Police and Policing

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the french model
the british model
aims and impact of policing

The nineteenth century witnessed significant developments in police institutions across Europe. The developments were driven by concerns about crime, public order, and the control of public space, but also by different bureaucratic and political imperatives related to the expanding state structures.

the french model

Under the Old Regime before the French Revolution, policing tended to depend upon municipalities or local institutions and powerful interests. At the close of the seventeenth century, however, the French monarchy had created a police executive for Paris with responsibility for a wide range of municipal services as well as for the suppression of crime and maintenance of public order. There was also a military body, the maréchaussée, charged with policing the main roads and small towns and villages of provincial France.

Under the revolution and Napoleon policing was considerably centralized and unified, though much still remained under local control. The maréchaussée was enlarged and renamed the Gendarmerie Nationale. After a brief period of municipal devolution during the 1790s, the police system of Paris was tightly unified under a government-appointed prefect of police. A commissaire, directly responsible to the prefect, was established in each of the city's forty-eight districts. In addition there were officers with remits that ran across the whole city, and in 1829, in an attempt to demonstrate government paternalism for the people of the capital, a force of uniformed patrolmen (sergents de ville) was created. Outside of Paris, legislation of 1791 enabled the election of a commissaire de police by any town that so wished. Under Napoleon these appointments were made centrally from a list of names prepared by the departmental prefect and were required for every town with a population in excess of five thousand. The men who were responsible to the commissaire, however, depended upon what the local municipality was prepared to pay for and recruit. Outside of the towns, and in addition to the gendarmes, there were other locally appointed, locally financed police who maintained surveillance of the villages, forests, and crops. With local variations these three broad types of police—the military, state-appointed gendarmes; the state-appointed civilian police; and the locally appointed and financed municipal police—became common across Europe over the nineteenth century. The French, however, did not provide the model for development in every case.

Gendarmes, who also had responsibility for policing the military, followed Napoleon's armies across Europe. They were established across the Napoleonic empire, and Napoleon encouraged his satellites and allies to create similar bodies. In addition to combating banditry and other forms of crime, the gendarmes were useful for ensuring that taxes were paid and delivered and that conscripts reached their muster points. While the name was often changed (to carabinieri in Italy and to Land-jäger in parts of Germany), the gendarmerie model survived Napoleon's fall. Together with the roles of crime fighting and bringing in conscripts, gendarmes showed the national or imperial flag in rural areas and, by being available to provide assistance in times of natural disaster or epidemic, they partly fulfilled the expanding state's broader promise of protection for its citizens. Even Napoleon's most consistent enemies adopted the gendarmerie model when and where it suited them: Spain, with the Guardia Civil in 1844, and the Austrian Empire in 1849. The British considered that a form of gendarmerie was the best system for Ireland and, subsequently, for many parts of their empire. But, at home, the British were responsible for developing the most influential civilian police model of the nineteenth century.

the british model

London's Metropolitan Police was established by act of Parliament in 1829. The new force replaced the old parish watches. Sir Robert Peel, the home secretary responsible for the legislation, insisted that a unified policing structure for the city would provide a more efficient police. This, in turn, would stem the rise in crime and, ultimately, achieve economies for metropolitan taxpayers. Since there was a long-standing antipathy to the deployment of soldiers for the maintenance of public order in England, the Metropolitan Police was carefully designed to appear nonmilitary. The uniform was blue, as opposed to the scarlet tunics of the British infantry. Initially the men wore a top hat, as opposed to any form of military helmet, and they were armed only with a wooden truncheon. The new police constables were instructed that their first duty was the prevention of crime, and to achieve this they were required to make regular patrols of fixed beats to discourage offenders and to ensure that property owners took appropriate precautions, particularly at night, by locking their doors and windows. Similar civilian forces were established in the principal towns as part of the reform of municipal corporations in 1835, while enabling legislation of 1839 and 1840 permitted the creation of constabularies in the counties. The London model was not rigidly followed in the provinces, though senior officers for the municipalities were often recruited from the metropolitan force. Moreover, while the Metropolitan Police was answerable to the central government, the provincial forces, as was the case elsewhere in Europe, were answerable to local authorities.

The name bobby was derived from the diminutive of Sir Robert Peel's first name. The term peeler was also used, especially in Ireland, where, as chief secretary in 1814, Peel had established the precursor of the Royal Irish Constabulary. In working-class districts the police were often known by terms such as crusher. Similar disparaging terms were used elsewhere: bulle (Germany); flic (France); sbirro (Italy).

London's Metropolitan Police became the model for liberal politicians across the European continent. The police were seen as contributing to Britain's avoidance of revolution in 1848; though troops were held in reserve, the major Chartist demonstrations of that year, and of earlier years, were handled by the police. The Great Exhibition of 1851 also contributed to the prestige of London's police when tens of thousands of people from all classes, from all parts of Britain, and even from overseas visited the city, policed only by the unarmed "bobbies," without any serious incident. Napoleon III reorganized the Paris police in the mid-1850s, drawing ideas from his experience as an exile in London. Some German

states cherry-picked from the London model. The legislature of the new Italian state was also impressed by il bobby inglese but was concerned that its own population was not yet ready for a similar civilian force. The Italians, in consequence, maintained their carabinieri under the war ministry and established a new state police under the Ministry of the Interior that was armed and partly militarized, the Guardie di Pubblica Sicurezza (Public Security Guards).

The police system in England liked to boast of another difference from its continental counterparts, namely that it was not a political police. One reason for the uniform of London's Metropolitan Police in 1829 was to demonstrate that the constables were not spies. In addition to concerns about military policing, the English professed to dislike the idea of a police that investigated people's politics and attitudes. They perceived that idea as being French, conceived in the Old Regime and reaching fruition in Napoleon's Ministry of Police under Joseph Fouchè. Concerns about men acting in plain clothes inhibited the development of a detective branch in London for many years. But the threat from Fenian bombers in the 1860s and again in the 1880s led to the deployment of officers whose task was to investigate political suspects, and the interests of these officers rapidly spread beyond the investigation of Irish activists.

aims and impact of policing

Elsewhere in Europe, at least from the period of the French Revolution, it was accepted though rarely popular that policing involved the surveillance of political dissidents, radicals, and labor activists. In Russia, from its origins, the gendarmerie was officially attached to the third section of the tsar's private Imperial Chancery, the political police. In Germany the first moves to bring together the police systems of individual states occurred during the early 1850s. They were coordinated by the head of the Berlin police, Karl von Hinckeldey, in an attempt to provide an effective system of surveillance over political suspects and to ensure the circulation of information relating to such suspects.

Political policing has an aura of sinister romance; however, most policing in the nineteenth century involved the surveillance of city streets and provincial roads and the enforcing and maintenance of new levels of decorum and order in public space. The principal targets of this police strategy were the working classes, who tended to take their leisure on the streets, as well as at fairs and other events in public space. At the same time, criminality was generally regarded as a problem situated in the lower strata of the working class. Thus the control of the working classes in public space could also be seen as a way of controlling the criminal or dangerous classes. Decorum in public space also meant the control of prostitution, and most European police forces had special units whose duties related specifically to the supervision and regulation of prostitutes—la police des moeurs in France, die Sittenpolizei in Germany, polizia dei costumi in Italy. Here again England was an exception. Police officers could apprehend women for soliciting but only in certain naval ports and garrison towns, and only from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s under the Contagious Diseases Acts were certain police officers specifically delegated to the supervision of prostitutes.

It is difficult to assess the impact of the new police institutions on levels of crime and disorder. Generally speaking the statistics of crime appear to have leveled off in most countries from the midnineteenth century. Probably the regular patrols of police officers had some impact on minor street crime. Most of the big city forces began to collect and exchange information on offenders. By the turn of the century the larger forces had photographic records and physical descriptions of offenders. They had the body measurements of offenders collected and cataloged under the system devised in Paris by Alphonse Bertillon, and there were also the beginnings of fingerprint archives. Yet it remains an open question as to how good police institutions were at retrieving such information and using it to solve more serious crimes. A similar question arises regarding the application of some of the criminological theories that began to be taught in the Italian Scuola di Polizia Scientifica established by Salvatore Ottolenghi, a pupil of Cesare Lombroso.

The men who attended Ottolenghi's school were to be the leaders of the police, and they already had a significant degree of education. Most continental European forces recruited their senior officers, such as the commissaire in France and the questore in Italy, from the middle classes, from men with some education and social standing. In Britain, in contrast, all men except for the most senior commanders were expected to start as ordinary constables and work their way up. In the smaller British towns even head constables were known to have begun their police careers as bobbies on the beat. Generally speaking, policing in the nineteenth century was an unskilled or at best a semiskilled job. Patrolmen were usually recruited from the working class. In continental Europe they seem often to have been selected from former soldiers, usually noncommissioned officers; places were specifically reserved for army veterans in the Paris police. In Britain the decision of whether to recruit ex-soldiers appears usually to have been left to chief constables; some of these favored military men for their bearing, but some were concerned that army life fostered idleness and a fondness for drink.

The patrolmen were expected to be respectable and to ensure that their families were also respectable. Police service often meant some form of pension at the end of a man's career. Police pay, however, was rarely generous and, as with other working-class trades during the nineteenth century, police officers occasionally banded together to demand improvements in pay and conditions. Such behavior was rare among the gendarmeries, even though their trade papers voiced discontents. It was more common among the civilian forces, where strike activity was also known. By the outbreak of World War I Belgian, Dutch, French, and Scandinavian police officers had established trade unions, and a similar body was in embryo in Britain.

See alsoAnarchism; Class and Social Relations; Crime; Fouché, Joseph.


Berlière, Jean-Marc. Le monde des polices en France: XIXe–XXe siècles. Brussels, 1996.

Emsley, Clive. The English Police: A Political and Social History. 2nd ed. London, 1996.

——. Gendarmes and the State in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Oxford, U.K., 1999.

Jensen, Richard Bach. "Police Reform and Social Reform: Italy from the Crisis of the 1890s to the Giolittian Era." Criminal Justice History 10 (1989): 179–200.

Spencer, Elaine Glovka. Police and the Social Order in German Cities: The Düsseldorf District, 1848–1914. De Kalb, Ill., 1992.

Clive Emsley

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