A History of Policing

The early beginnings during the Dark Ages...

The origin of early policing traces its roots back to Anglo-Saxon times in England. There, the early Kings demanded complete loyalty and obedience from each of their subjects. In exchange for this security, the Kings provided protection from attack from outside invaders or from overzealous lords under the King's control.

It was under King Alfred the Great that a type of internal police force evolved. Alfred decreed that the various "thanes" or landowners throughout his kingdom were responsible to police his territory, deliver criminals to the King and to settle civil litigations. The people or "freemen" under each thane became concerned that the thane mighty abuse or even exceed his power, and banded together in a "tything" which consisted of 10 families. This group would meet regularly to discuss common concerns and mutual protection. But more importantly, the tything served as a "surety", or guarantee, that criminals within the family units would be delivered to the thane for disposition. They served as a guarantee that those who committed criminal acts would be brought forth. In addition, the tything often set in place neighborhood-watch type of patrols in which they kept an eye on each others' properties as a method to guarantee that no damages would occur. The head of this group was referred to as a "tythingman".

As the concept spread, the process evolved to the point that 100 tythingmen set up an organization known as the "hundred". The hundred met once a year and elected one tythingman who was called a "reeve". The reeve was responsible for the organization of a court which handled complaints from within the shire and handled civil matters or disagreements between two or more people. Later the reeve of the shire became known as a sheriff. Under this system, there was a very close bond established between the "laws of the land" and the local people. This whole notion of "grassroots" justice would continue throughout the evolutionary process of English law.

Then, there was William the Conqueror...

After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, it became apparent to the invaders that the Anglo-Saxon system of justice was good and worthy of maintaining. They used the model with a few modifications.

Firstly, the Sheriffs were appointed by the Kings, not elected from the Tythingmen. This placed the Sheriff in a superior role, responsible for local law enforcement to the King, not the local people.

Secondly, the "Hundred" was maintained, but renamed the "Court of the Tourn". This Court heard a range of cases, more often dealing with petty offences and civil matters. From the Court, 12 tythingmen were selected to hear cases of a serious nature. It is from this point that the early concept of the 12 member jury of today originates.

Thirdly, to handle local legal matters in some, but not all, communities, the Normans established the "Court Leet", which looked after matters of purely local interest and petty village nuisances. The head of the Court Leet was the "Comes Stable", which was a term that means "Master of the House". Over a period of time, this word became "Constable" which is still used today by members of our modern police forces. The Comes Stable was often appointed by the King but was also responsible to keep the peace and order in a specific area. This appointee was responsible to local officials who could petition to have him removed if he did not do his job properly. However, many villages did not have this system and continued to send their cases to the Court of the Tourn for settlement.

700 years later, it was time to change...

This system worked up until the late 1700s, but as the population grew, cities began to expand, and crime increased, it became apparent that changes were needed. The constables became corrupt, and fewer and fewer took the job seriously. Often, the job of constable fell to drunken derelicts who often abused their powers. To make matters worse, justices of the peace often took bribes to either lay or to drop charges. The salary of the judges was based on the number of cases they heard. Entrepreneurial justices became eager to create as many cases as they possibly could. Many charges were often "trumped-up" and "fictional". It is estimated that thousands of innocent people were tried on fictional charges.

By the mid-1800s, many people began to eagerly press for reforms. The most notable was author Henry Fielding, who wrote about various crimes and published descriptions of known criminals. In addition, Fielding set up the "Bow Street Runners", who actively sought out known criminals and brought them to justice. This concept was continued after Henry Fielding's death by his brother, John.

William Pitt and the Bow Street Runners...

Finally in 1785, William Pitt presented a bill in the British Parliament calling for the creation of a police force in London. This proposal met with instant opposition. Pitt argued that this new force would be responsible for the apprehension of criminals (a formal continuation of the mandate of the Bow Street Runners) and crime prevention (it was argued that their presence would be a deterrent).

Many elements in society argued that such a force would be like the dreaded force in Paris, France: the "Gendarmes". This force was full of spies and informants who constantly reported violations to the nobility. The nobility, in turn, placed thousands of people in prisons such as the Bastille. Historically, it has been argued that the Gendarmes were one of the key factors which led up to the French Revolution.

After considerable opposition to the proposed police force for London, and charges that it would be used to strengthen what was considered to be a very centralist authoritarian government, William Pitt's bill was withdrawn.

However, this setback did not end reform efforts. The Bow Street Runners expanded in number, and came to include mounted patrols which policed the rural areas outside of the City of London in an effort to curb the increase in highwaymen. In addition, unmounted patrols became commonplace in London. However, the actual number of this early pre-police force was only 450 men in a population of about 1.5 million.

Robert Peel and the first police in London...

The next phase came about as a result of increased shipping on the Thames River. Merchants were concerned about the safety of their ships and cargoes.

They started a private police force designed to patrol and guarantee the safety and security of the waterfront. By 1800, this force was so successful in the "clean-up" of the crime-infested waterfront that the City took it over in 1800. This, coupled with the rapidly expanding industrial revolution and the growth in the "middle-class" which demanded an end to thieves, beggars and prostitutes paved the way for the modern police force and the work of Sir Robert Peel.

The modern concept of police was born in 1829, when Sir Robert Peel brought forth legislation in the British Parliament setting out the terms of a police force which was to operate within the City of London. At the time, London was besieged by criminal elements and the safety of many citizens was uncertain. Pickpocketting, gambling and theft, along with countless other crimes, were commonplace.

An important element in Peel's plan was the separation of policing and the judiciary. Peel and law reformers of the day felt that the police should be responsible for one facet of the law, up to the prosecution phase, while the trial, conviction and punishment phase should placed be in the hands of another body, the judiciary. This concept remains virtually unchanged today.

In his legislation, Peel suggested nine principles for his police force:


Meanwhile, in Canada...

In Canada, the law enforcement system originated from the colonial nature of the country. In the beginning, colonies such as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario relied upon the military to patrol the towns and cities. Since most of the early communities were military fortresses, the military naturally assumed this role. The Governor and his Council adopted both law-making and law-enforcement roles in that they were responsible for the making of laws and also were in charge of the military force responsible for administering and enforcing the law.

However, with the arrival of responsible government in the early 1800s, as well as a decline in the necessity of large military forces, a demand for an independent democratic police force, similar to the structures that were being suggested in England, was called for. In some parts of Canada, constables were elected from within the community and were charged with the responsibility of apprehending criminals and offering some form of protection for citizens in the area. This concept was particularly common throughout the United States. In the U.S., as the forces grew, so too did the election concept, in which sheriffs and police chiefs were regularly elected, as they are today. This required local law enforcement agencies to be truly answerable to the people. However, it also meant that the police force had to take a more political role, especially if the sheriff or police chief was eager to be elected every two or three years.

However, it was not until the late 1800s that the early police forces would become established in Canada. Sheriffs, police chiefs and constables were initially responsible to local elected government officials such as the mayor and the councilors/aldermen. Thus, these positions were appointments at the mercy of local politicians. Again, the suggestion of politics arose, in that councilors might favor one police candidate over another.

In some parts of Canada, more notably Ontario, the provincial government stepped in and created Boards of Commissioners of Police, which consisted of a majority of provincial appointees. This sparked resentment from municipal officials who resented having to raise taxes to pay for policing over which they had no control. This controversy continues until today. In other provinces, such as Nova Scotia, the Police Commissions still exist.

Life in rural Canada was different. In areas far removed from military centers, neighbourhood "Watches" were established and early patrols of villages by volunteers were common. In essence, rural Canada especially in the Maritimes was a prime example of Robert Peel's concept: "The People Are the Police and the Police are the People." In many parts of rural Canada, policing did not come about until the creation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as a federal force.

The North West Mounted Police is born...

However, this was not the case in western Canada. Originally, western Canada was seen as a large corporate entity known as the Hudson's Bay Company. Under this configuration, the administration of law and order was left in the hands of the traders located in forts or posts scattered throughout the region. In the beginning, there was an effective justice system in place which governed the native peoples in the western and northern parts of Canada. In addition, there was a relatively low number of Europeans moving into the area. As a result, the crime rate was quite low.

That soon changed. Traders quickly realized that the Indians had little use for gold or money. What they wanted was alcohol and weapons. As a result, the former trading posts which boasted "good Christian character" and were often complete with priests, now became the fortified centers of vice with names such as "Slideout", "Standoff" and "Whoop-Up". These centers sold "fire-water" or "bug-juice", which was made from cheap whisky brought in from the east, and mixed or cut with other ingredients to increase both the profit margin and the effect.


One recipe used at "Fort Whoop-Up", for example, called for: (a) 26 ounces of whisky, (b) one pound of chewing tobacco, (c) one bottle of ginger (size not given, assumed to be about eight ounces), (d) a handful of red pepper, (e) a quart of molasses and believe it or not (f) a dash of red ink. Mixtures such as this became increasingly popular among the Indians, who became so addicted that they would trade all of their possessions for a cup or bottle.


As a result, addicted Indians lost their independence, pride and their way of life. After they ran out of things to trade, the Indians turned to crime in order to raise more items for trade. As a result, the crime rate in the west soared. Murder, robbery, theft, and other crimes became commonplace. The traders, who at one time maintained order, became greedy and sought only profits, not justice. Most crimes were ignored and the guilty went unpunished. It was truly a society in which the strong excelled and weak perished.

After the Hudson's Bay Company sold the west and northern areas to the new Dominion of Canada in 1870, the federal government became keenly concerned with law and order in the region. Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, established an Act on May 23, 1873 for the creation and establishment of a "Mounted Police Force for the North-West Territories." The size of this force was 300 men, each of whom who was to possess sound constitution and the ability to ride a horse. Each man was to be "active, able-bodied and possess good character." Upon joining the force, each man entered into a three year commitment with a starting pay of 75 cents per day. During the next three decades, the North West Mounted Police cleaned up the west and terminated the illegal activity. Members of the force played a key role during the Second Riel Rebellion, the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Klondike Gold Rush.

The involvement of members in activities such as the celebration of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, the coronations of King Edward VII and George V, as well as the South African War, resulted in the word "Royal" being prefixed to the name of the force, and it became known as the "Royal North-West Mounted Police".

After the First World War and the bloody Russian Revolution, the federal government became concerned that there should be only one police force across the country. In the case of the Russian Revolution, various agencies of law enforcement had taken sides and contributed to the deaths of thousands of innocent people. So in 1920, the RNWMP became a force responsible for all of Canada, through the absorption of the "Dominion Police", and the name changed to the "Royal Canadian Mounted Police"; it remains unchanged to this day. The headquarters of the force was moved from Regina and force was empowered to enforce federal laws from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. It should be noted, however, that the training center for the RCMP was retained at its original home, Regina.




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