Police Protection—Hopes and Fears
MANY people in early 19th-century England resisted proposals for a professional, uniformed police force. They feared that an armed force in the hands of the central government might threaten their freedom. Some were afraid that they would end up with a system of police spies similar to the French under Joseph Fouché. Nevertheless, they were forced to ask themselves, ‘What will we do without a police force?’
London had become the biggest and richest city in the world; crime was rising and threatening business. Neither the volunteer night watchmen nor the professional thieftakers, the privately funded Bow Street Runners, were up to the task of protecting people and their property. Says Clive Emsley in his book The English Police: A Political and Social History: “More and more, crime and disorder were regarded as things which should not exist in civilised society.” So Londoners hoped for the best and decided on a professional police force under the direction of Sir Robert Peel.* In September 1829, uniformed constables of the Metropolitan Police began patrolling their beats.
From the beginning of their modern history, the subject of police has raised issues of hope and fear—the hope that they would provide security and the fear that they might abuse their power.
American Cops Get Started
In the United States, New York City was the first to have a professional police force. As the city’s wealth increased, so did its crime. By the 1830’s, every family could read the lurid stories about crime that were printed in the newly published cheap newspapers—the penny press. Public outcry grew, and New York got its police force in 1845. New Yorkers and Londoners have been fascinated by each other’s police ever since.
Americans shared the Englishmen’s fear of an armed force in the hands of the government. But the two nations came up with different solutions. The English opted for a top-hatted force of gentlemen police, uniformed in dark blue. They were armed with only a short concealed truncheon. To this day British bobbies still do not carry guns except in emergency situations. However, as one report states, “there is a growing air of inevitability . . . that the British police will become a fully armed force in a matter of time.”
In the United States, however, the fear that governmental power might be abused led to the adoption of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.” As a result, the police wanted guns. In time, their use of them resulted in street shoot-outs that became characteristic of American cops and robbers, at least in the popular image. Another reason for the American attitude toward carrying guns is that the first police force in the United States was born into a world very different from London’s. New York had become chaotic as its population mushroomed. The influx of thousands of immigrants mainly from Europe and of Afro-Americans after the start of the Civil War of 1861-65 led to racial violence. Police felt that they needed to adopt tougher methods.
Therefore, police were often considered a necessary evil. People were prepared to put up with occasional excesses in hopes of achieving a degree of order and security. In some parts of the world, however, a different kind of police force was emerging.
Early in the 19th century, when modern police forces were starting to develop, most of mankind had been living under the rule of European empires. On the whole, European police were organized to protect the rulers rather than the people. Even the British, who so disliked the idea of armed, military-style police on their own soil, seemed to have had few qualms about using military police to keep the colonies in subjection. Rob Mawby, in his book Policing Across the World, says: “Incidents of police brutality, corruption, violence, murder and abuse of power punctuated almost every decade of colonial police history.” After pointing out that imperial policing also provided some benefits, the same book adds that it caused “the imposition of a global impression of policing as a government force and not a public service.”
Despotic governments in fear of revolutions have nearly always used secret police to spy on their citizens. Such police extract information by torture and eliminate supposed subversives by assassination or by arrest without trial. The Nazis had their Gestapo, the Soviet Union its KGB, and East Germany the Stasi. Amazingly, the Stasi employed 100,000 officers and possibly half a million informers to control a population of some 16 million. Officers listened to telephone conversations around the clock and kept files on a third of the entire population. “Stasi officers knew no limits and had no shame,” says John Koehler in his book Stasi. “Churchmen, including high officials of both Protestant and Catholic denominations, were recruited en masse as secret informers. Their offices and confessionals were infested with eavesdropping devices.”
However, fearsome police are not found exclusively in the realms of despotic governments. Big-city police elsewhere have been accused of causing terror when they adopt an overly aggressive style of law enforcement, especially if they target minorities. Commenting on a well-publicized scandal in Los Angeles, a newsmagazine stated that it had “taken police misconduct to a new level of lawlessness and given currency to a new term: the gangster cop.”
Authorities, therefore, have been asking the question, What can police departments do to improve their image? In an effort to emphasize their public service role, many police forces have tried to stress the community-oriented aspects of their policing.
The Hope of Community Policing
Japan’s traditional style of neighborhood policing has attracted foreign interest. Traditionally, Japanese police work from small district stations operated by perhaps a dozen officers organized into shifts. Says British lecturer in criminology and longtime resident of Japan, Frank Leishman: “The scope of friendly service activity provided by koban officers is legendary: advising on addresses in Japan’s largely unnamed streets; lending out unclaimed found umbrellas to commuters caught in showers; ensuring drunken sararimen get the last train home; and counselling on ‘citizen’s troubles.’” Neighborhood-based police have been a factor in giving Japan the enviable reputation of having streets that are safe to walk.
Could this type of policing be effective elsewhere? Some who study crime began to see a lesson in it. Modern advances in communications have tended to distance police from the people whom they serve. In many cities today, police work often seems to consist mainly of reacting to emergencies. It sometimes appears that the original emphasis on crime prevention has been lost. In reaction to this tendency, neighborhood watch has once again become popular.
“This really works; it reduces crime,” says Dewi, a police constable, about his work in Wales. “Neighborhood watch means getting people to look out for one another’s security. We organize meetings so that neighbors can get to know one another, exchange names and phone numbers, and hear about how to prevent crime. I enjoy the project because it introduces community feeling into neighborhoods again. Often, people don’t even know who their neighbors are. The scheme works because it increases people’s awareness.” It also improves relations between the police and the public.
Another initiative has been to encourage police to be more compassionate toward victims. The eminent Dutch victimologist Jan van Dijk wrote: “Police officers must be taught that their deskside manners are as important to victims as bedside manners of doctors are to patients.” In many places police still don’t treat domestic violence and rape as real crimes. But Rob Mawby says: “The police approach to domestic violence and rape has improved markedly in recent years. Nevertheless, there is still room for considerable improvement.” Police abuse of power is another area where nearly every force could improve.
The Fear of Police Corruption
The assumption of feeling protected by police sometimes seems naive, especially when news of police corruption circulates. Such reports have been around since the beginning of police history. Referring to the year 1855, the book NYPD—A City and Its Police described “the impression of many New Yorkers that the thugs and the police were becoming difficult to distinguish.” The book Faces of Latin America, by Duncan Green, reports that police forces there “are widely believed to be riddled with corruption, incompetent, and abusers of human rights.” The chief personnel officer of a 14,000-strong Latin-American police force said: “What can you expect when a policeman earns less than [$100] a month? If he is offered a bribe, what will he do?”
How big a problem is corruption? The answer depends on whom you ask. A North American cop who for years patrolled a city with a population of 100,000 answers: “Certainly there is a percentage of crooked cops out there, but the greater part of the officers are sincere. That’s certainly how I’ve seen it.” On the other hand, a crime investigator with 26 years’ experience in another country replies: “I consider corruption to be almost universal. Honesty among police is very rare. If a policeman searches a burgled house and finds money, he will probably take it. If he recovers stolen valuables, he will keep part of them for himself.” Why do some policemen become corrupt?
Some start out with high principles but then succumb to the influence of corrupt colleagues and the debased standards of the criminal world with which they are involved. The book What Cops Know quotes a Chicago patrolman as saying: “With the police officers, with their experience of evil, there’s an immediacy. They stand in it. They touch it . . . they taste it . . . they smell it . . . they hear it . . . they have to handle it.” Contact with such depravity can easily have a negative effect.
Although police provide an invaluable service, it is far from ideal. Can we hope for anything better?
British police became known as bobbies based on the name of their founder, Sir Robert (Bobby) Peel.
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“Aren’t British Bobbies Wonderful?”
The British were among the first who could afford the luxury of a professional police force. They wanted their society to be well organized—like their efficient stagecoach system that ran so punctually. In 1829 the Home Secretary, Sir Robert (Bobby) Peel, persuaded Parliament to approve the London Metropolitan Police, with headquarters in Scotland Yard. Unpopular at first for cracking down on drunkenness and street gambling, in time, bobbies became the people’s favorites.
In 1851, London proudly invited the world to come to the Great Exhibition and admire the achievements of British industry. Guests were amazed by the orderly streets and the absence of drunks, prostitutes, and vagrants. Efficient policemen directed crowds, lifted visitors’ baggage for them, helped people to cross the road, and even carried elderly ladies to a cab. No wonder that British people as well as foreign visitors were heard to say, “Aren’t British bobbies wonderful?”
They seemed so effective in crime prevention that the chief constable of Chester in 1873 imagined a time when professional crime would be practically eliminated! Police also began organizing ambulance and fire-fighting services. They arranged charities that provided shoes and clothing for the poor. Some organized clubs for boys, excursions, and holiday homes.
Of course, the new police also had their disciplinary problems with corruption and brutality. But most took pride in keeping order with minimum force. In 1853, police in Wigan, Lancashire, had to confront a riot of striking miners. The courageous sergeant, in charge of just ten men, steadily refused to use the mine owner’s firearms. Illustrative of the spirit that developed is a letter received by Hector Macleod in 1886, when he followed his father into the police profession. As quoted in The English Police, it said: “Being harsh, you lose public sympathy . . . I put the public first because you are the community’s servant, among whom you are placed for the time being, and it is your duty to please them as well as your commanding officer.”
Hayden, a retired inspector of the Metropolitan Police, says: “We were taught always to act with restraint because successful policing needs the community’s support. Our short wooden truncheon was an absolute last resort that most officers wouldn’t use in their entire career.” Also contributing to the positive image of the British bobby was a popular TV series that ran for 21 years about an honest constable who knew everyone on his beat, Dixon of Dock Green. It probably encouraged police to live up to that image, but certainly it encouraged Britain’s love affair with the police.
Attitudes in Britain changed in the 1960’s, and the tradition of national pride gave way to a tradition of questioning authority. Reports of corruption and racism in the ranks tarnished the image of police in the 1970’s, despite their efforts to gain public support with the neighborhood watch scheme. More recently, after several accusations of racism and of fabricating evidence to achieve convictions, police have made further, genuine efforts to improve.
Photograph above: http://www.constabulary.com
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A Miracle in New York?
When police make special efforts, the results can be remarkable. New York was long considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous cities, and by the late 1980’s, it seemed that the demoralized police force had lost control. Economic pressure forced the city government to freeze wages and cut back on police manpower. Drug dealers moved in and with them a horrific wave of violence. Inner-city residents went to bed to the sound of gunfire. There were major race riots in 1991, and the police themselves staged a noisy protest to air their grievances.
However, a new police chief took an interest in motivating his officers, meeting regularly with them to analyze strategy, precinct by precinct. James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto in their book NYPD explain: “The chief of detectives or the head of the Narcotics Bureau were people precinct commanders read about in newspapers but rarely met. Now they were all sitting together for hours at a stretch.” Crime figures began to plunge. Murders reportedly dropped progressively from nearly 2,000 in 1993 to 633 in 1998—the lowest in 35 years. New Yorkers had begun talking about a miracle. The decline in reported crime during the past eight years has been 64 percent.
How was this improvement accomplished? The New York Times of January 1, 2002, suggested that one key to success was Compstat, “a crime-tracking system that involves examining precinct-by-precinct statistics every week to catch and respond to problems as soon as they crop up.” Former police commissioner Bernard Kerik stated: “We looked at where the crime was happening, why it was happening and then we redeployed troops [police] and resources to make sure that those areas were focused on. That’s how you reduce crime.”
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A typical Japanese police station
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Traffic police in Hong Kong
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Crowd control at an English soccer match
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Police duties include assisting accident victims