These days when we’re in trouble, our first instinct is to pick up the telephone and dial 000, 999, 911 or any other emergency number and to request ‘Police’ from the list of emergency services available. It’s quick, it’s easy and we’re assured that trained professionals are on the other end of the line, ready to do what they have to do, to protect ordinary citizens such as you and me.
In terms of history, however, the idea of a professional group of people whose sole job it is, to protect, serve, detect and prevent crimes, is a pretty new one. The world’s first real police-force which looks anything like what we would be familiar with today, only came into existence in 1829! Before then, police as we imagine them to be, just didn’t exist. So, where did the idea for a police-force come from and how have police-forces changed over time?
Before the Police.
Before modern policing came around in the second quarter of the 19th century, law-enforcers usually consisted of soldiers, city watchmen, guards or other people of authority or military experience. As late as the 1700s, modern police had not yet arrived on the scene. So, who was around to keep the peace?
For hundreds of years, the only real ‘law-enforcers’ were known as watchmen. A watchman was a man who was paid by the government of the city in which he lived, to patrol the streets after dark. His job was not actually to prevent crimes, but to ensure that curfews (which were imposed in most medieval cities at sundown), were enforced. He was to arrest anyone who was out-of-doors after dark without a legitimate excuse. A watchman was usually lightly armed, if he was armed at all. He might have a flaming torch or a lantern, and a club or stick for self-defense, but that was it. Wandering dark, unlit streets at midnight was a dangerous way to make a living, but curfews had to be enforced.
These days if there’s a public riot, police-forces send in their riot-squads, armed with shields, shotguns, batons and tear-gas. 500 years ago if there was a riot, soldiers would be sent in to quell the violence. And they didn’t always use humane crowd-control methods, either.
Guards in ancient cities who watched and manned gatehouses or defensive walls might also be used to keep law and order in a city, although this wasn’t strictly their job, which was to protect the city against unwelcome outsiders.
While all these people were persons in positions of power and authority, their jobs were not actually to actively persue criminals, their job was to keep the peace. They were around to uphold existing laws, to break up riots and to settle disputes amongst people, but they weren’t there to be called upon if, for example, someone had broken into your house and robbed you, and nor was it their job to try and track down criminals who had murdered someone or done some other crime.
The Emergence of Policing.
The 18th century, in England, at least, saw the rise of the first police-style law-enforcers. They came in two forms: one legal, one not-so-legal.
A thief-taker was not a policeman. Think of him as an amateur private-investigator or a bounty-hunter. If, in the 18th century, your house was broken into, or you were mugged in the streets and had something stolen from you, a thief-taker (for a small fee), would attempt to track down the person who had stolen your property, probably by scouring the underworld and meeting up with contacts to try and strike a deal to get your goods back.
The Bow Street Runners.
The Bow Street Runners were a group of men who worked for the magistrates’ courthouse located in Bow Street, London, England. The Runners were the brainchlid of a pair of brothers, Sir John and Henry Fielding. Henry was a famous novelist and a JP (Justice of the Peace). His younger half-brother, John, who suffered from eyesight problems and who eventually went blind, was the magistrate of Bow Street. Despite his blindness, John Fielding must’ve had incredible hearing and memory, becuase he was reputed to be able to recognise up to three thousand different criminals, purely by the sounds of their voices. The brothers formed the Runners in 1749 and so was born London’s (and possibly, the world’s) first professional crime-fighting force.
The job of the Runners was not to actually arrest people, however, or to necessarily uphold the law. The job for which they were paid, was the apprehension of criminals who attempted to skip their court-dates (and possibly flee justice). The Runners were dispatched, and reported to the magistrate’s courthouse in Bow Street, providing information on criminals, such as who they were, where they were, and what crimes they were being arrested or charged for.
Bow Street Magistrate’s Court, London.
The Metropolitan Police Service.
More commonly-known today as ‘Scotland Yard’, the Metropolitan Police Service (‘the Met’), was the world’s first official, professional police-force. It was the idea of Sir Robert ‘Bobby’ Peel, who convinced the British Parliament that there should be one professional crimefighting, crime-prevention organisation to watch over London. The 1820s saw the rise of the Industrial Revolution. The explosion in London’s population, and subsequent skyrocketing crime-rate, had made it clear to Sir Robert that the Bow Street Runners, thief-takers and watchmen were either overwhelmed or outdated and had to be replaced with something more effective. The Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1829 and the Metropolitan Police Service was formed later that year.
The first ‘bobbies’ or ‘peelers’ who appeared on the streets of London, starting on the 29th of September, 1829, were true groundbreakers. These police-officers were the first kind of a new lawman whom nobody had ever seen before in their lives. The original police uniform was navy blue, with a stiffened top hat, to protect the officer against blows to the head. Policemen were armed with truncheons, primative handcuffs, and rattles for calling for backup. Navy blue was chosen for the uniform because red too-closely resembled the uniform worn by the British Army (famously known as the ‘redcoats’). Blue, on the other hand, more readily blended into the London streetscene.
British police traditionally do not carry firearms. Early on in the Met’s history, some fifty flintlock pistols were purchased for use by police-constables in ‘special circumstances’, but these were rarely used. At any rate, advancing firearms technology in the the 1830s and 1840s quickly made the flintlock pistols obsolete when the first revolvers appeared towards the middle of the century.
Today, British police are famous, world-over, for their distinctive headgear. The ‘Custodian’ helmet was introduced in 1863 as a more suitable replacement to the top hat, then in use. They have remained the official headgear for London police-officers ever since.
The current model of the Custodian helmet, worn by London policemen today
Cops on the Beat.
For over 100 years, ever since the world’s first policemen took to the streets in 1829, one of the most enduring images of the modern police-force is the ‘beat-cop’, the friendly, neighbourhood lawman who walks around the neighburhood, making sure that everyone is safe. ‘Beat-cops’ as they were called, survived a surprisingly long time, well into the 1960s, until they were gradually phased out. Some police-forces still have beat-cops, but they’re rather rare today. Those forces which do, usually protect smaller communities, such as villages and towns, instead of large cities.
But what is a ‘beat’?
A policeman’s ‘beat’ was his area of patrol, usually a couple of blocks. His job was to walk around the block or blocks assigned to him, at a specific time, for a specific length of time, usually one hour. This kind of patrolling soon became known as ‘pounding the beat’. Pounding the beat was boring at the best of times. At the worst of times, it mean chasing after someone who had broken the law. At the end of your beat, you would report back to your local precinct, where another policeman would be sent out to relieve you.
If you were out on the beat and you spotted a crime, what action did you take?
In the earliest days of professional policing, you took out your police-rattle and swung it around through the air. The rattle was shaped much like the ones you might see at sporting-matches today. The point of swinging your rattle was to alert nearby officers that a crime was in progress and that you required backup. Rattles were mediocre backup-calling devices at best. On a clear day in open country with favourable winds, a rattle could be heard for about 500 yards. In the middle of a city filled with bustling people, shouting, chattering and the rattling and grinding and rumbling of horse-drawn carriages, a rattle was pretty poor choice for a backup-instrument.
All cops on the beat have a police-whistle! You see them in old movies and on period TV shows and stuff like that. This may surprise you, but until the 1860s, most police-forces did NOT have police-whistles. Before then, whistles were seen as children’s toys, not crime-deterrents. The failings of the police-rattle, however, caused police-officals around the world to do some serious thinking. A backup-system was no good if there was no-one around who could hear it. They needed something better. The whistle was the answer. In tests done in open country, it was proved that a good whistle could be heard for twice as far as the loudest rattles available, with an audiable radius of up to 1,000 yards!
In 1883, a man named Joseph Hudson created what is probably one of the most famous whistles in the world. Made of brass and plated with nickel, the Metropolitan Police Whistle is the classic police-whistle. About three inches long, pealess and easy to hold, this whistle answered everyone’s prayers. The Met whistle’s size made it easy to store on an officer’s uniform. It’s cylindrical shape made it easy to hold and its split chamber and two sound-holes let out a shrill, ear-splitting ‘chreep!’ which could be heard for blocks in every direction! Anyone hearing the distinctive trill would know at once that something bad had happened.
The Metropolitan Whistle was standard-issue to all London (indeed, all BRITISH) police-officers from 1883 until they were finally retired nearly 100 years later, in 1975.
Having blown on your police-whistle, you, as an officer, could expect backup to arrive in a matter of minutes. It’s generally believed that in London, the policemen had the beat-system down so perfectly that at any place in the city at any time of the day or night, there was always a policeman within whistling-distance who could be at your service within 15 minutes.
Apart from the famous Metropolitan police-whistle with an earsplitting, audiable range of one kilometer, which was assuredly going to get someone’s attention in an emergency, what other pieces of equipment did a policeman carry, ‘back in the good old days’?
The Met Whistle (of course!)
Three blasts of a Metropolitan Police Whistle. You actually have to blow quite hard to get it to sound like it does in the movies, but as this was meant to be heard for a kilometer in every direction, that’s not surprising.
A service-pistol (if allowed).
Smith & Wesson Model 10 Military & Police Revolver; formerly standard-issue to most police-departments. Some forces still use these today
The ‘nightstick’ got its name because originally, policemen carried two kinds of batons; the longer ‘daystick’ and the shorter ‘nightstick’. In close-combat with criminals, policemen found that the shorter, more compact and easily-handled ‘nightstick’ was a better weapon, and so started carrying them permanently
With the rise of telephones and telecommunications in general, at the start of the 20th century, policemen could also use police callboxes to summon backup or to report a crime. The callbox key was used to unlock the box to either pull an alarm-lever, or to gain access to a telephone with a direct line to the nearest precinct