The Invention of “Policing” and the Sacralization of the Social

Body Politics, Justice

Where the parliamentary organization of the Kingdom took care of the horizontal unity of Crown law, the advent of the new police both represented and ensured its vertical unity, from the streets of Whitechapel to the halls of Westminster.

In 1829, the Metropolitan Police Act established across London – excepting, ironically, the City of London, which wanted none of it – what is frequently called “the first modern police force.” The accuracy of that particular moniker is the subject of considerable historical debate (French historians at least would like a word), but the new Peelers, so named after the bill’s champion Sir Robert Peel, were to provide the template after which policing in the Empire would be reshaped on a model of professionalization and discipline.

Questions of novelty and modernity aside, it is certainly true that the advent of the Peelers did introduce, by design, an essential alteration in how the British (and ultimately American, as well as throughout the Commonwealth) people understood what “the police” were, what they did, and their fundamental relationship to the public as such. In that sense, Peel did accomplish something extraordinary: the idea of a polity without a professional police force of deputized civilian regulars is so foreign to the political imaginary of much of the Anglophone world that it is quite usual to see “the police” popping up in films and television at every conceivable juncture of history and culture. From a political theological perspective, however, that is already an intimation of the importance of taking a hard look at the origins of “the police” as we now understand them: the extraordinary success of the Peelian reforms lies not in the revolution to policing practices they introduced, but in inaugurating a mythologization process around policing that would spiral far beyond Peel’s dreams.

The Peeler, or Bobbie (or “Raw Lobsters, Blue Devils” as one particularly colorful pamphlet described them) became the incarnation of “public order” itself, the cipher on whom was written the very concept of a public having an interest in itself, one it was willing to enforce, violently if necessary. Insofar as soon-to-be-Victorian Britain was in the process of reinventing the sort of the thing in which the Public had a rightful interest away from classical Liberalism, the Peeler was both instrument and justification of that expansion, the extension of sovereign divine right into an order which was only coming to be understand as such: the social order.

The simultaneous identification of the public with divine sovereignty and the process by which it maintained its own social order meant that the public endowed its own political sacrality onto the instrument by which its will was enforced (or at least, the will of some who managed to capture it). Where the parliamentary organization of the Kingdom took care of the horizontal unity of Crown law, the advent of the new police both represented and ensured its vertical unity, from the streets of Whitechapel to the halls of Westminster.

To refer to the peculiarities of the narrative that has arisen around the Peelers as mythological is not to suggest that they are false, necessarily; in some sense the mythology of the Peelers is far more true to their impact on how we understand policing and public “self-preservation” than were the Peelers themselves. It is instead to suggest that what began in the era of the Peelers and spread out across the Anglophone world and the world of the Empire was a distinctive process of sacralization, a sacralization that gave “the police” the quasi-sacred status they still hold in some corners of the public (if decidedly not in others).

In precisely the moment that “moral sentiment” was rendering more and more dimensions of the social order in British society as rightful concerns of the Public, the Church which had previously undergirded the preservation of social order for the Crown was entering a state of crisis. As Diarmaid MacCulloch puts it, “the national Anglican fiction beloved of the Tories was in fact proving increasingly difficult to sustain”. By 1829, the High Anglican establishment had already suffered the indignity of the Tories themselves removing the prohibition on Dissenters holding office. The Tractarian movement was on the horizon, the dubious and restive Methodists held an increasingly powerful sway in the working classes, and in the very same year he pushed through the Metropolitan Police Act, the arch-Tory Peel and the Duke of Wellington (of Napoleonic fame) bent the will of the House of Lords and King George IV himself to the culmination of Catholic emancipation, the Catholic Relief Act. Peel’s initial conviction that policemen must be discouraged from marriage (making it the only profession that paralleled the clergy in that respect) and his carefully regular side-references to the Crown in justifying their creation are just two of the myriad ways in which the new police were presented to Parliament and the public with a kind of quiet substitutionary logic, one that took on not just small symbols but the larger ordering and ordinal roles taken to be necessary for the social life of the Public.

There is a triple irony in the mythology of Sir Robert Peel, which is entirely appropriate to the mode by which he undertook the aggressive renovation of the state’s police powers into the realm of social order.

First, in policing today Peel is most famous for his “Nine Principles of Policing,” which are taught in policing academies around the world. The Nine Principles can be found referenced in newspapers and law journals, lauded in contemporary textbooks of policing and police ethics as foundational to the discipline and honor that properly guide policing. The Nine Principles provide a distillation of the central mythologies associated with modern policing in its ideal-typical form: its “dependen[ce] on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour,” the need to “secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means” and “constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to the law”.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that one can find images of the principles in suitably archaic looking font, the Nine Principles (or Twelve Principles, depending on which textbook one chooses) didn’t exist; or at least, they didn’t exist until the Twentieth Century, when they were retrospectively attributed to Peel (or, failing that, to Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne). The Nine Principles do, however, perfectly represent what the image of Peelian policing became; that is, it is precisely in their inventedness that the Nine Principles capture an image of how policing came to narrate itself. As historians Susan Lentz and Robert Chaires put it, Peel’s Nine Principles exist for policing today “as a way” for the contemporary profession of policing “of showing how and when policing became rational,” taken on by the narrative self-imagining of the police like “adopting idealized ancestors as an orphan might tend to idealize never-known parents.”

The fictional Nine Principles are closely related to the second mythology of the Peelian reforms, that Peel invented “public consent policing,” or policing founded, justified, and guided through the collective will of the Public. This idea is not quite as fictional as the Nine Principles, and yet it would be a fairly extraordinary irony if the man who described “Public opinion” as “a compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy, and newspaper paragraphs” had really intended to deliver into their hands the whole powers of the preservation of Crown order. It would be all the more ironic, if true, that this instrument which was to bring the police fully under the consent of the public it served did so against widespread resistance of precisely said public, exemplified by the refusal by the City of London of the police force ostensibly centered around it (the handbill referenced above again provides a delightful turn of phrase, calling the Peelers “a Force unknown to the British Constitution, and called into existence by a Parliament illegally constituted, legislating for their individual interest, consequently in opposition to the Public good”).

Yet it is true that something striking was occurring in the reconfiguration of the role of police in society, which partially explains the lengths to which Rowan and Mayne go in their New Police Instructions (1829, on which the Nine Principles seem roughly to be based) to convince a suspicious public that the police were their servants. Consider the second, less-cited portion of the seventh of the Nine Principles, which does in fact ring true to the rhetoric of New Police Instructions:

“The police are the public and 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.” (emphases added)

The police are not merely identified with the interests of the public, nor merely as part of the public, but as some form of superlative instantiation of the public itself.

The Peeler is not just a citizen, but an ideal type of the citizen. He is paid to do what every citizen ought to do (indeed there is a certain political economy of debt of the citizenry involved), and by extension the duties that the police perform are not the state enforcing social order, as the old constabulary had done, but the citizenry enforcing its order on itself.

This would taken on a special significance in the third irony of the Peelian mythology, that what Peel, Rowan, and Mayne invented was “preventive policing.” It is certainly true that all three put considerable emphasis on “that the object to be obtained [by the police force] is ‘the prevention of crime’,” but the instability in the term is not in “preventive,” but in “policing.” As multiple historians have now noted based on the Peeler’s early logs, relatively little of what the Peelers did was what we would now call policing. On the one hand, the Peelers were consciously urged by their commissioners to perform any task that needed doing, that would demonstrate their service and their publicness: spare handiwork, passing an odd message, clearing parks. On the other, more portentous hand, the Peelers spent a considerable portion of their time and manpower taking on a function which had previously been reserved for the military, the suppression of riots (which, since rioting was at the time considered a venerable English tradition, were quite frequent).

Peel hardly invented the concept of a public interest; what he invented was a new way in which it could be interested in itself, in its own preservation. He was far from beginning the self-sacralization process of the north Atlantic polities, but what the new police provided was a way to inject that sacralization into the public process of self-ordering. As who counted as part of the body politic slowly expanded – in 1829, Dissenters and Catholics, but the process was only beginning – the intense anxieties provoked in both the historical public elite and those invested in defending their new public status could, through the antibody of the new police, be translated directly into a notion of the (im)moral character of the public, rather than through the intermediary of Crown enforcement. This is not to say that the moralization of policing which would mark much of the following century in law enforcement was a necessary product of the creation of the new police, but it is to say that the new police, these police “of public consent,” introduced an essential change in what the enforcement of social (and moral) order meant in the public’s relationship to itself.

Peel’s Peelers are a case study in how a deeply unpopular institution like the pre-1829 constabulary can be turned, in a brief century or so of evolution, into an institution that is not only such an integral part of a political imaginary that many struggle to imagine a world without it (for good or ill), it has redefined the public’s ability to imagine itself, and how it does what publics do. The New Police stood visibly for one principle, on that axis: perhaps the most central interest of the new public was now to be self-preservation, from the seas to the street. And when the stake is self-preservation, understood down to the granular level of the everyday appearance of the public, the costs to the bodies subject to that order were always going to be as high as the stakes that authorized their policing.

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The Invention of “Policing” and the Sacralization of the Social

Where the parliamentary organization of the Kingdom took care of the horizontal unity of Crown law, the advent of the new police both represented and ensured its vertical unity, from the streets of Whitechapel to the halls of Westminster.

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