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Forward to the Past -- Ethical Policing Is Possible

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on June 18, 2020 06:15

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In a time when policing is under fire worldwide, it may serve to look back at a historic figure who provided a basis for policing by consent in a time when his society was under severe pressure.

In the early 1800s, Britain was a difficult place to be a politician or a member of the working classes. Having sorted out the detestable Corsican and the rowdy American colonials, domestic trouble threatened. Popular uprisings by Irish and rural British threatened the fabric of society and of the economy. Into this furnace stepped Robert Peel, a member of the privileged class, and a future Prime Minister. He had to deal with public demonstrations that all too often turned into riots. Crime was rampant, and soldiers, trained to face the French, inclined to heavy-handedness when enforcing law and order on their own countrymen and often ex-comrades.

Peel set up the London Metropolitan Police, the famous Bobbies, as "ethical police force" on the basis that "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."

His aim was to prevent crime and disorder rather than repress it with military force and severity of legal punishment. Believing that policing should be legitimate in the eyes of the public, transparent and accountable, Peel referred to "policing by consent." Students of politics would applaud the inclusion in his famous principles of a self-testing mechanism, which is all too often absent in modern legislation. This means the test of police efficiency would be the absence of crime and disorder.

South African Minister of Police Bheki Cele. Photo Government Communication and Information Service. 

In a time when few would argue that crime and disorder is absent the South African Minister of Police showed the iron fist. He called on his men to "stamp their authority" and accused people raising cases of police brutality of siding with the criminals. Reacting to the George Floyd protests he warned: "Don’t give criminals leeway to mobilise against the police." This might sound familiar in the light of other leaders calling for police to dominate the protesters.

In the Apartheid era, I worked closely with many police officers. Most were professional, decent people willing to make enormous sacrifices to do their duty. Today I expect the picture to be largely the same not only here but in other countries. However, as one police officer pointed out to a politician at the time that politicians make the laws, policemen have to enforce them. Many modern police officers are deeply committed to working with and for their communities, but they do not get the press coverage. 

Community police initiative, Des Moines, 2010. Photo by Carl Wycoff. (CC BY 2.0)

There are certainly bad apples in every basket, but without law and order, there can be no development. No small business, no economy can prosper when people extort protection money. An efficient and effective criminal justice system is a precondition to development and democracy.

Robert Peel has a lesson for today and tomorrow.

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on June 18, 2020 06:15

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Source: BBC

Camden, New Jersey, created a brand new police force to forge better ties with the community.

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