Peel’s First Principle

Principle 1 

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

This principle addresses one of the core issues that has dominated debate about policing approaches for almost the past two centuries.  The one argument is that legislatures create laws and that the role of the police is to enforce those laws by arresting offenders and bringing them before the courts.  The role of the courts is to sanction or punish the offending behavior.  Punishment in the form of a fine or incarceration, it is argued, pays the offenders debt to society and serves as a deterrent.   The opposing argument is that the police should adopt a proactive and preventative as opposed to a reactive approach.  This involves education, community involvement and the creating of the public’s ‘buy in’ for law and order – in other words, crime prevention in the broadest sense of the word.  

Many police agencies pay lip service to crime prevention strategies but remain ‘law enforcement’ agencies at heart. They tout their commitment to the community and to the community based approach to policing but operate in a reactive manner firmly committed to after the fact investigation of crimes as opposed to crime prevention.  Some enlightened police executives favour investment in proactive crime prevention strategies while others are simply stuck in a reactive crime suppression mindset. 

In the short term a crime prevention approach can be expensive and until the strategies take hold and yield results, crime may even spike.  The expense and the lack of immediate results are the main reason politicians tend to shy away from funding prevention approaches.  From the political perspective it is much more desirable to be able to announce the formation of a new unit, task force or the purchase of a new piece of equipment (perhaps a helicopter) than to announce an investment in the community in the form of job creation, housing, education programs or other programs that would sever the link between poverty and crime. 

From a funding perspective it can be difficult to link outcomes to specific crime prevention programs especially in the short term.  Police agencies tend to measure results in terms of outputs, not outcomes.  Reactive policing deals in outputs.  These outputs detail police activities such as the number of persons ‘spot checked’, arrested and charged and the accompanying list of contraband that was seized (drugs, guns, money and other property).  Crime prevention approaches measure outcomes and concentrate not on the number of arrests that were made but rather on the degree to which crime was reduced, the level of safety felt by residents in high crime areas and celebrates the positive working relationships between the police and geographical, racial and political communities.  

A sincere crime prevention approach requires that police agencies conduct meaningful and on-going environmental scans to ensure they are in touch with the various communities they serve and that they are in a position to anticipate future trends and put in place programs to deals with such trends before they take hold.    Some agencies have addressed this through a well thought out process of strategic planning while others are continually caught unaware and are put in a position of having to react by creating ad hoc units and task forces to react. 

It is recognized that all police agencies require the ability to react when crimes are committed.  One measure that can be used to establish the degree to which an agency is proactive as opposed to reactive is to look at budget allocation.  What percentage of the police budget is devoted to crime prevention?  If the allocation is low then it can be argued that the agency lacks commitment to Peel’s first principle which lays out the prevention of crime and disorder as their first prerogative.