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Transforming Law Enforcement in 19th Century London

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ian Hutcheson
June 17, 2020

The issue of police reform in the United States has exploded onto the stage of national debate again with the May 25 killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. The rapid spread of protests in cities across the United States has been a painful reminder that law enforcement reform remains an unresolved problem for many Americans.

The hope of institutional change is never too remote however, and an examination of a past instance of reform may prove instructional. The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 created what many consider to be the world’s first modern police force in London. A few elements that proved critical to the 1829 Act’s success include the joining of theory with practice; the advancement of the cause by an influential champion; and the adaption of reform to the customs of English society.

The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829

Policing in Industrial Revolution-era London was a haphazard affair, as described by J. L. Lyman in her 1964 article for The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, “The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829.” Before the Bow Street Runners were established in 1749, law enforcement in the city was executed by part-time watchmen who reported to a patchwork of inter-local authorities. The Runners were London’s first full-time, regularly paid force of criminal investigators. Legislative reform in the years leading up to the Act was sporadic. The cause would eventually be championed by Sir Robert Peel, who as Home Secretary was instrumental in advancing the comprehensive reforms of the 1829 Act.

The landmark legislation created the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) with authority over most of Greater London; entrusted Parliament with responsibility for finances and administration; and stipulated rules of conduct for officers. With the passing of history, London’s MPS has become regarded as the first modern police force.

Producing the Greatest Happiness

The period from 1749 to 1829 was opportune for transforming policing in Great Britain because innovative theories on social reform were actively incorporated into institutions. The success of the Bow Street Runners was followed in 1797 by the Thames River Police, who in working to inhibit theft at London’s port were the expression of a new theory of “preventative policing.”

The idea that law enforcement should proactively prevent crimes from occurring was promoted by the London magistrate Patrick Colquhoun who founded the River Police. Colquhoun collaborated with the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and both men’s ideas were eventually incorporated into Peel’s 1829 Act. The active linking of theory with practice at this time helped demonstrate to lawmakers and the public that institutional change was possible and could be used to improve conditions within society.

Peel’s Progress

For over 70 years police reform in London was promoted by figures such as Colquhoun and Bentham who unfortunately did not manage to crystallize an effort for wholesale reform. It was not until Sir Robert Peel, through his influential position as Home Secretary, devoted himself to reshaping London’s policing system that reform found its champion, and with him, success.

The indispensable value of a bold protagonist to any initiative is easy and convenient to overstate. Still, there were aspects of police reform in contemporary Great Britain that enabled Peel to have a definitive impact. The adoption of the 1829 Act was a singular objective that, once accomplished, created supra-personal institutions that harnessed the momentum of change and carried it into the future. When a single moment can have a massive effect on the fate of an initiative, an effective champion can be the difference between innovation or stagnation.

A Very English Reform

Although history now considers them forerunners, the men who shaped the first modern police agency needed contemporary examples against which to measure their plans. Colquhoun regarded the policing system in Paris highly, writing in his 1797 A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis that, “The French System had arrived at the greatest degree of perfection.” An earlier reform bill proposed in 1785 was defeated in part because it was considered too similar to the Parisian model.

A final reason why the Act of 1829 was triumphant is because it introduced new innovations that were nevertheless grounded in traditional English political concepts. Whereas institutions in France had always tended towards centralization, English governance devolved more authority to the local level. Therefore, the Act gradually extended the police district over more parishes over time and provided for a separate authority over the City of London proper. In adapting reform to the customs characteristic of English society, the 1829 Act proposed change that was more familiar and palatable.

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With Minneapolis moving closer towards implementing institutional change similar to policing reforms made in Camden, New Jersey in 2013, history may regard the current period as worthy of reflection. While the differences between contemporary American society and 19th century Great Britain are substantial, there are certain elements—collaboration between theorists and practitioners, effective leadership and adapting change to its environment—that are timeless in their value to those who promote transformative institutional change.  


Author: Ian Hutcheson, MPA is a Management & Budget Analyst for the City of Oklahoma City and the President-Elect of the ASPA Oklahoma Chapter. He is a 2018 graduate of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Kansas. Ian’s professional areas of interest include city management, finance and budget, economic development and urban design. Contact: [email protected]. Twitter: ihutch01

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