Peel’s Principles

Sir Robert Peel:  Are his principles still relevant? 

Sir Robert Peel was twice the Prime Minister of Great Britain but his lasting legacy relates not to his performance as prime minister but rather to his role as Home Secretary.  An educated man, having obtained a Masters from Christ Church, Oxford in 1814, Peel achieved distinction based on his reform of criminal law and policing in Great Britain. 

Industrialization and the resulting concentration of large populations in major urban centers in the 17th and 18th century put significant strains on maintaining law and order not only in England but also in major American cities such as New York and Boston.  Police departments in the modern sense of the word did not exist at that time.  The maintenance of law and order was undertaken by the general citizenry in a volunteer capacity.  In some larger centers night watchmen and constables were employed, many on a part-time basis.  Poorly trained and lacking resources and organization these early “police officers” relied largely on physical force and intimidation as a means of gaining compliance.  

In 1829 the Metropolitan Police Act was passed by the British Parliament.  This Act created the London Metropolitan Police Force which consisted of 1000 constables who were mandated to maintain law and order in London on a full time basis under the direction of its first commissioner, Sir Richard Mayne.  This represented the first serious attempt to ‘professionalize’ policing in Great Britain.  

As a form of ethical and operational guidance, Peel laid down nine principles intended to guide police in terms of their mandate, interaction with citizens, use of force and their role in the overall criminal justice system.  Those nine principles are repeated here for reference purposes as they will form the basis for future posts on this topic. 

Although the nine principles have been modernized and abbreviated they are reproduced here in their original form as expressed by Sir Richard Mayne in 1829.  The original wording in some cases assists in establishing the intent. 

Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing 

1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and by severity of legal punishment.

2. To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

3. To recognize always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of willing cooperation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.

4. To recognize always that the extent to which the cooperation of the public can be secured diminishes, proportionately, the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.

5. To seek and to preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustices of the substance of individual laws; by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing; by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public cooperation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order; and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen, in the interests of community welfare and existence.

8. To recognize always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the state, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.

9. To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

Source: Reith, Charles. 1948. A Short History of the British Police. London: Oxford University Press 

Future posts will evaluate the current relevance of Sir Robert Peel’s principles and attempt to determine the degree to which policing in Canada, particularly in Winnipeg, is delivered in keeping with those principles.  Part of that evaluation will involve answering this question: “If Sir Robert Peel were the Chief of Police in Winnipeg would he be making changes”?