Are Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Policing Still Useful Today?

Students of Criminal Justice the world over study the principles of policing as developed by the father of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel.

In establishing the rules of conduct known as the Principles of Policing, Sir Robert Peel gave careful thought to the mission of the new agency as well as how to ensure that mission would find success. As police forces in England, America, and Europe began to form, each adopted the principles of Sir Robert Peel for each could see the value in so doing (Robertson, 2012).

However, moving into the new millennium, it would appear that these same policing agencies are forgetting these principles and adopting a different strategy. Thus, the question must be considered: Why teach the principles of Sir Robert Peel if these are not going to be applied on the job? Further, we must ask: Are the Principles of Policing developed by Sir Robert Peel still effective?

Summary of the Principles of Policing by Sir Robert Peel

The Principles of Sir Robert Peel begin with a simple assumption: The mission of police is to maintain peace and order in society. Thus, police agencies globally use the motto: To Protect and Serve. With this simple, yet daunting task facing the London Metropolitan Police force, set up in 1829, Peel developed the principles that would guide police for nearly two centuries.

In summation, his principles served to inform police about how their conduct would impact their mission. Peel clearly understood a few things about human nature. He understood the ageless axiom that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Thus, Robert Peel advised police to befriend the law-abiding public, to have them as trusted partners in the mission, not enemy combatants. He wisely advised that police only use physical force as a last resort and then, the minimum necessary to accomplish their objective. Most importantly, Sir Robert Peel advised that police remain impartial enforcers, not activists nor judges, politically neutral, and conducting themselves above reproach at all times (Lee, 1901).

However, his final principle is the most telling for he stated that the determining factor in how effective a police agency is in accomplishing its mission is the degree of crime in their jurisdiction (Lee, 1901). On this note, we must consider what is known about human behavior and social upheaval.

Human Behavior, Social Upheaval, and Tit for Tat

Any first-year student of human behavior can tell you that when people are treated unjustly they will eventually fight back, often violently. This information is not really that new. Sir Robert Peel understood the truth of this. It is clear that he understood for much of his Nine Principles of Policing encourage police to treat the public right…just.

English: Sir Robert Peel Sir Robert Peel, the ...
English: Sir Robert Peel Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the police force. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But really, just how accurate is this assertion. Have there not been times when people have permitted considerable repressions? Certainly, but no such repression has ever been without end, often bloody, destructive end. The dynamics that cause an individual to react and the dynamics of groups is not all that different. Individuals have a need to feel empowered…in control of their destinies (Oakes, 2011). Groups have the same need for these are formed from individuals.

However, groups also have a need to be validated, feel secure, and experience movement. This last, is a need for stimulation and is found most often in attempts to expand the circle of like-minded individuals—growth. It is also found in a group’s readiness to become violent when threatened—real or imagined. Stimulus is natural and will appear either for positive means or negative, depending on the situation and the group’s values (Oakes, 2011).

Thus, while brutality and repression by police against one group may continue long, it will not always persist against another. Each group reacts differently, but for the same purpose—to protect the group. Of course, police simply cannot befriend ALL groups in society. Certainly criminals cannot be treated as friends. But they can be respected and based on Sir Robert Peels principles, should be respected. Police can and should befriend as many in the public as possible (Robertson, 2012).

Sadly, in some parts of the nation it appears that police agencies do not see it this way. Expanding the enemy to include virtually everyone has not reached our shores, but this idea begins by seeing everyone as a potential criminal. Some police do act as if the general public is to be guarded and the streets are simply a large prison yard.

But evidence seems to indicate these are a minority—they simply appear to be a majority because of the rise of amateur video on the Internet. Which view is correct will be demonstrated by time.

Are the Principles of Robert Peel in Use Today?

To be sure, the principles of Sir Robert Peel are NOT being applied evenly throughout the law enforcement community. Some police forces are applying these principles, knowingly or not, and enjoying the advantages of so doing. Other forces are not and are finding that their war on crime is becoming endless. This is because of the dynamics of group-think. Groups fight to grow and when a fight comes their way, it fuels further growth. Police fight this group and this fuels still more growth. It is kind of like trying to put out a fire with gas—can’t win.

English: The Statue of Sir Robert Peel Situate...
English: The Statue of Sir Robert Peel Situated at the south end of High Street, Montrose. Sir Robert Peel was the founder of the first police force in the United Kingdom. That is how the name Bobbies originated, they were also known as Peeler’s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, if Peel’s principles are so useful for police, why are they not being applied more evenly throughout police agencies?

Applying Occam’s Razor to the issue, we can assume that the degree of accurate training among police agencies would be the most likely reason. We could also believe that the reason is something more sinister. We may even think that some believe these principles to be useless today. All of these reasons are possible, but the most likely is the first—a lack of proper training (Walker-Katz, 2008).

Around the world, police agencies are upping the requirements for law enforcement and other positions in the Criminal Justice field. Thus we see Criminal Justice degrees being aggressively encouraged. There is a huge demand for professional, educated police, probation officers, clerks, guards, and other criminal justice personnel. Rapidly disappearing are the days of uneducated police.

Applying Peel’s Principles of Policing Today

To be sure, there are two distinct schools of thought among politicians today regarding how to deal with crime and criminals. On the Republican side are those who believe in a ‘get tough’ approach and on the Democratic side are those who stress policing with understanding. However, as we learn from the history of Tammany Hall, the need to keep politics out of law enforcement is clear (Walker-Katz, 2008). This is largely why Sir Robert Peel stressed that police should remain “politically neutral” (Lee, 1901).

Part of the reason Peel’s principles have failed to be applied in some areas is the result of police failing in this respect. As police allowed politicians to influence their actions, causing them to become unnecessarily ‘tough,’ the public began to take the stance of “us versus them.” Hence, in some areas, there will likely never be friendly terms among police and the public. Once this combative stance develops, it tends to become entrenched, much as the feud between the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s continued for generations until no one even knew why it started.

Still, the principles developed by Sir Robert Peel can and are in many communities restoring respect and public favor to police agencies. Starting in the 1970s, some communities began to adopt community policing. The ‘broken windows’ theory was applied in others, with police helping out with renovations. Many cities today encourage police to live in certain neighborhoods where crime is high and community cooperation is low and this is beginning to yield good effects. Most cities require police live in the city they work. Many forces are encouraging police to become more involved in community affairs and projects and many to their credit volunteer time to these efforts (Nicholl, 1999). In reality, all these efforts are in harmony with Peel’s principles and the results speak for themselves.

In areas where police forces are making such efforts, crime rates are reduced; in areas that continue a ‘get tough’ stance, crime continues unabated. Even the United States Department of Justice is now officially encouraging Community Policing as a means of regaining public trust and cooperation for it recognizes that without such, the mission of police is impossible to achieve (Nicholl, 1999).

Even in England, which has largely abandoned Sir Robert Peel’s ideology in modern years, many are calling for a return to his principles. Thus it was that in 2005, the Daily Telegraph of London ran the story, “Today’s police should attend to Sir Robert Peel’s principles,” (Telegraph, 2005). Indeed.


  • Lee, W.I.M. (1901). A History of Police in England. : .
  • Nicholl, C. G. (1999). Community Policing, Community Justice, and Restorative Justice: Exploring the Links for the Delivery of a Balanced Approach to Public Safety. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Retrieved from:
  • Oakes, C. J. (Sept2011). Why We Do What We Do. (currently unpublished)
  • Robertson, N. (Sept 2012). Policing: Fundamental principles in a Canadian context. Canadia Public Administration. Institute of Public Administration of Canada. 55(3). 343-363.
  • Telegraph. (18Nov2005). Today’s police should attend to Sir Robert Peel’s principles. The Daily Telegraph [London (UK)]. 023.
  • Walker-Katz, . (2008). The Police in America: An Introduction (6th ed.). : McGraw-Hill.

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