Friday, 20 June 2008

The policeman state: attitudes and stereotypes

The strength and cost of the policeman-state has risen continuously. In 1861 there was one police man to every 937 people in England and Wales, by 1891 one for every 731 and by 1951 one for every 661. Costs rose from £1.5 million in 1861 to over £3.5 million in 1891 and £7.0 million in 1914. The rising cost of theft justified this. Great robberies have been as infrequent as great murders and it comes as a shock to realise that when the cost of reported theft is compared with the mounting cost of the policeman state, it has always been small. According to Metropolitan Police statistics in 1848, reported break-ins and robberies in London cost a mere £2,507 and all felonies against property £44,666. Even in 1899, when reporting was more reliable and extensive, burglary cost Londoners only £88,406 or 3d per head of the metropolitan population. Several points emerge from this:

  1. The costs of theft and of violence would have been far higher had there been no police and it can be argued that these figures demonstrate a degree of successful deterrence.
  2. Historians who try to give the criminal a niche in the pantheon of major historical agents have to be of a romantic disposition. Most reported crimes were small-scale, distressing though they certainly were for their immediate victims.
  3. Still less have criminals had a major effect on the established order of things, other than intensifying the authoritarian instincts of their enemies. Britain's working class thieves tended to steal from the working class rather than among the middle and upper classes.

The technicalities of fraud might be beyond the ability of the ordinary policeman but what was not beyond his comprehension was the behaviour encountered daily in the streets, where poorer people conducted a good deal of their business and often behaved illegally. They were constrained largely to police the streets and, as a result, confirmed the premise that the bottom third or quarter of the urban population was indeed the most criminal. The early constables were usually recruited from the agricultural labour force or from the army, were paid low wages and were often quick to leave the force.

Police culture

In the larger forces, by 1850, a more stable career structure and command hierarchy was already beginning to enclose lesser officers within an occupation sub-culture with its own values and standards. Sustained by this, the Victorian policeman undertook the task of patrolling the poor with the unselfconscious alacrity their twentieth century successors brought to the task of patrolling aliens and blacks.

  1. Isolated by uniform, discipline and function from the working class communities and upholding 'order' in the face of chronic hostility and abuse from their targets, the career policeman made sense of this situation by internalising authoritarian values and deferring to conventional standards of respectability. Yet, the police generated their own operational standards on the streets, passed on via 'apprenticeship' from officer to officer, that were often less respectable and at odds with those of the rulebooks and the letter of the law.
  2. Some degree of tension between the command structure and the ordinary station-men was endemic in British policing. It stemmed from grievances about working conditions leading to abortive Metropolitan Police strikes in 1879 and 1890 and to the 1918-19 police strike. In addition there was the remoteness of commissioners and chief constables, often trained in the military or colonial services, from the lower-rank notions of 'good policing' that focused on detection rather than deterrence, action rather than service, physical engagement rather than administration.
  3. The pressure on the men to fulfil their service roles was unrelenting and sporadic campaigns against their corruption and malpractice spatter the pages of police history. These usually surfaced only in circuitous ways: through public interest in the trials of 1877 or of Inspector White in 1880, or in the public disquiet that resulted in the issuing of Judges' Rules on interrogation and arrest procedures in 1912. The 1906-1908 Royal Commission was initiated over the alleged wrongful arrest of Mme D'Angely, a lady of dubious reputation but a lady nonetheless. In this case, and in the 1928-9 commission, the police made the mistake of doing tactless things to articulate people who could fight back.
  4. The 1906-1908 Commission found that only nineteen of the complaints it invited were worth examining, and only a few proven satisfactorily. The impoverished public that did not matter but might have known better about police malpractice did not speak out; when it did, hostile questioning discredited it.

What is clear from the evidence of the Royal Commission is the long-standing system of wheeling and dealing between police and underworld that had its own unwritten rules and at which command officers had no choice but to connive. Blind eyes were turned, favours exacted and reciprocated, informers employed, bribes exchanges and some brutality was standard practice. Relations between police and law-breakers were necessarily close and it would be surprising then as now, if they were not also contaminating. Witnesses before the 1878 confidential detective committee drew a thin veil over the implications of detectives 'using' a certain class of people among the criminal class from whom to get information by small payments or other means. Officials recurrently compromised in their efforts to police the streets.

The poor and the police

The poor expected little sympathy from the police. Attempts, like that of Commissioner Warren after criticism of police conduct in the 1887 unemployment riots, at public relations were treated with scepticism by the working classes. Broadly their instinct was sound. In 1904 metropolitan divisional officers reported confidentially to Scotland Yard on the extent of hardship in the course of that bitter winter. These reports demonstrate a remarkable uniformity of tone, not only out of sympathy with their primary targets but also ideologically at one with itself:

  • 'The so-called unemployed ...has.... the appearance of habitual loafers rather than unemployed workmen.'
  • 'The poor and distressed appearance of numbers of persons met in the East End is due more to thriftlessness and intemperate habits than to absolute poverty.'
  • 'Poverty is brought about by a want of thrift.'
  • 'The so-called 'unemployed' could not be in the starving condition they profess for they travelled at a pace that required considerable endurance.'
  • 'No politician will tell the working man that he is mainly responsible for his own condition, nor have the courage to point out how industry is everywhere being ruined by the despotic power of Trade Unionism.'

Reflexes of this kind were not peculiar to policemen. The poor had always been the targets of the law, and systematic urban policing could only underline this bias. Their own prejudices apart, they had no choice, operationally, but to be highly selective in their attacks on the nation's illegalities. They had to concentrate on the regulation of public space and public order and this brought them into more direct contact with the poor, who conducted most of their lives in this space.

Police discretion

Several statutory weapons put poor people centre-stage on law enforcement. The Vagrancy Act 1824, the Metropolitan Police Act 1839, police acts and bye-laws, the Habitual Criminals legislation of 1869-71 combined to give police immense discretionary powers of arrest on suspicion of intent to commit a felony. The police had equal discretionary powers of defining obstruction, breach of the peace, and drunkenness. They could decide whether or not to arrest, whether to bring charges and what charges. Against these powers the poorer people had little defence.

  1. This discretion was group-specific in application. Early police orders told constables not to interfere with 'respectable' working people. Stop-and-search powers resulted in the arrest of vagrants, suspicious people and, with luck, some actual criminals.
  2. This resulted in vulnerable and accessible people being driven into courts. Magistrates convicted or committed them for trial on very little evidence, often, other than police testimony as to character. These then became the 'criminal class' and ideological stereotypes were thus fuelled and self-confirming.
  3. The police came to be convinced that the class they had a decisive hand in making was the group among whom crime was most prevalent and hence in need of surveillance.

The scale of this should not be underestimated. In the nineteenth century, very many more people had a direct experience of the disciplinary and coercive effects of policing and the law than is widely believed. When statistics are looked at not in terms of convictions but of arrests or summonses in any one-year, the results are even more startling. In 1861 1 in 29 of the male and 1 in 120 of the female population were either arrested or summonsed. By 1901 the figures respectively were 1 in 24 and 1 in 123. Summary prosecutions rose by 73 per cent between 1861 and 1901. So even if the incidence of serious crime declined, the likelihood of being subjected to legal discipline by arrest or summons actually worsened considerably. The immediate threat that the police offered to the social life of the poor had greatly increased in those decades when the policeman state was making its major bureaucratic advances. The Edwardian working classes were in this sense more closely regulated and supervised than their parents and grandparents. Resentment at this was inevitable. Robert Roberts wrote of Salford in the first quarter of the twentieth century in these terms[1]: 'Nobody in our Northern slums every spoke in fond regard of the policeman as 'social worker' and 'handyman of the streets'. The poor in general looked upon him with fear and dislike...The 'public' (meaning the middle and upper classes).... held their 'bobby' in patronising affection and esteem, that he repaid with due respectfulness; but these sentiments were never shared by the undermass, nor in fact by the working class generally.'

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, anti-police riots had expressed this frame of mind forcefully. These confrontations did decline after 1850 but the significance of this can be misconstrued. It indicated less the growing acquiescence of an incorporated working class than the isolation, marginalisation and defeat of its poorest and most turbulent sectors: of those 40 per cent of adult males who were excluded from the franchise until 1918 and who were barely unionised, if at all. The decline of their collective opposition to police reflected in good measure the growing effectiveness of crowd control by the police and the obligation imposed on an increasingly marginalised residuum to come to terms with the permanence of the social order, even when they benefited little from it.

Resistance and respectability

There was widespread, and sometimes violent, resistance to the introduction of professional policing. Many radicals regarded the police, as agents of a repressive government and union organisers feared that the police would prove a strikebreaking force. Even those unaffected by those concerns resented the introduction of a body that would enforce the law in hitherto unregulated areas of everyday life. It was this regulatory and intrusive character of the police that probably led to more hostility than almost everything else.

  1. The most serious disturbances occurred in Colne during 1840. The creation of a police force for the town in April led to attempts to keep the streets clear for 'respectable' inhabitants by 'moving-on' the crowds of onlookers who were accustomed to congregate in the town centre. The situation was complicated by the fact that the constables were not from the area, many being Scots, and the pro-Chartist nature of the community. Riots began on 24 April and were eventually quelled by the arrival of troops. More riots occurred in August that again resulted in military intervention.
  2. Similar resentment of a police presence was shown at the Lancaster races in July 1840 when a force of Lancashire county police was attacked without any real provocation. A party of Leeds Corporation police was attacked in June 1844 after arresting some soldiers accused of beating a man up.
  3. Major risings against the police were concentrated between 1839 and 1844 when forces were introduced into areas for the first time. Their most important element seems to have been attempts by local communities to resist the intrusion of professional police who were seen as an imposition from 'outside'.

Major disturbances may have died out in the late 1840s but levels of violence against policemen throughout this period indicate that resistance to undo intrusion was evident. As an instrument of social control the 'new' police were highly successful, at least on the surface.


[1] R. Roberts The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century, Manchester, 1971, page 77.

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