Police History

How Sir Robert Peel Influenced Police History

Policing the population is an activity carried out by governments for thousands of years. It was not until Sir Robert Peel persuaded the British Parliament to create the London Metropolitan Police in 1829 that policing took on the professional auspices known today (Villiers, 2006).

NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles related to the history of policing. Future pages will discuss the contributions to police by

  • The Boston Watch
  • Tammany Hall
  • The U.S. Marshal’s Service
  • The Texas Rangers
  • The Pinkerton Men/Pinkerton Agency
  • Early American Immigration
  • Ancient Rome
  • Police Union of German States
  • Alcohol Prohibition
  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)
  • The Railroad
  • Scotland Yard
  • and more…

Rather than careful construction, modern policing developed largely as the needs of society dictated. Even today, we see that social changes impact how police perform their duties. Thus, the history of police is at once fascinating and at times disheartening. Regardless, the professional police officer of today is vastly different and in most ways far superior to those of the past, as history attests. We hope you enjoy the first installment in this series then bookmark this page, and return again.

Sir Robert Peel
Sir Robert Peel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How Sir Robert Peel Influenced Modern Policing

Both the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution contain passages indicating that the country of England used military troops in much the same capacity as police are used today.  The use of military forces in this manner was distasteful to the Colonists; this was part of the reason given for the revolution.  Only 15 years after the Revolutionary War between England and America, the Gordon riots erupted causing England to look inward for a better solution (Walker-Katz, 2008).

Eight years later, Robert Peel (Gale, 2006) was born into a world rapidly changing as a result of industrialization and urbanization and by the time he reached Parliament, he had found a way to create what was lacking in empires of the past:  A social control mechanism with the strength and discipline of the military, but the heart of the public.

Today, much of what Sir Robert Peel formed and envisioned continues with but minor changes.  For example, the uniforms, ranks, and discipline are still an integral part of the modern police force.

Of greater interest and importance, however, are the principles of policing that Peel espoused, for, through these principles, the police are not simply soldiers occupying the homeland, but rather, citizens protecting everyone for the good of all.

The Policing Principles of Sir Robert Peel

As Lee describes the first,

“The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment (1901).”

Today, most Americans still consider sacred the Bill of Rights, which prevents the use of military forces against the citizenry as well as “cruel and unusual punishments.”  The various police forces around the nation act in a quasi-military fashion for safeguarding the public without encroaching (ideally) on such rights as free citizens.  This is wise, for history provides many examples of revolutions resulting from abuse at the hands of occupying soldiers.

In fact, the issue of land/property as the cause of revolution is a subject which students of law and justice have understood for centuries. Surely Sir Robert Peel would have been familiar with the argument posed by Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince. In that esteemed work, the author states that a Prince can take a man’s wife, children, parents, anything except a man’s land. Machiavelli then produces a multitude of examples as he does for every argument throughout the book and concludes the chapter by reminding Prince’s that they can take anything from the public with impunity…anything except property.

Not surprising, the American Revolution was fought partly on the basis of King George’s troops stationing themselves in the homes of the Colonists. Thus, the idea that polie are an alternative to a military force was revolutionary at that time.

Lee adds,

“The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect (1901).”

Respect is a vital ingredient in creating an effective police force.  Police posts were often granted because of political contributions, family connections, and other such reasons.  This occurred frequently with Tammany Hall, a socio-political group in New York City.  In addition, when law enforcement officials do not obey the law themselves, as was frequently the case with Tammany Hall, respect, along with public approval and support, are lost (Walker-Katz, 2008).

Read Sir Robert Peel’s 9 Principles of Policing here

Finally, civil rights violations by police tend to erode their power as well.  During the 1960s, riots spread from New York City to Los Angeles because of such violations.  “Police departments responded to the crisis by establishing police–community relations (PCR) units,” according to Walker-Katz (2008).  PCR units dispatched with the goal of winning back the hearts of the public failed to reach their desired objectives.

English: Statue of The Right Honourable Sir Ro...
English: Statue of The Right Honourable Sir Robert Peel Bart. This is the statue of Sir Robert Peel MP for Tamworth until 1850 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, the riots and resultant attempts to regain control over the population brought about new and innovative studies and tactics.  Over the course of the next few decades, police departments adopted a number of strategies and created numerous programs all aimed at winning the hearts of the public.

Women and minorities entered the profession in growing numbers; deadly force policies were enacted, and agencies were encouraged to become accredited.  Finally, community policing, citizen policing and problem-oriented policing became part of the nationwide effort to increase public support for law enforcement agencies (Walker-Katz, 2008).

As a result, police departments have found that Sir Robert Peel’s second principle, as well as his third, is vital to their mission of safeguarding the public (Lee, 1901).


Sir Robert Peel’s Most Important Principle?

Much could be said of the principles Sir Robert Peel considered important to the profession he created, but in closing, one final principle should be considered.  As Lee put it,

“The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them (1901).”

Crime and punishment remain hotly debated issues.  With the expansion of police powers granted in the USA PATRIOT Act (Grant & Terry, 2008) Americans are presented with a large show of force (“visible evidence”), but “crime and disorder” continue.

Peel established policing on sound principles; the extent to which those principles are applied will dictate to some degree the efficiency and effectiveness of modern policing.  However, one could argue that the ninth principle is largely lacking. Read more about that here. As the world is again rapidly changing, this time due to the Information Revolution, there will surely develop radical changes to the way policing is conducted (Villiers, 2006).  Regardless of the changes, the principles and concepts established by Sir Robert Peel are certain to endure.

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You May Also Enjoy Reading –

Police Agencies List – This is a list of all police agencies in America, broken down by state, then by type of agency. A very useful tool for students of criminal justice and law with additional pages coming soon.

The Controversy of the Peelian Principles: Are There 9 or 12? – Some are claiming today that there are 12 Peelian Principles, while others maintain there are only 9. Which is the case and How can we know?

Are Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Policing Still Useful Today? – Some today claim that the Peelian Principles are irrelevant in criminal justice and law. Is this the case?

Sir Robert Peel and the Principles of Order – Why exactly did Sir Robert Peel develop a set of principles when establishing the London Metropolitan Police in 1829? What purpose were these to serve criminal justice professionals and the rule of law?

Do Presses or Due Process? – Everyone in criminal justice or law eventually meets with the issue of Due Process. But where did the concept originate and how can knowing this help criminal justice professionals better enforce the law?


  • Gale (2004). Encyclopedia of World Biography (2nd ed.). Detroit, MI: Author.
  • Grant, H., & Terry, K. (2008). Law Enforcement in the 21st Century. : Pearson Education.
  • Lee, W. (1901). A History of Police in England. : .
  • Villiers, P. (2006). World Encyclopedia of Police Forces and Correctional Systems (2nd ed.). Detroit, MI: Gale.
  • Walker-Katz, . (2008). The Police in America: An Introduction (6th ed.). : McGraw-Hill.

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