Jonathan Salem Baskin

Just Facts

Today, policing became a public institution.

The original word means the state or citizen in both Latin and Greek, even though the function of policing didn’t exist then. Throughout most of history, various prefects, magistrates, sheriffs, reeves, and other governmental functionaries had responsibility for collecting taxes and noting illegal behavior, but order was maintained by individuals…or by groups that organized for the purposes of doing things like protecting the wealthy from crime, or chasing escaped slaves. This outsourced (and economic class-biased) approach to implementing the law continued well into the European Enlightenment, with the brotherhoods of peacekeepers called hermamdades, or the various Dutch watches (such as the Night Watch immortalized in Rembrandt’s painting). The French came up with a vast network of commissaires in the early 1700s, but their job, too, was to enforce the King’s control of his kingdom.

The idea of police as a continuing institution for the protection of the public only emerged on the Continent after Napoleon, and not until well into the 1800s for much of the United States (with the exception of Philadelphia). On this day in 1829, the UK got its first “modern” police force with the Metropolitan Police Act, which replaced the loose network of parish constables and watchmen with full-time officers, affectionately named bobbies, or peelers, after the law’s originator, Sir Robert Peel. Just who they worked for was a bit complicated: tasked with keeping order in deference to “the Queen’s Peace,” the very concept of a standing body that applied the law equally to all citizens (and not pursued the interests of a monarch or commercial body) was novel.

I guess The People needed their own people to defend their interests.