Pillars of Truth in Law Enforcement’s Past
By Taylor Patterson
Discussion on policies and laws that aim to manage police officer behavior as a means of improving department-wide issues is ongoing. When looking toward the future of law enforcement, it is important to recognize the important insights and pillars of truth embedded in its past.
The principles and values that form a foundation for policing must not only direct officers to act ethically and lawfully but also encourage the building and strengthening of public trust and increase legitimacy. They must foster “rightful policing.”1
Acknowledging the necessity for cultural change that forms an atmosphere for minimizing misconduct is not a new concept and has been part of every significant commission centered around policing.2 Sociologists have expressed the importance of department culture shaping officer behavior since the 1960s.3
Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing, or the Peelian Principles, were devised in 1829 to better guide England’s first modern police force, the Metropolitan Police. These standards were issued to every new officer and laid the foundation for policing.4
Major Patterson serves with the Miccosukee Police Department in Miami and is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 281.
Although Peel is most often credited for the Peelian Principles, it is unknown who penned them; they were likely written by Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne, the first London police commissioners.5 However, Peel espoused the essence of many of these principles in his speeches and other communications.
“If we think of Colquhoun as the architect who designed our modern police, and of Peel as the builder who constructed its framework, we must remember that there were others who had a hand in the good work, and that a long time elapsed between the drawing of the plans and the erection of the edifice.”6
Peel’s principles are timeless and as relevant as they were in 1829. The ideals contained within these standards can guide any officer today. Though they are not officially a code of ethics, they dictate necessary ethical behavior of law enforcement.
Prevent Crime and Disorder
The first Peelian Principle underscores proactive crime prevention strategies over a reactive crime suppression mindset. It says officers should “prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.”7 Although this principle was shaped within the context of history at the time it was written, it remains relevant.
Public Approval and Respect
Peel’s second principle states “the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.”8 With the media focusing on every questionable law enforcement action, it can be argued that adherence to this principle is more vital today than ever before. Interactions between law enforcement and the community have a huge influence on how the public views policing.9
Establishing and implementing community-oriented policing is instrumental in gaining public assistance and approval. The third Peelian Principle states that “to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.”10 This does not solely mean gaining the community’s willing compliance of the law; it also underscores the necessity of fostering public cooperation and maintaining legitimacy. When this is coupled with a coordinated effort to resolve problems, prevent crime and disorder, and solve crime, the outcomes will allow a department to act lawfully and fulfill its mission.
As quoted by J. Edgar Hoover, “The most effective weapon against crime is cooperation. The efforts of all law enforcement agencies with the support and understanding of the American people.”11 This is reflected in the fourth Peelian Principle: “[T]he extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.”12
However, distinctions must be made — officers must realize that, as with their duty belt, they have different tools for the job, and they need to transition quickly and effectively when needed. By acknowledging the inherent dangers of police work, that every situation and encounter is different, and remaining firmly focused on the founding principles of policing, officers can achieve public cooperation.
“When looking toward the future of law enforcement, it is important to recognize the important insights and pillars of truth embedded in its past.”
Impartial Service to the Law
Law enforcement has a moral and ethical duty to provide impartial service in the performance of its duties regardless of a person’s race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic factors, or politics. Any deviation from this obligation results in an unfavorable impact with legitimacy and public opinion and violates the founding ethical principles of policing. This is the idea behind the fifth Peelian Principle, which says police “seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law. … ”13
Use of Force
Officers cannot be complacent regarding the potential and material violence inherent in law enforcement and must commit physical force as a last resort when warranted. The sixth Peelian Principle states that officers should use physical force “to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order” only when “the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.”14 Police officers are guardians, warriors, servants, and so much more.
Police and the Public
The seventh Peelian Principle states that police must “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.”15 This underscores that the police are fundamentally not at odds with the public but rather a part of the public itself, and there is a shared responsibility for the community and the police to further community well-being.
“Peel’s principles are timeless and as relevant as they were in 1829.”
Adherence to Police Functions
In the eighth principle, Peel advises officers to “recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.”16 In other words, police are not expected to be part of the judicial system but rather the front line of the criminal justice system. Officers must remember everyone is innocent until proven guilty by a court of law, a concept embedded in the Fifth, Sixth, and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Absence of Crime and Disorder
It is important not to lose sight of one of the founding tenets in policing, exemplified in the ninth Peelian Principle: “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.”17 Law enforcement fails the officer, department, and public when its measure of efficiency becomes solely driven by numbers. Policing’s primary goal is preventing crime and disorder, not effecting arrests. As J. Edgar Hoover stated, “Justice is merely incidental to law and order.”18
How officers prevent crime and disorder is critical to their legitimacy. A department’s leadership that has a solid foundation of ethical standards guides officers, helps form an ideal culture, and influences police behavior within that agency.
The principles of today’s officers will shape and determine what their ethical conduct will be as future leaders. Law enforcement leadership must form an equitable culture of accountability founded in an ethical code. This promotes the idea that implanting and maintaining a culture consistent with core policing principles encourages ethical conduct and decision-making. This will foster legitimacy, trust, and engagement within communities; minimize corruption; and complete law enforcement’s mission more effectively.
“The principles of today’s officers will shape and determine what their ethical conduct will be as future leaders.”
Major Patterson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Seth Stoughton, “Principled Policing: Warrior Cops and Guardian Officers,” Wake Forest Law Review 51 (2016): 611-676, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2830642.
4 UK government, “Definition of Policing by Consent,” December 10, 2012, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/policing-by-consent/definition-of-policing-by-consent.
6 W. L. Melville Lee, A History of Police in England (London: Methuen & Co., 1901), 219.
7 UK government.
9 Lorie Fridell et al., Racially Biased Policing: A Principled Response (Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, 2001), https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/Publications/cops-w0172-pub.pdf.
10 UK government.
11 “J. Edgar Hoover’s Fedora,” History, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, accessed January 31, 2023, https://www.fbi.gov/history/artifacts/j-edgar-hoover-fedora.
12 UK government.
18 BrainyQuote, “J. Edgar Hoover Quotes,” accessed April 5, 2022, https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/j_edgar_hoover_100250.