Police Ethics in 1829

Sir Robert Peel is widely credited with the creation of modern policing. As the British Home Secretary, Peel passed the Metropolitan Police Act (MPA) of 1829, which created the first cohesive police force for London’s metropolitan area.

The Act was intended to diminish crime in this rapidly growing, urban city. But the effort to create a police force was a delicate one, which had to be careful of public opinion. As the U.K.’s National Archives explains:

The government was anxious to avoid any suggestion that the police was a military force, so they were not armed. Nor was their uniform anything like military uniform.

Every new police officer was issued “General Instructions,” outlining the ethical expectations of their post. These “Peelian Principals,” which may not have been developed by Peel himself, were as follows:

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  7. 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.
  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
  9. 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.

To be fair, there will still issues with this inaugural police force. As the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection describes, “there was a high turnover of men, with many dismissals and resignations. Dishonesty, indiscipline, drunkenness were not tolerated.”

Which is to say, police officers were constantly being fired for being drunk, dishonest, or undisciplined.

So things were not perfect.

But in the nearly 100 years since these guidelines were published, I’d like to think we’ve advanced a little as a society. Improved ourselves and our methods. Built upon what seems like a good foundation to find even better solutions and more just approaches.

But clearly we have not.


One thought on “Police Ethics in 1829

  1. Alex H

    This is such an interesting historical perspective. His strong emphasis on police being one of the public and not outside of them is important. I feel like a different sort of person is attracted to the idea of modern policing than the one described above.


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