them, they professionalized community policing and detainment for the first time. 18th century jails sucked, but Westminster under the Fieldings was better than most places.

Disability note: John Fielding was blind from age 19, and lived before Braille was invented. He had a talent for recognizing and remembering voices, and for recalling the details of at least 1000 crimes. Brilliant jurist and investigative mind. (Deserves a TV series.)

Slang note: Both Fieldings had enormous, hooked noses. GIANT honkers. They are the origin of “beaks” in the sense of cops/detectives. John was called the Blind Beak of Bow Street.

Now, was Bow Street perfect? No. They still partially funded themselves with reward money, so they were easy to corrupt. Investigative technique was in its infancy, and they were prone to the same cognitive biases and fallacies that befall today’s detectives.

But they were more reliable than whatever Good Ole Boy system was in place in most parishes. And that helped.

The Bow Street Horse Patrol and the nighttime Foot Patrol endured until 1839, and established many methods and practices that the Metropolitan Police would inherit.

Elsewhere in England…
In 1772, a legal case made slavery illegal in England. (England only, not the colonies, and the UK did not yet exist.) Bringing an enslaved person onto English soil freed them. Period.

Was there still racism?

Yeah, a lot of it.
But…
Not an official, legally enforced system of racial inequality. A small difference, but policing hadn’t been established yet, except in the Fieldings’ corner of Westminster. England never had an official policy of “policing’s job is to return people to bondage.”

It took another 35 years (1808) to get the slave trade banned in all English territories, colonies and possessions, and 30 more (1838), to get slavery itself finally banned everywhere. It was gradual, and a hard fight, and it left too many people behind, but slavery was outlawed.

Unlike in America. At the birth of modern, London policing, the law recognized people of color as full citizens. And that matters so much. (And by the time the Metropolitan was established, punitive transportation to Australia was ending, and was seen as a failure.)

So… London came into the idea of a Metropolitan Police without an official, systemic racial policy, and without a recent history of seeing other people as property. In 1829, when the Met was born, it had been almost two full generations since anyone had seen slavery in London. BUT… Protest, rebellions, and uprisings were all over London and the United Kingdom during the early Industrial Revolution. I blame the Tories (same as they ever were) for insisting on high taxes on their primary product (grain), so the ability to eat was often precarious. And the economy got VERY bad after the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815). The government stopped buying materiel for the armed forces, men returned from conscription, a volcano screwed up the climate (1816), jobs were scarce, prices were high, and only about 11% of British men had the right to vote.

In 1819, the Manchester yeomanry regiment (similar to National Guard, but not as disciplined) got called out to arrest a protest leader at St Peter’s Field in Manchester. They fired into the crowd. At least they had 1819 rifles, not modern ones. At least 7 and as many as 19 people were killed outright, and 400-700 were wounded, which, in a world before antibiotics, antiseptics and orthopedics, meant being injured was serious. The Peterloo massacre eventually shook out a lot of reform for the working class. But it was slow coming.

For the next decade, most people only knew what they didn’t want — they didn’t want the army in charge of public order. The military style of enforcing order was not acceptable. (This is a lesson the US keeps failing to learn the hard way.)

Enter, Robert Peel. Most important? Incredibly Not Stupid — first double firsts at Oxford, hit Parliament like a rock in a sock, and became Home Secretary at 34, in 1822, 3 years after Peterloo, and while unrest was still circulating. AND came from an industrial family, not nobility. He was tasked with figuring out a civilian policing mechanism.

His original Instructions are VICTORIAN, and were encapsulated in 1948 as the Peelian Principles. I’m going to use the 1948 language, because it’s more concise; the late Regency/early Victorians were not known for brevity.

And a note: the first few years of the Metropolitan Police were rocky. It took time to work out the kinks. The experiment could have failed and would now just be a footnote. Instead, it used the mission statement of the Principles to evolve. (And the above history is highly condensed. 1740 to 1840 is a really busy century, and is also the basis of the modern world.)

Principle 1: The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.

The US policing system has officially abandoned this concept, thanks to Antonin Scalia & 6 other Justices in Castle Rock v Gonzales. US Police do not have a duty to protect or prevent harm. 

For much of the Metropolitan Police’s history, the duty to prevent crime and disorder was accomplished by assigning officers to specific neighborhoods. Officers lived in the neighborhoods they patrolled, as with the older constabulary system. Highly walkable. Into the 20th century, Metropolitan police were required to wear their uniforms at all times, except while sleeping. The public did not trust that police were safe, so the goal was to keep them visible at all times. It was an example of “who watches the watchmen?” In the case of the Metropolitan Police, it was everyone in London. The uniform made them hard to bribe or corrupt, because everyone was watching. It helped reduce substance abuse (since sobriety was a requirement), and ultimately, built more of a public trust than US police ever managed.

By no means a perfect trust. There are significant populations in the UK who have been very badly served, and I’m not diminishing the injustices they’ve seen. Just… more trust is little better than what the US has.

Principle 2: The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.

From the beginning of the Metropolitan Police, they answered to the representative government through the Home Office (functional equivalent to the Department of Justice in the US). 

In the United States, many municipal constabularies came into existence before the Department of Justice (under Ulysses S Grant, in 1870). For example, Boston’s merchants convinced the city government to publicly fund their formerly private security watch system in 1838. [it’s what capitalism does — socialize the costs, privatize the profits] Policing in the United States was established piecemeal, based on local prejudices and whims. Public approval for the US meant “the people of this town/county”, with no regards to other people or governments. Often, there was no higher authority to approve/control police actions.

The legacy of this disorganized establishment persists; it’s how we get “qualified” officers with as little as a 12 week part time training certificate, and so little interagency communication of employment records. We have minimal (and eroding) national standards of public approval.

Principle 3: Police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.

Since US policing was based in large part on slave patrols, this was never a part of the ethics of US policing. Slave patrols denied that large parts of the public COULD make a voluntary observance of the law. And had no interest in earning the respect of that part. US policing has never committed to securing the willing cooperation of the community. And it’s probably the single largest flaw.

Since policing agencies have strong historical ties to slave patrols, the internal culture maintains strong historical and contemporary ties to white supremacy. Even in agencies that have become majority non-white (they do exist), the legacy of authoritarianism remains.

It’s basic social learning — a distinct culture can and does perpetuate behaviors learned several generations back. When trainers teach newbs authoritarian tactics, the newbs don’t know they can and should contradict this. And so it persists.

And authoritarians have zero interest in voluntary cooperation or the respect of the public. The only respect they understand or want is fear. (Go review your Bob Altemeyer on this one. It’s classic authoritarianism and perpetuation of dominance.)

Principle 4: The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.

Short version: you can’t make people cooperate better by beating & shooting them. (Subtext: so stop trying.)

American policing has been based on the exercise of force from establishment. The phrase “the third degree” comes from New York City policing in the 1880s, and specifically referred to torture as a means of securing confessions. Nor was this rare. Mall cops are incredibly organized and professional compared to late 19th and early 20th century US policing. Literally, the evidence for most convictions were coerced (beatings) confessions.

Aside: the Reid technique, the infamously bad interrogation technique using leading questions, was considered a vast improvement over the third degree. Reid used sleeplessness, repetition, and lies to get confessions instead of clubs and whips. Reid dates from the late 1940s.

Principle 5: Police seek and preserve public favor not by catering to the public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.

This principle means no special treatment, at all. It is the antithesis of qualified immunity.

In US policing, this is most usually seen in the absence. We saw a very rare demonstration of this principle in the Chauvin trial, when 10 officers testified. Under Peelian Principles, it should be the norm for police officers to testify against their own, and to arrest their own. It should not be surprising. The Thin Blue Line is an absolute violation of Principle 5. As is the internal cultural antipathy to Internal Affairs.
The mere existence of Internal Affairs is a special privilege for police. IA exists to remove officer accountability from the community legal system and sequester it inside an extralegal system, rather than within the community legal system. It’s a privilege they built to to protect themselves, and yet they still resent it. In functional policing governed by Peelian Principles, internal investigations would be limited or not exist, because a complaint sworn against an officer would proceed like any other criminal complaint. There would be no special treatment of criminal behavior based on job.

Principle 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.

This is probably the biggest difference from US police. Early Metropolitan police were not armed. They carried a large noisy rattle, usually a whistle, and a baton. Their uniforms were designed with both visibility — they were blue to distinguish them from military red — and defense in mind. The early uniforms had a high collar to prevent strangulation and their top hats (before the cork helmets) were specifically reinforced to be used as a step-stool. And that was it. They were not armed with guns. To be allowed to carry a gun meant impressing the hell out of the leadership, and it was always a privilege.

For this generation of American police, the idea of only using force when everything else has failed is completely foreign. For the past twenty years or so, police have been trained — both in training and by the courts — to believe that anything is permissible as long as they live to clock out.

We don’t even train front line soldiers like that. Soldiers have a specific set of allowable actions called the Geneva Conventions that specifically restrain their behavior — to protect themselves and others. Not just from their opponents, but from their own minds. Being given even tacit permission to cause unrestricted harm is psychologically damaging. It builds paranoia into every interaction. It teaches the officer that all people are a threat, to prioritize only their own survival, how to destroy everyone around them.

You don’t have to be a shrink to see how damaging that mindset becomes. It doesn’t even have to be a conscious ideation, if it is reinforced in tacit ways. It’s really not surprising that most US police officers display some level of PTSD. Their training and culture create it.

Guns were not illegal in the UK during the Metro’s first *century*. Handguns were not banned until 1996 (after a school shooting) [see? It really isn’t THAT difficult.]. Rifles and shotguns are still legal, but require a permit and regular training. And yet: most Metropolitan police officers have never been armed.

Sidebar: I note here that American access to guns is currently at an all time high. They are cheaper as a percentage of income and more available, and yet, only 22% of individuals own any gun, while a mere 3% of Americans own more than half of all the guns in the US. This is primarily economic. The median annual wage for a US worker in 1902 was between $200 and $400 a year, depending on part of the country. There was no income tax or sales tax yet, but 10 hour days, 6 days a week was not uncommon. The 40 hour work week had not yet been mandated by law.

Still, let’s be generous. $400 a year, 50 weeks a year, 50 hours a week. That’s 16 cents an hour. And a Sears catalog revolver that 80% wouldn’t blow up in your hand cost about $3. That’s 19 hours of labor to buy just the gun. (Better pistols cost $7-$18). Ammunition was another 3-5 hours.

Today, a brand new, low end 9mm handgun is $199 US. The US median hourly wage is $20/hour. 10 hours to buy that gun, and today’s low end is WAY less likely to explode on you. And we have credit, which wasn’t available in any meaningful way in 1902.

Buying a Sears gun in 1902 just meant waiting for it to be mailed to you*; it had no other restrictions. (Though buying local probably cost more and storekeepers were more than happy to discriminate against people who weren’t white and male.) *Turns out, waiting IS NOT an infringement on the 2nd amendment

The UK in the same time period was a healthier economy. (The US was going through boom and bust cycles every 3-5 years) Their prices of guns were about the same; after 1870, they did require a license to carry beyond one’s own property, which cost the rough equivalent of £35 (2 hours’ labor) today. That license wasn’t for crime control; it was to raise revenue. Anyone could get a license at the post office. There was a half-hearted attempt to regulate pistols in 1903, and a somewhat more robust attempt after WWI, but effective regulation waited until 1968.

And for all of those years, from 1829 to 1968, most UK police officers were not armed. Very few of them died in the line of duty. The UK population was half the size of the US in 1900; it is now 1/5th. And they have had fewer than 5 officers die on duty per year since 1900. (That includes a lot of officers having heart attacks while chasing suspects, failing to look both ways before crossing streets/rails, infections before antibiotics, and falling through a roof.)

More than half of US police who die in the line actually die because of cars — stepping into traffic & collisions. Anyone who drives for a living is at higher risk of dying on the job. (One way to make policing safer? Turn traffic enforcement over to cameras and automated systems, and put cops back on the beat. Get them out of cars and back to walking/biking in neighborhoods. Cars and the roads they use? Very deadly.)

Are the British significantly more peaceful? No. [off-camera: peals of laughter, snorts, and giggles.] Their police are better trained, with more rules & consequences to guide their behavior; their code of ethics requires them to de-escalate first. And their cops were never intended to enforce slavery. That cultural difference has been there from day one. 

Principle 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 on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

If any single one of the Principles matters more than the others, it’s this one. The police are the public, and the public are the police. Nobody is a civilian* because nobody is a soldier. We’re all citizens of the same place. This is why for the first century and a few, Metro police lived in the neighborhoods they patrolled. Why they ate in the same tea shops as their neighbors, used the same laundries and cobblers and waste haulers. Shared the same pumps and cholera. Because the police are the public.

*Any cop who uses that terminology is a dangerous cop

It’s very easy for the police of Brooklyn Center or Ferguson to treat the towns they patrol like enemy territory to be subdued. They don’t live there. They aren’t part of the community. They are mercenaries, hired by an elite minority to shake down fines & taxes to pay off old municipal debt.

If we shall keep having police, 7 is the first principle I’d implement. Police must be invested in the people and places they police. Living in their beat needs to be a condition of employment. No more white flight mercenaries. If a cop won’t live where they work, they shouldn’t work there.

Principle 8: Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.

Police do not interpret the law. That’s the judiciary. They do not make the law. That is the legislature. They are not executioners. Their job is to maintain peace and order, with the minimum force and coercion needed. It is reasonable to pull someone out of a fight and get them cooled down. It is not reasonable to kill someone because they’re in a fight. 12 % of stab wounds are fatal, vs 70% of gunshot wounds. 

Shooting people is an over-reaction, and it oversteps the boundary into usurpation of the judicial system. This is one of the simplest of the Principles — it’s not the cop’s job to deal in life and death.

But more importantly: any life in custody is their absolute responsibility. Just as in parental custody, when a person is arrested, detained or incarcerated, the state has suspended their fundamental civil rights for a time. The state, and the agents of the state, are therefore responsible for preserving the life and assets of the person detained.

If a public officer damages a member of the public, they’ve made two discrete violations of law — they have violated the laws against harming others, and they have violated the public trust they’ve been granted. An officer causing harm is a WORSE crime. It’s like the principle of mandatory reporters — a teacher who abuses a child has not only abused the child, they’ve failed to fulfill their legal responsibility to report abuse of the child. Qualified immunity violates this principle of citizen public service.

Except the US system of policing was based on the ownership of human lives, and that culture of arrogance has persisted. Slave patrols were always about property, not human rights, and no sense of responsibility was ever taken towards their captives.

Principle 9: The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.

Shorter: Showing the colors is mobster mentality, not public service.

Did you know that violent crime has been dropping steadily since the 1970s? Did you know property crime is down, too? Did you know that police budgets have expanded exponentially since the 1970s? No, the cops are not busier than they were in 1971. 

Their clearance rates are down, but then again, forensics have improved so it’s harder to skew evidence towards a preconception. Even with more arrests per capita, they’re solving fewer crimes, and sending fewer to trial.

This is also known as stepping on their own dicks.

We have too many police, and not enough of everyone else. We need social workers to help navigate a social safety net we need to build. We need residential rehabs for both substance abuse and mental health. We need to support parents, not take fathers away; support schools, not police them. We need traffic cameras for infractions, and to rebuild an entire driving culture around obeying the signs. We don’t need cops in speed traps or making probable cause stops because they have perception issues. We need to make irrelevant their inability to distinguish skunk from weed.

The test of efficacy is the absence of crime and disorder. The United States is the most peaceful and most orderly it has been since foundation. It is not because we have more police. It’s because, even as stingy and bigoted as we are, we have reduced the factors that drive crime.

We do not put milligrams of lead into every child, every year, by burning gasoline. We have reduced dramatically the numbers of unwanted, neglected children. We have reduced the number of people in desperate need of basic shelter, food, warmth and medication. Bringing all of those to zero is relatively simple, and costs less than the F35. A cop salary is 1.5 social workers/mental health workers salaries. We can fund homeless reduction programs by reducing SWAT and military hardware to 1-2 per metro. We have the money; we’re just wasting it.

I write this having seen the 3rd most likely grocery store I usually visited shot up 4 weeks ago. By a young adult without mental health support, who had access to a weapon of war. That store may never re-open, and my community lost way more than just a store. I sat there, watching news coverage, identifying every vehicle and agency involved.

My metro area police have learned something from the 14 mass shootings we’ve had since Columbine. They may not train together for much, but they do train for mass shooters.

Did having 6 Bearcats and 65 black and whites on site help? No, not really. What likely ultimately brought out that shooter alive? De-escalation. Talking. Listening. Thinking before acting. And the true bravery of risking one’s own life to see justice done.

But… that guy was showing paranoia and lack of control years ago. He never should have been permitted to buy that gun. What if someone had told his parents, “hey, this could be schizophrenia, or something similar. Let’s work on medication and therapy while we can.” What if?

A cop can’t do that. Not even an old school, Robert Peel Metropolitan. They shouldn’t be asked to be the social worker of first and last resort. Not without serious education and training. Which they don’t get. They only learn to use hammers, so they pound everyone.

In conclusion: The principles have been through long-term testing. They’re a solid mission statement, a philosophy that values everyone. They’re not proof against racism, and they don’t prevent PTSD or creeping authoritarianism, but they’re a set of guard rails.

And American police have never had anything like appropriate guard rails. In child-rearing terms, they’re the kids whose parents have never set bedtimes or mealtimes or enforced behavioral standards, and have just handed them money/toys to make them go be loud elsewhere. Those kids do not grow up with good boundaries or self control. Institutions that don’t have consequences also lack boundaries and self control! In parenting, we call this a form of neglect. In policing, we call it Tuesday. It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be.

Humans are social; we need to control and be controlled in balance. Police seek more control because they have so very little social control imposed upon them. As a society, we’re not meeting their need for control, so they flail more. We’re not being their watchmen.

We’ve spent decades giving them more money, more leeway, more immunity… and they are not improving. They’re getting more violent, more angry, more psychologically damaged. They’re leaving more broken families behind them. It’s time to stop enabling this.

Addendum: Yes, the Metropolitan Police have a union. But because they also have a national standard code that predates that sector of their labor movement, and because it’s a national code, it’s nowhere near the US level of coercion levied at the citizen government and population. The fact that US cities have agreed to these ever more extreme and costly union contracts is strange, and should be investigated, and the other unions should not support the police unions. Because the police unions will bust anyone’s head, even if they are union. Part of the reason the US police unions can negotiate such extreme contracts is by playing municipalities off each other. They will convince the city council that retaining officers and getting new hires will be impossible without more concessions.

THIS IS A LIE. People take jobs in places for many reasons, and an extreme union contract is often not even high on the list of reasons why someone wants to live an work in any given place. Schools, housing and parks matter more.

References:

Open University History From Police Archives

Official History of the Metropolitan Police 

The Great British Bobby 

Legal London 

Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre  

A Certain Share of Low Cunning: A History of the Bow Street Runners  

American policing and slave patrols

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