Painful Truth: Modern police newer than we think

Get in your time machine and go back two centuries. No police force.

One of the most difficult things human society can do is change.

Something almost as difficult? Remembering how much we have changed.

For example, how old do you think the institution of a police force is in the British Commonwealth?

We live in a country where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is among our most iconic symbols. It’s almost impossible to imagine Canada, or any country, without police.

But how old is policing, in the English-speaking world? Less than two hundred years, in any kind of formal system we’d recognize.

The London Metropolitan Police, a.k.a. Scotland Yard, was formed in 1829. To give you an idea of how crime-ridden London was at the time, on some foot patrols, the early bobbies went in pairs and armed with cutlasses.

Before the Met, the closest thing London had to a professional police force were the Bow Street Runners, formed in 1749.

Formed by novelist (and magistrate) Henry Fielding, he pulled together a small number of men to act as the arm of the court, capturing suspected offenders to bring them to trial.

But the Runners seldom or never went on patrol; they were closer to a kind of government-funded bounty hunters, or like the modern U.S. Marshall’s Service, with its focus on seizing fugitives.

Before the runners were founded, there were parish constables – part time, poorly paid, and with no training or regular patrols – and night watchmen, who were often elderly, drunk, bribable, or all three.

So who was responsible for catching criminals and bringing them to justice before there was a real police force?

You were.

Let’s say someone stole a valuable piece of lacework from your home. (No one had smart phones or PS4s yet, lace was expensive and portable.)

If you saw the crime being committed, you could raise a “hue and cry” and everyone who heard you yelling “Thief!” was legally obligated to try and catch the criminal. You can guess how well this worked in a city the size of London.

You could go around yourself and question people and try to track down the thief. And if you found him or her, to drag them in front of a magistrate for judgment.

Or you could place an advertisement in one of the many newspapers that from the late 1600s were read across London. A considerable number of thieves made their livings by claiming to have “found” valuables and returning them for a reward.

Or you could engage a thief taker.

Thief takers were, ostensibly, crime fighters who would return stolen property or catch criminals.

In practice, they were often fences and gang leaders. The most powerful and lauded thief taker of the early 1700s, Jonathan Wild, was the leader of a massive criminal enterprise. He’d organize the original theft, return the property for the reward, and if one of his thieves vexed him, turn the man over to the authorities and watch him hang. And collect the reward for turning in a dangerous criminal, to boot.

Wild’s scheme collapsed after several years and he found himself dangling at the end of a rope.

Scandals like these led to creation of the Bow Street Runners, and the idea that maybe paying law enforcement officers directly would help avoid corruption. But every reform and the slow inching towards something like modern policing was resisted every step of the way.

Less than 200 years ago, the conservative viewpoint was that policing was anathema to any English-speaking society. The broad view was that police were a form of tyranny, seen only in absolutist empires like Louis XIV’s France. Britain was different, it was thought. Its people would never stomach a police force watching their every move.

This led to some of the distinctive features we associate with modern policing – the blue uniforms (not the red of British Army jackets) the nightstick (rather than being armed with guns) and the emphasis on civilian control.

What we think of as simply “how police are” evolved from a time when some kind of policing was needed, but when public opinion was skeptical of the very idea of police.

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