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Distrust for the Police is a British Tradition

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There is a deliciously banal absurdity to the news that Rebekah Brooks, the disgraced tabloid editor at the epicentre of the phone-hacking scandal, was loaned a police horse by the Metropolitan Police.

It's the sort of story one expects to see in an episode of The Thick Of It - it's plainly ridiculous, but just nuzzled within the realms of reality. In this case, it did actually happen, but we should try to contain our splenetic rage. After all, if a good home was found for a retiring police horse, then why not give it to an avid horse-lover like Brooks? It's not as if the Met Police did something really inappropriate, like tipping her off about confidential police investigations... wait, what? Oh.

Like a stumbling Rocky Balboa, Britain's police service has been stoically absorbing scandalous sucker punches for years. Institutional corruption, racial profiling of suspects, aggressive kettling of lawful protests, shady undercover operations, and high-profile shootings - these have all been headlines in the last five years alone.

Phone-hacking is just the latest in a long line of Stallone-based metaphors looking to repeatedly smash them in the face. Of course, no-one in the films ever vanquishes Rocky-the-human-punchbag, and neither is the Met going to throw in the towel - there seems little chance of it shrugging its muscular shoulders and suggesting we form a feral brigade of vigilantes instead. The police is a British institution that will exist forever... well, at least until the robot apocalypse comes.

However, the news that Surrey Police is entertaining the idea of sub-contracting private companies to deliver operational logistics and staff has come as a bit of a surprise. It seems highly unlikely that any of these private personnel will be given warrant privileges enabling them to make arrests, but there has still been unease that public servants will be diluted by less civic-minded lackeys.

We have a knee-jerk reaction to this sort of stuff. It makes us flinch, even if the economics are sound. I find this intriguing because, despite the police's aforementioned talent for publically machine-gunning itself in the foot, there is an almost universal acceptance of its necessity in a civilised society. The vast majority of us want more bobbies on the beat, not fewer...

... Oddly, this is something our ancestors would have found shocking.

The concept of policing is quite literally ancient, and was a job performed by slaves in the classical world. Rome's own force was 1,000 strong and they were known as the vigiles (the watchmen). Aside from arresting ne'er-do-wells, they also fought the hundred fires that broke out every day in Rome's alarmingly combustible districts. As police forces go, this was an impressively large body of men, not to be matched for many centuries.

Our own policing history started less emphatically, and for many centuries was unrecognisable. In the Anglo-Saxon era, powerful landlords appointed constables to oversee peace. If anything kicked off, a gaggle of soldiers would be dispatched to arrest the perpetrators. The king also appointed sheriffs and reeves to administer his laws and bring the accused to trial before a jury. Fines were the most common punishment back then. Intriguingly, each crime had a set tariff, which would increase or decrease based on the social rank of the victim. This was known as the Weregeld system - literally, 'man-price'. Slicing off a nose in a fight would cost you more if it belonged to a noble than if it belonged to a farmer.

The Norman Conquest brought little change. Cities appointed 'watchmen', who were effectively nightclub bouncers with stupid hats, there to ensure the curfew was observed (curfew meaning 'cover-fire', or lights out...) This system evolved into something even more dubious, 'thief-takers', who were privately-hired bounty hunters, paid to investigate robberies by the victims. This was justice charged by the hour, and many could ill-afford it... particularly if someone had nicked all your money in the first place.

However, by the 17th century, intellectual and bureaucratic leaps were being made at home and abroad, though in terms of policing... only abroad.

In 1667, during the reign of King Louis XIV, Paris launched its elaborate police network. The Lieutenant-Generale de Police supervised 44 commissioners, each of whom had a hard-nosed detective sidekick to do the proper investigative police-work, while they powdered their wigs and munched on baguettes. Understandably, this massive increase in manpower, carefully distributed through the 16 quartiers of Paris, had a marked positive impact on law and order. Upon witnessing this crucial sea-change in the science of policing, Britain did the obvious thing... Yes, we ignored the French completely. Thief-takers continued to administer their own brand of wonky-pseudo-urban justice, culminating in the greatest of them all - Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker General.

Wild was Georgian London's super-cop. His success record at catching criminals and returning stolen goods was second to none, mostly because he has was also London's most successful criminal. For obvious reasons, a police system that offered financial rewards was bound to encourage the wrong sort, and Jonathan Wild was more wrong than vomit-flavoured ice cream. In order to solve crimes and pocket the hefty rewards, he first had to commission the burglaries, which he quickly turned into an art form. From time to time he would also arrest his own criminal accomplices, sending them to the gallows in return for another substantial payday. When the government asked what policy adjustment would help in the war on crime, he cheekily suggested increasing the reward for apprehending criminals. The government, impressed with his idea, promptly boosted the standard bounty from £40 to £140. No-one was more delighted than Wild, who shopped in a few more of his colleagues before giggling all the way to the bank.

Inevitably, Wild was eventually caught and hanged, and it was at this point that the slightest hint of doubt in the thief-taking system started to emerge. Perhaps, politicians thought, paying policemen a commission wasn't the soundest of ideas?

Soon after, in 1749, the famed writer Henry Fielding, along with his blind-brother John, suggested the Bow Street Runners as an alternative. Funded by the government, and attached to the magistrate's house in Bow Street, the Runners proved themselves to be efficient and trustworthy. Alas, the government was still loathe to fully endorse such a controversial project. They were not allowed to patrol, and were licensed only to arrest known criminals and drag them kicking-and-screaming to trial. The funding was spasmodic at best, and this pilot scheme was never trialled anywhere else. After the death of the Fielding brothers, it doggedly clung on and by 1805 had evolved into the Bow Street Horse Patrol, which protected a few streets in central London, while wearing their bright red tunics. These 'Robin Redbreasts' were the first uniformed police in Britain, though in typically smug style, Napoleon had got there five years earlier in France.

It was 1829 that heralded modern law and order in Britain, when Sir Robert Peel proudly introduced his Metropolitan Police Force. It was, to be fair, a blundering start. Recruitment records show the first three hundred Police were fired almost immediately, with Recruit number one (Constable Atkinson) lasting barely a day. The wages were poor at only a shilling (or 'Bob') a day, and this may be why they were nicknamed Bobbies. With such a meagre salary on offer, and with literacy an un-required luxury in a policeman, it was once again the social dregs who initially wore the smart uniforms. In hindsight, hiring two-thousand dodgy geezers, and arming them with truncheons and cutlasses, was always going to cause shock. Yet, it was not just the quality of the men that was the problem.

While you and I see them as a necessity, early Victorian Britain saw the notion of police as a monstrous attack upon our ancient tradition of liberty. Policemen were seen as the bad guys - women attacked them in the streets, children aided criminals in evading arrest just to spite the Met, and even the respectable classes were disgusted, with one aristocrat ordering his coachman to run a policemen down with his horse-drawn carriage. In 1833, Constable Robert Culley was killed in the line of duty. Today, we would scream for tough justice, but such was the negative feeling towards the uniform that the jury acquitted the murderer of all wrong-doing.

The Peelers (nicknamed after Sir Robert) were deemed a success, however, and were introduced throughout the nation. Detectives, in plain clothes, joined the ranks in 1842 and were soon assisted by forensic science. Gradually, the reputation of the police was improved. However, the whiff of corruption would never go away.

From the 1830s onwards, the accusations of bribery, racketeering, and criminal activity hounded the force like sniffer-dogs hound Charlie Sheen. The 1960s and '70s saw notorious police misconduct, with infamous deals between cops and criminals, and the 1980s witnessed a collapse in trust between Black communities and police, culminating in riots. Last summer, it was disenfranchised and angry youths who took to the streets as a display of disrespect for those who uphold the law.

The phone-hacking scandal is shameful, but the public sensitivity to such a collapse in ethical conduct may yet be the saving grace. The modern police service has recently sought, largely successfully, to root out internal corruption, but the back-room deals with journalists looked like an endemic and un-defeatable problem... until now.

Hopefully, transparent reform can, and should, consign this inappropriate relationship to the past. Yet even if it does not, it seems unlikely that public distrust in the police will ever reach the seething hatred of the 19th century.

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