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Keeping the Peace
Law Enforcement

Keeping the Peace
The duty of every government concerns the enforcement of  law, protection of property rights, and preservation of class systems to maintain civil order; however, the concept of a uniformed and professional police force dates back only to the 19th century. Historically, families, clans, and the military assumed and carried out the responsibility for law enforcement, which led to exploitation and abuses, often with vengeance in mind rather than justice.

Law enforcement by the military basically consisted of military occupation by the reigning ruler. The Roman Empire relied upon kinship networks and community self-regulation to resolve conflicts and control communities. When that didn’t work, the emperor sent in the military to maintain civil order, usually at swordpoint. The common sight of Roman soldiers on patrol did much to deter crime.

After the Roman Empire fell, Frankish and Celtic territories relied upon community policing, consisting of boys and men conscripted into unpaid service in groups of ten. Each member of the group pledged to capture and detain any member of their immediate community or clan who committed a crime. This system became known as the frankpledge. Lack of oversight led to lackadaisical execution of duties and the parish constable system. Constables served 1-year terms, organized night watchmen to guard the town gates, and had authority to alert their communities of emergency. At the constable’s “hue and cry,” every man dropped what he was doing and rushed to the constable’s aid to apprehend the criminal.

But the world covered more territory and time than the Roman and Byzantine Empires. In ancient Egypt, the concept of ma’at, personified as a goddess of harmony and balance, underlaid the social order for civil obedience. The concept promoted living with respect for one’s self, one’s family, one’s immediate community, and the greater good of the wider community. 
Such systems only work if everyone adheres to them. Inevitably, some individuals advanced their own interests above anyone else’s, which prompted the implementation of codified law. Protection of property and self rested in the ability to hire professionals—usually ex-military—to defend one’s own interests, which limited such protection to the wealthy. Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty, brought law enforcement advances in the use of dogs—typically Ibizan and Basenji breeds—and monkeys to apprehend lawbreakers. Spotty application resulted in the creation of a standing army during the Middle Kingdom era (2040- 1782 B.C.) guided by a focus on enforcing law. This period also witnessed the creation of a judicial system in which disputes were heard by a panel of scribes and priests who could be bribed to decide in one’s favor. Rampant corruption led to the appointment of well-paid judges and the development of courts which required bailiffs, court scribes, detectives, interrogators, etc.

The Chinese relied upon the emperor to add, remove, and change laws; however, civil order relied mainly on moral teaching and the principles of Confucianism and Legalism. Prefects with limited authority enforced laws, and some also handled criminal investigations. Harsh punishment for violating such principles deterred crime. 

Feudal Japan relied upon individual military and citizen groups to maintain civil order until the country’s unification in 1603, when the Tokugawa shogunate deployed samurai warriors to serve in law enforcement. That system worked reasonably well for 250 years and resulted in an authoritarian and elaborate police state with a convoluted hierarchy and regulations that governed every aspect of Japanese life.

In 1667, King Louis XIV of France commissioned the first centrally organized and specifically tasked police force to safeguard the streets and citizens of Paris. In 1797, West Indies merchants established a hired police force of 50 men at the docks on the Thames River in England to deter theft of their valuable cargoes. Patrick Colquhoun recorded the experiment in his book, A Treatise on the Police of London; Containing a Detail of the Various Crimes and Misdemeanors by which Public and Private Property and Security Are, at Present, Injured and Endangered: And Suggesting Remedies for their Prevention. His practical approach found purchase in other large cities in Europe and North America and led to royal acceptance for the establishment of London’s Metropolitan Police with Sir Robert Peel appointed as the Home Secretary. Peel organized the police force from the ranks of civilians rather than the military.

Scholars typically credit Peel with the development of the first modern, uniformed, police force, exemplified by the first distinctive “custodian helmet” issued in 1863.

By Karen M. Smith

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