Section 1.1:  Policing in Ancient Times

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

Long ago, before there were police cars or detectives, people had to find ways to protect each other. In olden times, when people lived in small groups like tribes, they had to deal with those who broke the rules or harmed others. Although we don’t have a lot of information about these ancient times, we do know that these early societies had their own ways of keeping peace and order.

Term of Art: Social Norms

You’ll come across terms like “social norms” in this book. These are special words that have a specific meaning in subjects like criminal justice, law, and sociology. Social norms are like unwritten rules that everyone in a society follows. Think of them as the invisible guidelines that help people know how to act around each other.

How Did Ancient Societies Handle Misbehavior?

Back then, there weren’t any written laws or courts like we have today. Instead, people relied on their families or tribes to protect them and to decide what to do when someone broke the rules. Sociologist Clarence Ray Jeffery gave us insights into these ancient times. He talked about how people in Britain, long before modern times, lived in tribes. These tribes believed in what we call “kin policing.” This means the entire family, or tribe, would take responsibility for keeping each other safe.

In these tribes, if someone hurt a member of the family, it was seen as hurting the entire family. Justice was a team effort. There were no police stations or judges; instead, the tribe decided on the punishment, which could sometimes be harsh.

Reflect 🔍

Think about how your community handles rules and misbehavior. How is it similar to or different from the way ancient tribes handled justice?

Ancient Codes of Law: The Foundations of Modern Justice

The Beginning of Written Laws

Imagine living over 3000 years ago in a place called Babylon. That’s where King Hammurabi came up with the first-ever written legal code around the tenth century B.C. This was a big deal because it was the first time rules were written down for everyone to see. The Code of Hammurabi had some ideas that we still use in American law today. It talked about being responsible for your actions, the importance of promising something before God, and the need for written proof in legal matters.

The Mosaic Code and Its Influence

Now, let’s jump to another ancient set of laws – the Law of Moses, also known as the Mosaic Code. This set of laws is super important in Western legal traditions. Ever heard of terms like “mala in se” and “mala prohibita“? These come from the Mosaic Code. “Mala in se” are things that are wrong by nature, like murder or robbery. On the other hand, “mala prohibita” are things that aren’t naturally bad but are forbidden by law.

Greek Contributions to Law and Policing

Around 620 B.C., the Greeks started their own form of policing. A guy named Draco made laws in ancient Athens, and, believe it or not, he said that all crimes should be punished by death! That’s why super harsh laws are called “Draconian” today. After Draco, Solon took over and made things fairer. The Greeks came up with the idea of having elected groups make laws and courts with juries made of regular people.

Philosophers and Their Impact on Legal Thinking

The famous philosophers of ancient Greece, like Plato, also shaped how we think about laws. Plato was the first to say that crimes at night are worse than those during the day. He also talked about different types of homicide and believed that helping criminals change for the better was more important than just punishing them.

Roman Contributions to Modern Law

Finally, when the Romans took over the Mediterranean, they added their own touch to the legal system. In the Fifth Century, they made the Law of the Twelve Tables, which influenced many things we still see in law today, like how courts work, the use of confessions, and the idea of “torts” (which are like personal injury laws).

Reflect 🔍

Think about the laws and rules in your community. Can you see any similarities with these ancient codes of law? How do the reasons for having rules back then compare to the reasons we have them now?

Early Enforcers: The Roots of Policing

The Start in Ancient Egypt

Way back in 3000 BC, in ancient Egypt, the first known police force was born. Imagine Egypt, divided into 42 parts, each with its own ruler. The pharaoh, who was like the king, appointed someone in each of these areas to be in charge of keeping people safe and making sure justice was served.

Roman Practices

Now, let’s jump to ancient Rome. Here, things were pretty different. The Romans often picked people from the lower classes – sometimes even those with a criminal background – to be part of their police force. During Rome’s Republic era, everyday folks didn’t really get involved in stopping or solving crimes. This might sound strange to us now, but back then, what we think of as crimes were often seen as private disputes.

In Rome, they had the Praetorian Guard, established by Emperor Augustus. These were special soldiers who also helped keep peace. The city had groups called the Urban Cohorts, about 500 to 600 men strong, to maintain order. And don’t forget the vigiles, who were kind of like ancient firefighters and patrollers. Rome was divided into 14 wards, with each ward having smaller areas (vici) overseen by vicomagistri, responsible for fire safety and other community needs.

Britain and the Influence of Rome

From 55 B.C. to 400 A.D., the Romans took over Britain. They brought with them new skills in building roads and military sites, and set up towns. Outside these Roman towns, the Celtic way of life continued. Even after the Romans left Britain, their influence lingered. Then came new invaders, like the Anglo-Saxons. By 870 A.D., a leader named Alfred the Great unified the region and introduced the mutual pledge system, a kind of early community policing.

The Origin of the Word “Police”

Have you ever wondered where the word “police” comes from? It actually meant something different in the beginning. It traces back to the Latin word ‘politia,’ which comes from the Greek ‘politeia.’ These words were more about government and society rather than just law enforcement.

🔍 Reflect

How do the early forms of policing in ancient civilizations compare to modern-day policing? What similarities and differences can you identify?

The Mutual Pledge System: A Look into Early Policing

Understanding the Mutual Pledge System

In the old days, before we had police like we do now, there was something called the mutual pledge system. This was a way to keep order where everyone in a community was responsible for themselves and also for their neighbors. If a crime happened, it was up to everyone to help out.

Hue and Cry: The Community’s Alarm

A big part of this system was the “hue and cry”. This was a loud call that signaled all able-bodied men (back then, this meant males over 12 years old) to gather and chase after the criminal. If they didn’t catch the lawbreaker, the whole group could be fined! If no one saw the crime happen, it was up to the victim to try to solve it. There weren’t any police or detectives to investigate.

Tithings: The Building Blocks

The basic unit of this system was the “tithing”. Think of it like a small neighborhood group of about ten families. Each group had a leader, called a tithingman. Everyone in the tithing was responsible for each other. If someone from your tithing did something wrong, you had to help find them or pay their fines.

Hundreds and Constables

The next level up was the “hundred”. This was a bigger group made up of ten tithings. The hundred had its own leader, the hundredman, who was like a local judge and administrator. From this level, the role of the constable started. Initially, the constable looked after the weapons and equipment of the hundred.

Shires and Shire-Reeves

Each hundred was part of a larger area called a “shire”, overseen by a shire-reeve. This role is where our modern-day idea of a county sheriff comes from, both in England and the United States.

The Evolution of the Frankpledge System

The Mutual Pledge System Before 1066

Before the Norman invasion in 1066, the mutual pledge system was the main way to maintain peace in England. This system was based on community responsibility, where everyone in a small group (the tithing) looked out for each other. If a member committed a crime, others in the tithing were accountable to help find them or pay fines. This system was more about communal responsibility and less about central control.

Introduction of the Frankpledge System

When William of Normandy became the King of England, he introduced the Frankpledge System. This was a shift from the mutual pledge system in several key ways:

  1. Land Ownership Ties: The Frankpledge System was closely tied to land ownership. Only free men who owned land were required to participate, which excluded a significant portion of the population. This change shifted the focus from communal responsibility to landowners’ responsibility.
  2. Oath of Loyalty: Under the Frankpledge System, men had to swear an oath of allegiance to the King. This was a new element, adding a layer of loyalty to the Crown, which wasn’t explicitly present in the mutual pledge system.
  3. Centralized Control: The new system was designed to assert more control over the English population, especially to prevent rebellions. It was a move towards a more centralized and royal-controlled system of maintaining law and order.
  4. Organizational Structure: While the mutual pledge system was organized around tithings and hundreds, the Frankpledge System organized groups around land divisions and tenancies. This meant a shift in how people were grouped and who was responsible for whom.
  5. Judicial Authority: In the Frankpledge System, the role of local judicial authorities like the shire-reeve (sheriff) became more prominent. These officials were more closely aligned with the Crown, enhancing the king’s direct influence in local legal matters.

Consequences of the Shift

This transition marked a significant change in how law and order were maintained in England. It moved away from a system where community members were responsible for each other towards a system where allegiance to the Crown and land ownership determined one’s role in maintaining peace.

🔍 Reflect

How does the mutual pledge system compare to our current system of law enforcement and community responsibility? What elements do you think are still important today?

The Constable System: A Shift in Policing

Decline of the Frankpledge and Rise of the Constable

By the 15th century, the frankpledge system, which focused on communal responsibility, was fading out. It was replaced by the constable system. In this new setup, the parish (a community centered around a church) elected a constable to maintain public order. The biggest change here was that the constable was a servant of the Crown, owing loyalty to the government rather than just their local community.

The Evolution of the Constable Role

The term “constable” comes from Old French and initially meant someone holding a public office. Over time, it came to signify a person with higher authority. In England, the constable first appeared as a role in the royal court but evolved into a local office in manors and parishes by the late 13th century. The constable, who was often from the upper class, worked under the sheriff and was appointed by various authorities, like the courts.

Duties and Responsibilities

Under the constable system, every citizen was still expected to help keep the King’s peace. This meant that anyone could arrest a lawbreaker. The constables, who were part-time and unpaid, had a specific duty to do this. In towns, watchmen often helped the constables. The system maintained the hue and cry tradition, requiring citizens to respond and keep weapons ready. The constable had the special job of bringing offenders to the court of leet, which was like a criminal court in the Middle Ages.

The Watch and Ward System

In urban areas, the Watch and Ward System was often used instead of the constable system. This system had patrolmen watch for fires, guard town gates at night, arrest suspicious strangers, and prevent burglaries.

Centralization of Justice: The Justice of the Peace Act of 1361

The Justice of the Peace Act of 1361 was a major step in centralizing England’s administration of justice. It created the Office of Justice of the Peace, giving it administrative authority over the police and judicial and administrative duties. These justices, appointed by the monarch, marked the end of the traditional system where every adult male had a duty to the community for law enforcement. This new setup lasted until the 19th century, except for a short period during Oliver Cromwell’s rule, with justices of the peace, constables, and the watch and ward responsible for public order and safety.

The Stipendiary Police System

The Rise of Private Policing

From the early 16th to the early 19th century, as communities and cities grew, a new form of policing began to emerge. Merchants, traders, church members, and others started hiring private individuals to protect their property and themselves. This led to the creation of the stipendiary police system, where people were paid for catching and convicting thieves. The funding for this system came from various sources, including public rewards, insurance companies, commercial establishments, prosecuting associations, and subscriptions. This system allowed any citizen, not just constables and justices, to become ‘thieftakers’ and earn money through these services.

Harsh Punishments and the Draconian Approach

The stipendiary system existed alongside a legal system that imposed severe punishments for what we’d now consider minor offenses. This era saw the frequent use of the death penalty and brutal mutilations for a wide range of crimes. The logic behind these harsh punishments was twofold: firstly, to deter people from committing crimes, and secondly, to give criminals a chance for spiritual redemption through suffering.

System Breakdown and Corruption

Over time, especially with the advent of industrialization and urbanization, the system’s flaws became more evident. Corruption was rampant, particularly in cities. The status of constables diminished, and the role eventually became subservient to the justice of the peace. High social status individuals no longer wanted to perform their duties as constables. Laws were passed allowing wealthy people to hire substitutes to serve their terms, which led to only the poor, elderly, or infirm taking up the constable role in big cities like London, Boston, and New York City.

The Breakdown of Traditional Policing

By the late 17th century, traditional policing systems were struggling under the pressures of high population growth. The urban policing system, with its nearly unpaid public constables and reliance on private, stipendiary thief-takers, was inefficient and plagued by corruption. This old system, a mix of disgraced high constables and corrupt bounty hunters, couldn’t cope with the dramatic increase in England’s population. Serious crimes and disorder in cities, especially in London, reached intolerable levels, leading to a widespread demand for change.

The Bow Street Runners

Addressing Crime in London

In the mid-18th century, London was grappling with high crime rates and general disorder. Two brothers, Henry and John Fielding, who were magistrates at the Bow Street Court, saw the need for a change. In 1750, they set up a new kind of police force, which became known as the Bow Street Runners.

The Formation of the Bow Street Runners

The Bow Street Runners were a group of officers who patrolled the streets in the parish of Bow Street. This was a significant step because it introduced the concept of a paid constabulary, where officers were compensated for their services. This was different from the traditional volunteer or community-based systems that were prevalent at the time.

Expansion and Limited Support

Inspired by the Bow Street model, Parliament, which is the law-making body in England (similar to the U.S. Congress), established several more offices following this model. However, the idea of a paid, professional police force wasn’t widely supported at the time, either by the public or the government. This lack of support meant that while the Bow Street Runners were a step towards modern policing, widespread change in policing methods across England was still a long way off.

🔍 Reflect

How did the creation of the Bow Street Runners signify a shift in the approach to policing in London? What challenges do you think they faced due to the lack of popular and governmental support for a professional police force at the time?

The Thames River Police

Founding of the Thames River Police

In 1798, a crucial step in police reform was taken with the establishment of the Thames River Police in London. This was a landmark moment as it marked the creation of the first professional police force in the city. The primary goal of this force was to tackle the widespread thefts in what was then the world’s largest port.

Financial Backing and Leadership

Unique to its formation, the Thames River Police was financed by local businessmen, reflecting its direct connection to the interests of shipping and commerce. The force was led by Patrick Colquhoun and included a full-time staff of 80 men, supplemented by an on-call team of over 1,000.

Innovations in Policing

The Thames River Police introduced two key innovations that would greatly influence future police forces:

  1. Visible, Preventive Patrols: Unlike previous systems that reacted to crime, the Thames River Police focused on visible patrols aimed at preventing crime before it happened.
  2. Salaried Officers: Officers in this force were paid a regular salary. This was a significant departure from the stipendiary system where officers were paid per arrest or case. Importantly, these officers were barred from accepting fees and rewards, emphasizing a commitment to unbiased law enforcement.

Success and Public Funding

The Thames River Police proved to be highly effective. Crime reports in their jurisdiction dropped significantly, demonstrating the success of their innovative approach. Their effectiveness was recognized by the government, leading the House of Commons to pass a bill in July 1890, making the Thames River Police a publicly funded organization. This transition marked a significant shift in the perception and role of policing, setting a precedent for public accountability and government involvement in law enforcement.

Political Problems with Policing

Resistance to Change in Policing

In England, even with successful models of policing like the Thames River Police, there was considerable resistance to changing the existing law enforcement system. This resistance was rooted in social and political factors.

Funding Challenges and Taxation

A major obstacle to reform was the need for substantial public funding to support alternatives to the stipendiary system. Raising taxes to fund these changes was unpopular with the public, much like the challenges faced in the United States today when trying to improve police services.

Regional Perceptions and Political Ideology

Leaders outside London often viewed the issues of inefficiency and corruption as specific to the capital and believed that the constabulary system was effective in their regions. Furthermore, the prevailing political ideology in England at the time favored small, less intrusive government, which was at odds with the concept of a centralized, publicly funded police force.

Fears of Centralization and Political Misuse

English citizens and leaders were wary of centralizing policing due to fears of political abuse. They were particularly cautious because of the known political abuses by the French police at the time. Many English political leaders were concerned that a standing police force could be misused for political purposes, and this debate continued into the early 19th century.

The Dublin Police Act: An Exception in Ireland

Interestingly, while England grappled with these issues, English politicians had already established a centralized police force in Ireland in response to challenges to English rule. The Dublin Police Act of 1786 created a professional, centralized police force in Dublin, which was then the second-largest city in the British Isles. This force, comprising 40 horse police and 400 constables, initially faced significant resistance. However, by the time Robert Peel (who will be discussed later) became Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1812, Dublin had achieved relatively low crime rates.

🔍 Reflect

Considering the political and social resistance to policing reforms in England, how do you think these attitudes impacted the development of modern policing? What does the example of the Dublin Police demonstrate about the complexities of implementing police reforms in different regions?


Key Terms

References and Further Reading

Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  12/11/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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