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Where did the Peelian Principles really come from?


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Robert Peel didn't write them, nor did Charles Rowan or Richard Mayne, writes Dr Tim Brain.

Where did the Peelian Principles really come from?

There are not many principles that unite both left and right in politics, and certainly not when it comes to the politics of policing, but one is an acceptance of the continuing relevancy of Robert Peel’s founding principles of policing.

Some examples will suffice. In February the on-going dispute over the felling of trees in urban Sheffield, led to one protester claiming that South Yorkshire Police had forgotten the seventh Peelian principle, “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”. A few weeks later a Daily Telegraph editorial expressed concerns about police effectiveness in the face of rising crime, observing, "It is easy to forget that the primary function of the police – the first Peelian principle – is to keep order and prevent crimes."

The Sheffield protestor and the Telegraph journalist are in good company. Bill Bratton says the principles are "his bible". In 2014 Theresa May, then Home Secretary, quoted principle seven when addressing the Police Federation Conference in May 2014, in the wake of the initial moral panic generated by the "Plebgate" affair. In the same year Alex Marshall used principle seven in the introduction to the College of Policing’s Code of Ethics. Back in 2005 the then Sir Ian Blair used those words as the cornerstone of his Dimblebey lecture, as does the Police Federation in its Policing Manifesto.

The Peelian principles therefore appear as an example of history with burning current relevancy. So they are, but not in the way that those who so liberally quote them perhaps envisage.

Before going much further it is perhaps useful to establish what the Peelian Principles are. They are list of nine (in some versions 12) principles which establish the wider principle of policing by consent. Their presumed author is Robert Peel, although the list is rarely referred to as Peel’s Principles. The first is, ‘To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment’. The most famous perhaps is number seven: ‘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.’ The nine conclude (not start) with ‘To recognise 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.’

Quoted around the English-speaking world there can be no doubting their importance or influence. The problem with their standard interpretation is that these ‘principles’ are not the work of Peel, nor even of his first commissioners Rowan and Mayne. Rowan and Mayne collaborated in writing, and Peel certainly approved the first set of instructions issued to the Metropolitan Police in 1829, which famously asserted that ‘the principal object to be attained is the prevention of crime’. This is, however, the only principle which is almost a direct quotation from the instructions.

The 1829 instructions were a model of 19th century utilitarian prose which, as Peel intended, struck a balance between the enormous legal and coercive powers of the force and the need to work within the limits of lawful authority. The famous list of nine principles, however, is not to be found within the instructions. With the exception of number nine, only by the most generous of interpretations can these principles be inferred from Peel’s published speeches.      

So if it was not Peel, nor Rowan and Mayne, who was the author of the famous principles?

Their authorship can be precisely attributed to mid-20th century police historian Charles Reith (1886-1957), who set them out in his 1943 work ‘British Police and the Democratic Ideal’. In fairness Reith does not attribute them to Peel.  He simply states as fact ‘There are nine Principles of Policing’ and then lists them. Misattribution of their authorship to Peel, as American criminologists Susan Lentz and Robert Chaires established in 2007, was by a subsequent process of osmosis, when the Metropolitan Police began in the 1970s to quote them in its training manuals.

This information begs two further questions. Why did Reith set down his principles in 1943 and why did the Metropolitan Police wait till the 1970s to start quoting them?

Reith was not a historian in the conventional 21st century sense. He wrote history for a moral purpose. Between the wars he had lived in Italy and witnessed Fascist policing at first hand. The British model was, he concluded, in every respect superior because of its foundations in what he synthesised as the nine principles. Furthermore, British policing as it evolved actually contributed to the development of democracy in Britain. He distilled what he saw as its defining principles as, in effect, Britain’s gift to the world. In the 1970s John Alderson, Metropolitan Assistant Commissioner with responsibility for Personnel and Training and a strong advocate of ‘policing by consent’, feared what he saw as the alienation of the police and the public through increasing specialisation, technology and remote democratic accountability. He was probably the senior officer responsible for incorporating the principles in Metropolitan training manuals as a kind of antidote.

The evolution of the nine principles is not simply one of historical interest, however. Today politicians, journalists and police officers often use the principles to provide authority for the arguments they are promoting. Yet, if Peel was not their author what actual authority do they possess? ‘The Reithian Principles of Policing’ do not have quite the same ring.

Furthermore, is constant referencing back to these principles as a type of foundation myth inhibiting a proper debate about what are the purposes and principles of 21st century policing?

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