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19 Pages

POLICING AND THE POLICE

Policing denotes a wide range of regulatory practices that serve to monitor social behaviour and ensure conformity with laws and normative codes. Policing can be informal as well as formally organised, and can involve a wide range of social actors and institutions. The police, in contrast, comprise a formally organised institutional apparatus that is charged with upholding laws on behalf of society and is ultimately directed by and accountable to the state. Thus the police are but one of the many agencies that undertake policing across various walks of life. The history of policing in modern times is largely one of the formalisation and centralisation of law enforcement, a process in which policing functions have been gradually monopolised by specialised and professional crime-control agencies. The origin of the modern police force in England and Wales is

usually located in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Before this period policing was undertaken by a ‘patchwork’ of local agencies and individuals, including watchmen, part-time parish constables and private ‘thief-takers’ who would recover property or apprehend wanted felons for financial reward. The early 1800s saw attempts to reorganise policing in London, creating parish-based groups of constables whose activities were regulated by a body of magistrates, and whose work was funded in part by the government (this arrangement was based upon the model of the so-called ‘Bow Street Runners’ which had been established by Henry and John Fielding in the mid-eighteenth century). The watershed year of 1829 saw the creation of the Metropolitan Police Force by the then home secretary Robert Peel. This marked a significant step in the organisation of public policing as well as instituting a system of accountability and centralised control. Over the next few decades, the Metropolitan force set the template for the development of mandatory county-based forces across England and Wales. These forces were funded by a combination of local revenues and central monies from the treasury, and were subject to performance monitoring by government inspectors who would report annually to Parliament. The period from the 1850s to the early decades of the twentieth century was also characterised by an incremental professionalisation of the police, with its officers becoming full-time paid public employees and the development of standardised methods of recruitment, training and supervision. The emergence of modern policing has been explained in a

number of different ways. The conventional (so-called ‘Whig’) his-

tories of crime control view these developments as a rational and progressive response to a range of problems including the inefficiency of the ‘patchwork’ system, the high levels of corruption amongst constables and other law-enforcers, the lack of proper accountability, and the inability of the old system to cope with a rising tide of crime in London and the other rapidly expanding cities. However, more critical (so-called ‘revisionist’) historians have located the drive to reorganise policing in more political motivations. The period in question was a time of significant social upheaval and conflict, with a growing and impoverished industrial working class rebelling against exploitative working conditions, grinding poverty and their exclusion from political participation. This manifested itself in numerous strikes, protests and ‘riots’ that were viewed by those in power as a threat to the existing social, economic and political order. The development of the ‘new police’ can thus be seen as an attempt to more effectively suppress revolutionary movements that would inevitably have threatened the power and privilege of a small and highly privileged ruling class. It is certainly true that the Metropolitan and other newly established forces were frequently used in a military manner (sometimes alongside the army) to suppress political protest, to break strikes, and to tighten control over the working classes. This politicised use of the police remains controversial to this day, with for example the use of the police to suppress the miners’ strike by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. More broadly, it has been argued that the police do not in fact

have a single clearly defined public role. Initial claims to justify the development of centralised policing focused upon the goal of crime prevention through patrolling and visible deterrence. However, it is a matter of considerable doubt as to whether and to what extent the police are able to effectively prevent crime, as opposed to reacting to it after it has occurred. A second supposed role of the police is to investigate crimes and bring offenders to justice. Again, given the very small proportion of crimes that result in arrests and convictions, the ability of the police to discharge this responsibility has been questioned. It has been suggested that the police are caught between the goals of prevention and response. For example, the 1960s saw aconcerted move away from foot patrols towards rapid reaction to crime incidents using patrol cars. While this was deemed to create a greater efficiency in use of police personnel, it has also been criticised for removing police from the community and undermining visible deterrence, resulting in renewed calls for a return to ‘bobbies on the beat’.