Law & Order
Imagine a world where everyone did just what they wanted. Sounds good? What if somebody decided to help himself to something of yours? Or if someone felt it was all right to attack you, simply because she had never liked you? Think how confusing—and how thoroughly miserable—life would be.
Every group of people living together needs its own set of rules. The rules by which a country lives are called its laws. Laws have to be enforced by someone in control. There will always be people prepared to break the rules to get what they want, regardless of the harm they may do others. Some may lose their tempers and lash out violently, some may commit armed robberies or steal; others may lie and deceive to cheat people out of their property or money. That is why, in the modern world, we have police forces—to protect people against the actions of the criminals.
We take the idea of a police force for granted now, but the idea of a special force dedicated to upholding law and order is actually quite a recent one.
In ancient times, it was the kings and emperors who took responsibility for upholding the law: in Rome, for instance, the emperor’s own bodyguard, the Praetorian Guard, helped keep order in the city. In the Middle Ages, local lords had to keep order at local level on behalf of the king. They appointed special officers called constables to do the work.
The constables were usually unpaid, respectable citizens who took turns to be on duty, but the task of catching and holding criminals was unpleasant and often even dangerous. No wonder that it became harder and harder to find volunteers. By the 16th century, those appointed constables were often paying deputies to do the work. Since the constables offered as little money as they could, they usually attracted only those who were too old to continue their usual work, or those unable to make a decent living in any other trade. In other words, not the best-qualified people for the job!
A CRIME CRISIS
As a result there were soaring crime-levels. In one way, that seems surprising, since there were terrible punishments—including public floggings (whippings) and hangings for quite minor offences. Yet those who committed crimes knew there was little chance of being caught and brought to justice by those responsible for enforcing the law. Even if they were caught, they knew they stood a good chance of being released if they paid enough in bribes.
THE FIRST POLICE FORCES
Things began to change in the 18th century when the Bow Street Runners were set up in London. They worked from the magistrate’s court in Bow Street, as their name suggests. Young, strong, trustworthy and well organized, they immediately reduced crime in the capital.
The first truly modern police force was set up in 1829 by the British home secretary (later to be prime minister) Sir Robert Peel. London’s police force still bears the name he originally gave it, the Metropolitan Police. They were well disciplined and highly trained, and covered the whole city by patrolling particular routes, called “beats”.
Peel wanted his officers to be seen as servants of the public, not as bullying masters. The uniform he gave them—long, navy-blue coats and tall top hats—made them look more like respectable citizens than soldiers. In time the top hat was replaced by a curved helmet, which protected the wearer’s head. Policemen were armed with short wooden sticks, called “truncheons”, and were ordered to show respect and courtesy to the public at all times.
POLICING THE WORLD
The Metropolitan Police was so successful that it became the model for other forces, first in other parts of Britain and Ireland, and then in other parts of the world under British rule—such as Australia, India and Canada. During the second half of the 19th century, other countries followed its example. Nowadays, most countries have professional police forces organized along broadly similar lines to those of the British police—they face comparable challenges and problems.
THE MODERN POLICE
Today’s police forces have an enormous range of different duties: catching criminals is only part of what they do. Their work involves everything from directing traffic and assisting after accidents, to calming quarrels and controlling crowds—anything that helps the life of their community to run more smoothly.
In addition to uniformed officers, there are plainclothes policemen and policewomen who wear ordinary, everyday clothes, so as not to stand out. Detectives dress like this: they do not patrol the streets with their fellow officers, but work behind the scenes investigating crimes, trying to work out who was responsible and bring them to justice.
ARMED FOR ACTION?
Most other countries give guns to their police to help them, but Britain has only recently begun to arm some of its officers.
BETTER THAN CURE
Crime prevention is a very important part of the work of the police. Simply by making themselves visible on the streets, patrolling on foot or by car, they put off many would-be criminals. They also offer people advice on how they can safeguard themselves, or their belongings.
Times have changed and crime has too. Cunning computer programmers can cheat banks and companies out of enormous sums of money. Drug-traffickers have networks of contacts that span the world. Specialized police officers are trained to deal with such problems—often in cooperation with forces abroad. In recent years more and more officers have become involved in anti-terrorist activities, some doing dangerous work undercover, such as joining drugs gangs or terrorist groups to spy on them from the inside.