A Short History of Policing

As a result of the ongoing civil unrest in the United States, brought about by the consistent and repeated police brutality on flagrant display in the past few weeks, the Overton window has shifted dramatically and now we have police abolition being discussed seriously by those in power. Places like Minnesota- the city at the heart of the recent reaction against police violence following the murder of George Floyd- recently unanimously voted to replace their police service with a community led model. The project is currently in the early phases, the motion giving a year to research and engage with the community to develop the idea. With the suddenly very real possibility that we might- perhaps sooner than expected- be witnessing the belated end of a particularly grim and militaristic chapter in policing, I thought it worthwhile to give an account of the history of policing.

Let’s take a look at where the institutions of policing and legalism originated from. Strangely, these are two separate histories; the oldest known codified legal code being the Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu originated around 2100 BC, while the earliest recorded instance of what could arguably be called a police force did not develop until around a thousand years later, in ancient China as part of the prefecture system. So what happened in the time between inventing a legal system and a police force? Laws were enforced, often brutally, by whatever petty king ruled over you at that time and because of this the legal tradition of early civilisation matched the barked orders a king would give in his court. As a result, most of the laws in the Code of Ur-Nammu would be more at home in the old testament than in the high court; crimes like theft and murder are swiftly dealt with via execution; punishments are dealt out for adultery and sorcery, and finally a good chunk is devoted to when and when it’s not okay to sow another man’s field. These laws would not have been enforced by anything like police, instead the king would enforce them by right of having a local monopoly on violence, with weaker warlords agreeing to enforce them in their own lands as part of working for their king, and the priest caste making themselves useful by dealing with the complex issues of divorce and witchcraft. 

While this might sound like an ideal system, as these kingdoms grew in size, and the king was no longer able to personally hand out justice on the end of a spear, these warlords began to employ other men with spears to make sure their laws were enforced further and further from the capital. In Egypt the policing had a very militaristic structure. Policing often involved enforcing borders, protecting caravans and suppressing slaves. Not exactly dealing out justice for the common man but more so keeping the increasingly complex economy running. The guards of temples however would go on to take an increasingly more civil role; instead of just being men with spears that reported to the Pharaoh, they would be taken into the religious structure as priests. These guard-priests would be responsible for handling religious law by conducting arrests and acting as judges in the Pharaoh’s name.

In the Jin state of early China, bureaucrats would appoint prefects to investigate crimes and enforce the law in their jurisdiction, this is where things start to look a bit more recognisable as a precursor to the modern police force. Prefects were appointed by the state, reported to the local magistrate, had limited authority and served until dismissed, obligations which differentiate them significantly from the warlord-enforcers of earlier periods.

Much like in Egypt, where the early judges would get their authority from the Pharaoh, these prefects drew their legal power from the Emperor, who had appointed the governor, who had appointed the bureaucrats, who had appointed the prefect. It was this trickle down of authority that defined early policing. But what if your society didn’t have a king?

Both Rome and Athens decided they didn’t like kings, and politely yet firmly asked their kings to leave the city. This however left the people of these cities with a conundrum: all legal authority was handed down by a king, so what do we do now without one? Well, in deciding new laws Rome invented the senate, originally made up of the aristocratic families that had done the firm but polite asking earlier, who took on the responsibility of making new laws. In Athens, they decided that anyone could propose a new law and everyone would get to vote on it, and by everyone I mean adult men, who weren’t slaves, or women and weren’t considered metic (someone who’s family had lived in Athens for multiple generations but weren’t quiet Athenian enough to have a vote). 

Now that the boring legal stuff was decided, who would do the policing? Both cities had experimented with a police force but these had quickly devolved into gangs, loyal to whoever paid them. This wasn’t so much of an issue when the king was the one doing the paying- everyone was already meant to be loyal to him. Instead, whoever was willing to put up the money could have roving gangs meting out “justice” in the city. People quickly decided this was a bad idea. So what did they do? Athens came up with the interesting, and incredibly amoral idea of purchasing 300 slaves that were collectively owned by the Athenian state. These men would be responsible for arrests and guarding important events, as well as preventing riots. The investigation part of police work however fell to the average citizen, if you wanted to take someone to court over something you had to prove it yourself. 

Rome went a different path. After overthrowing their last king, Roman culture underwent a bit of an obsession with legalism; where other cultures would brag about their kings, or in the case of Athens define themselves by democracy, the Romans decided they were the superior culture due to their rule of law. Legal ceremonies took on almost religious significance, and in a few instances like designating the legal boundary of the city, actual religious significance. Lawyers like Cicero would go on to become celebrities and statesmen. So how did this city obsesses with law decide to form its police force? Well, it didn’t. The laws inside Rome weren’t enforced by any separate group of privileged nobles or state owned slaves, but instead every citizen made sure the rule of law was upheld. This sounds like a system doomed to fail, and it eventually did, after a few hundred years. Eventually, the Roman republic gave way to the Roman empire, and Augustus established the Vigiles, a mix of police, firefighter and town watch, bringing with them the end of Rome’s experiment with legalism without a police force. 

Now that we’ve taken a look at the early history of policing and legalism let’s move on to take a look at the institutions in the UK that gave rise to modern policing. 

After the Act of Union, Glasgow had started to grow rich by being the main link to the Americas: sugar, cotton and about half the empire’s tobacco flowed through the city. With all this wealth going about, things started to go missing- a crate here, a box there. Eventually the leakage brought about the attention of the Tobacco lords. In the late 1770s the city of Glasgow had been experimenting with its own police force, and in 1800 the Glasgow Police act was officially passed by the government, establishing the City of Glasgow Police. While it began small, only 8 officers assembling for the first time at the Trongate on a cold November’s day, this group would go on to set the mould for what modern policing would become. The philosophy of this group of men was different than what had come before; rather than just react to crime like town guards had done in the past, the new name of the game wasn’t simply to catch criminals, but to actively prevent crime. Another important tenet was non-lethality, which saw these men armed with a lantern and a long stick as opposed to a pistol or sword. If things got rough the idea was people left with bruises not bullet wounds. Finally each officer was given a badge with a numbered ID, a distinctive uniform and a 24 hour rotating rota. 

The success of the Glasgow model would not go unnoticed by the rest of the Empire. Soon other towns in Scotland had adopted a similar force to patrol 24 hours a day, and by 1822 Ireland would go onto found its own police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary. 

London was having similar troubles to Glasgow in the late 1790s, a bustling port with no one to watch over it resulting in a leakage of stock. The merchants of the capital were fuming, and decided to form groups like the Thames River Police. Much like in Glasgow these proved incredibly successful in protecting shipping cargo, however this was not to last. Soon, London was in the thrall of the industrial revolution, and the city, which was already massive, began to expand even faster as people from the countryside migrated for work. Robert Peel, home secretary at that time decided now was the time to reform all the volunteer and private police forces into something modern and capable of maintaining order in the city. Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1829 and this force would take on a lot of what had made the Glasgow City Police a success, there was a focus on visibility to deter crime, and because of the cities distaste for the French Model, which was heavily militarised, the Met had a big focus on being civilians policing civilians. This model eventually spread throughout the empire and commonwealth, influencing policing across the world, from Hong Kong to Delhi to Vancouver. 

Across the pond in America, however, policing grew out of a different tradition. The early colonies had a police force that was organised around elected officials called sheriffs, who would then raise a volunteer militia from within the community to police the community. This all sounds rather idyllic- democratic accountability, community focused recruitment- so what went wrong? Well, the modern American police force is not descended from this volunteer group. Instead the men that would be the foundation for policing in America were slave catchers. Places like Carolina heavily depended on slavery to maintain their economy and out of fear of a slave rebellion the men of wealth created groups like the Charleston Guard and Watch. Salaried professional police that had a distinctive uniform, these figures laid the foundation of police work in America. These men were given a strict chain of command, sole authority for policing in their jurisdiction and given the right to use force as they deemed fit. They also took on the lessons from the UK about preventative policing, but with a focus on preventing slave uprisings rather than petty crime. Their role was more similar to the ancient’s way of executing authority and population control rather than anything worth praising. 

Looking at the history of policing it seems its historic role is at odds with how we imagine the role of policing today. Instead of being about protecting people the ancients, like in Egypt, used policing as a method of population control and a way of exerting central authority into places the Pharaohs could not reach themselves. Further we can see that the idea of legalism hasn’t always been married to a police force, in both Athens and Rome the existence of a police force was seen not only as unneeded to enforce law and order but also as anathema to democracy. In modern policing’s foundation we also see a divorce from the ideal that policing is about protecting and serving the public. Instead these early forces were formed by the wealthy classes to stop their property going missing, and in the case of America, that property was sometimes people. Next time we’ll take a look at how a modern society could function without a police force.