Re-thinking Peel… Or should we?


As you can see, ^^^^^^ this is one of the ‘scene-setting’ blogs for the forthcoming Big Red Button project that aims to source the thoughts and feelings of the frontline, and those that the frontline interact with, for the purposes of generating a new vision about how policing could look in the future. The scenario is thus: The Red Button has been pressed and policing – as we know it – has been wiped out. You have been charged with the re-building of the cops and those that work with them (including the public). What would a police force designed from scratch, built for purpose, actually look like?

So, to start, where to start? Well, let’s start at the beginning… Here are the the Peelian Principles:

  1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
  2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
  3. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
  4. The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
  5. Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.
  6. Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
  7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition 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.
  8. Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.
  9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.

Many officers today haven’t heard of these principles, and for a long time they were an afterthought in training, as they gave way to long sessions on legislation and its application. Just reading them provokes significant thought for any cop, as they constantly reinforce cooperation as the mainstay of preventing crime and disorder. Are these principles out of date? Do they reflect a less complex time when crime was far more straightforward? There are many areas that are food for thought, but I will focus on two that got my cogs whirring as I though about this blog.
7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition 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.

This really twisted my usual train of thought… If as a police officer, you are no different from the public in your duties, you just apply them in a full time role, then the purpose of this principle was to maintain a very active community ownership of crime and its dealings. There’s an expectation here within the principle that the public will ‘get involved’ in the application of legislation and the civil policing of their communities. I guess the most cited example of this would be the ‘citizens’ arrest’.

I think it’s fair to say, that community involvement is decreasing at a rate of knots, as the neo-liberal agenda of individualism persists as the main supporter of capitalist economies. The question on people’s lips is often ‘What’s in it for me?’ Not, ‘How does this help us?’ Neighbourhood policing is being visibly withdrawn, and its function is being changed to resemble response policing via the back door in many forces. An unfortunate symptom of cuts via the application of salami slicing: maintain the functions we have, prioritise, deliver the same in a different way.

Peel seems to argue with this principle, that maybe, it shouldn’t be about keeping what we do and doing more with less, it should maybe instead be about giving more of what we do back to communities. Have we spent the last 50 years sucking tight control of policing functions upwards, instead of cultivating their ownership by the public?

‘Neighbourhood watch’ I hear you say! But look at the way it functions. It ‘watches’, and then devolves that info to the police. It doesn’t design out crime, it doesn’t work on bringing people not-of-like-mind together, it doesn’t function to create glue and cohesion within communities. It watches, reports, gathers info, passes it upwards to the police, who then deal with the problem. If anything, it reinforces separation and divide. Is this a Peelian function? Does it fit with the ethos as it was designed?

Of course, this conversation is far larger than a few paragraphs. I do know that units like the Violence Reduction Unit in Scotland are taking an asset based approach to crime, ( http://www.scdc.org.uk/what/assets-scotland/ ) where doing things ‘to‘ the community is redesigned instead to doing things ‘with‘ the community.

Are the police such a separate entity to the public? Where the policing function is sucked up and held and controlled within tight restrictions and policies, or is it just like Peel said, officers are 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?’


1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.

I hear this discussed a lot, but the two key areas I want to discuss centre around the interpretation of the word, ‘prevent.’ What does this word actually mean and how does it represent itself? How do we as the police interpret that word and what ramifications does that generate in the workplace?

Preventative work is often twinned with the word: ‘pro-active’. An example would be the use of stop and search as a means to prevent further stabbings. ‘Common sense!’ Is the shout. Well, let’s dig into this. What are you preventing when you find that knife? The answer would of course be an immediate stabbing. Does it stop them carrying a knife in the future? Research evidence would suggest not. It may also stop them carrying knives on their person, whilst instead causing knives to be hidden nearby in public spaces, where far more people may access them. Evidence also suggests that the knives are being carried for defence, but defence of what? And the ever important question is why the knives are being carried by anyone in the first place?

The conversation around the use of the word ‘prevent’ in this case is in this case in the ‘immediate.’ The knife has already gone into the pocket, it’s already in their waistband, or strapped to an ankle. The decision to carry was the tipping point in that crime, so in reality the police haven’t prevented any crime when they find the knife, they have just discovered one in progress. Granted, this may escalate had the knife not been found, and that is why finding them is immensely important, but can the function of stop and search be called truly preventative? I would argue not.

So, if the current discussion around preventative methods lies around the immediate, with much preventative work actually taking place after a crime has been committed, are we fulfilling Peel’s vision of this principle?

The tongue-in-cheek comments around getting ‘upstream’ of crime may represent a cultural balking at the change of mindset involved in this. Preventing crime in later life is big cultural change. It represents a complete step away from the ‘here and now’ and into work that may be 10 years ahead in the future. Research suggests that intervention before the age of 4 (new stuff says even earlier) is the key time to bring about changes in future behaviours. How are we addressing this? And before people say it isn’t crime related, it is. It’s just 10 years before the crime takes place. Early Action is a part of long term crime prevention, and prevention is part (if not the fundamental foundation) of the function for which the police were designed. Just because the work is different and doesn’t ‘feel right,’ doesn’t mean that it isn’t the right thing to do.

It won’t be a surprise for many to find that the sort of prevention work in Early Action is soft skill based. This is in stark contrast to the ‘hard skill’ base required for the sort of preventative work that cops do now. Which is more culturally acceptable? I shall leave that conclusion to you, the reader.
As I come to the end of this blog, having discussed two of the Peelian Principles, I reflect on what I thought I would find as I thought about this blog. I thought I would find some of the principles outdated and in need of refreshment, but I am asking myself if that is really the case… Is it the case that if we used the principles to design a brand new service, it wouldn’t look like the one we have now? Because if that is the case, it suggests that not only have we departed from Peel over the previous years, but it is possible that we have switched focus entirely.

Policing does not happen in a vacuum, the political environment has a huge influence on policing function. New Labour targets and the counting regime imposed by central govt. has left a lasting and pernicious effect on the landscape of policing. Maybe reverting to Peel as the base for future redesign is not only necessary, but also – in a distinctly retro way – radical.

It’s strange that we can look backwards to look forwards…

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