What would Sir Robert Peel do?

Peel founded London's Metropolitan Police nearly 200 years ago guided by his belief that the police are the public and the public are the police


This article originally appeared in the June 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit What would Peel do? | Social media's power | Promoting transparency, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

No police academy cadet or criminal justice student can fail to know who Sir Robert Peel was, at least by name.

Author of the famous nine Peelian principles, which are referenced often in Police1 articles, Peel was Britain’s Home secretary – roughly equivalent to our Secretary of State – with responsibilities for safety and security.

Peel lived during an era of reform in England in the 1820s where he served in various government capacities. He supported changes in tariffs that concentrated wealth among the land-owning classes, changes in labor laws to reduce child labor in factories and mines, and reducing the use of the death penalty.

The mobs and shouts for reform Sir Robert Peel faced were not new in the 1800s nor are they new today. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
The mobs and shouts for reform Sir Robert Peel faced were not new in the 1800s nor are they new today. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A keen observer of social behavior, in 1829 Peel established London's Metropolitan Police with several foundational philosophies. These included a realization that the public will tolerate only so much law enforcement, that the cooperation and involvement of the public are critical to law enforcement’s success, and that use of physical force must occur within the bounds of public acceptance and only at the failure of persuasion.

But Peel also said some other things. For example, Peelian principle number five states that police "seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.” Modern leaders, both in policing and in politics (an often blurred line), struggle with listening to public consensus, and enforcing the laws as written without fear or favor. Awash in the current wave of protests and instant police reform proposals, how can law enforcement continue to enforce the law when even routine and appropriate enforcement is called misconduct?

Brainyquote.com cites these additional nuggets of Peelian wisdom:

  • Agitation is the marshaling of the conscience of a nation to mold its laws, but after this natural burst of indignation, no man of sense, courage, or prudence will waste his time or his strength in retrospective reproaches.
  • There seem to me to be very few facts, at least ascertainable facts, in politics.
  • Public opinion is a compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy and newspaper paragraphs.
  • The Reform Bill has destroyed the ancient conduits and strainers, and brings public opinion to act upon the government with the rapid, turbulent and uncertain violence of a flood!

It appears that the father of modern policing was not merely an idealist, but a political realist as well. Tempests, mobs and shouts for reform were not new in the 1800s nor are they new today. Whether the winnowing of the extreme rhetoric into useful conversations will accomplish meaningful improvements in public safety is hard to say. We are tempted to say that things calmed down after every upheaval in American history as attitudes, laws, court battles and cultural expectations changed.

The difference is that today’s movements develop literally at the speed of light with digital narratives overwhelming deliberate investigation and analysis. No opinion goes unpublished or unchallenged. Language and protocol for addressing issues of race are very narrow and volatile. The license given by politicians to violence and destruction legitimizes any means by which to communicate any rage. Can we recover?

Considering patterns of the past we expect that violent protests and the intensity of lawful protests will diminish. There will be promises of new laws, regulations, funding, oversight and attention to policing. Some unwise legislation will pass in the heat of the moment. Most proposals will duplicate things already being done. But mostly voices will soften as politicians promise and the news cycle attaches to a new crisis. We’ll find that we never really understood the real issues at their depth or never really solved whatever problems there were, but we can all feel good about the noise we made and the votes the panderers under the marble domes retained.

In the interim, while crime rates rise and people begin hoping that the police will come, we need the rational voices of others. Slapping the hands of the police as a solution to racism may feel good for the moment, but in the path from gestation to prison, a person’s life has many influences and policing is just a blip. All the police reform in the world, however justified and worthy, will not solve it. Thinking that it will, can only delay the real solutions. I think Peel might agree.

NEXT: Trump’s take on police reform

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