A well-organised police force is a fundamental aspect of modern society, and every country has implemented their own approach to the situation through the ages. Today, the work of police units looks more or less the same across the world, with some regional differences in the exact implementation. At the same time, we’ve seen the development of various advanced police units, capable of tackling more complex tasks than their ordinary counterparts. And while people seem to take this situation for granted, we’ve actually had to go through a lot of work to get to where we are. Few of us think of the historic aspects of the job and how things got to this point, but it’s actually quite interesting to look back and explore what we’ve gone through to reach a situation where people can feel safe in cities of all sizes.
Police didn’t exist as a dedicated force in early societies, though people still recognised the need for organised protection. Many settlements were initially small enough to allow locals to govern themselves in this regard. Though there were no written laws, there was a common understanding of what was right or wrong – and it also didn’t take a long time for people to find out who was behind misdeeds and punish them accordingly. While this setup proved sufficient at first, the continuous growth of societies eventually made this approach obsolete. Ancient Romans simply used the army for this purpose. However, they still lacked an actual judicial system, meaning that prosecution was largely left in the hands of whoever managed to catch the criminal. Cities also deployed watchmen who were hired on a local level to provide specific tasks related to maintaining order, though they still suffered from the same problem in the end.
Other regions were less open about their actions. Some parts of the world saw the formation of “secret police”, a concept particularly popular in Africa, who were tasked with keeping order but did not openly identify themselves as such. The difficulty in identifying an actual structure to those forces made them a challenge for keeping under control, which posed some obvious problems.
Moving Towards a More Organised Setup
At some point around the 14th-15th centuries, some parts of the world started to realise the need for a more centralised approach to policing. Organisations that spanned across multiple cities started to form, and Spain is commonly pointed out as an early example of that approach. The Holy Brotherhood formed during that time is a well-known example of an early police force, and it set many precedents which would be followed by more organised setups – some even lasting until today.
Germany was another country that saw a lot of action in developing its own specialised police forces during that time, along with an organised judicial system for carrying out sentencing. In some places, like England, there were even examples of early specialisations – for example, policemen specifically tasked with chasing down thieves and recovering stolen goods.
Classic Police Arises
France is commonly regarded as the first country to have an actual, officially named police force, specifically implemented for the purpose of maintaining order, and including many of the modern police features – such as wearing uniforms and abiding to a strict code, as well as reporting to a centralised chief of police. These forces were initially created for protecting Paris, but the idea quickly spread out across the country. This is when administrators started to realise that one single office could not handle a growing city with the size of Paris, leading to the decision to split the city in multiple districts, each handled by its own police force – but all reporting to the same central institution.
This proved successful, and the idea was eventually copied in other places. It’s interesting to note that the word “police” also started to appear in this context around that time, but it initially had a negative connotation to it, as some saw it as a symbol of oppression. Nevertheless, the early 18th century saw the official formation of the Commissioners of Police for Scotland, solidifying the name of the force for future generations.
England, Scotland and Ireland are commonly seen as places where the modernisation of police forces was pushed forward the most, with examples like the City of Glasgow Police being established in 1800, followed by counterparts in various other towns in the region. The continuing growth of organised merchant services, and the fact that they suffered regular losses at the hands of thieves, accelerated things quite a bit, with the first more seriously organised police forces appearing around docks and other areas with heavy crime rates.
A problem arose on the horizon in the face of growing opposition to the idea of a centralised police force. Some people firmly believed in society’s ability to police itself, and did not want to answer to an organised police force. There were political campaigns that attempted to slow down progress, though they ultimately proved unsuccessful, as most people agreed that they needed some form of official protection. More importantly, people wanted their police officers to be held accountable for their actions, which was impossible to accomplish with the old, decentralised approaches. The need for safety prevailed in the end, paving the way for the formation of advanced police forces that spanned entire countries.
Similar developments were happening all over the world. Around the middle of the 16th century, Brazil saw the formation of its first official police force. In Canada, the origins of modern police can be traced back to the foundation of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in 1729, an organisation which still exists to this day and continues to evolve the concept. Take a look at this article if you’re interested in how the idea has evolved in that region. To the south, British colonies naturally followed the precedents established in England, forming police forces with a similar structure and goals.
Evolving Police Work
The late 17th and early 18th centuries were periods of great developments for the concept of a police force, as many realised that this work needed to be studied in more detail if it was to evolve further. People started to focus more strongly on the relationship between the police and the judicial system, as well as other aspects of society, such as the economy. The focus of police work also started to shift a bit – it was no longer concerned with punishing criminals after the fact, but also acting as a preventative force that lowered crime rates in the first place. This idea proved successful and started to take hold in many parts of the world, provoking a lot of discussion and active debates. The Thames River Police was established with these ideas in mind exactly, intending to slow down the spread of crime by ensuring that people were aware of the punishments that came with it.
This was also the time when police work was studied in more depth for the first time. Various theories arose around the way officers should do their work and integrate into society as a whole, and the public had a lot to say on the matter. While there was still some division on certain points, many people were already unified on the idea that they needed a common police force to protect them.
The Rise of Specialisations
When police forces grew to a larger size, people started to see the need for more tight specialisations. New disciplines arose – detectives were primarily tasked with investigating crimes, following up on leads, and more advanced detective work. Uniformed police patrolled the streets and maintained order on a local level. Volunteering, a concept which existed since the early ages, was expanded to be officially recognised in many places, allowing people to contribute to the work of the police in their own time.
Special response units started to appear in the late 20th century when it became clear that ordinary police officers were unprepared – both in terms of training as well as equipment – for handling more difficult situations, such as hostage crises, bomb threats, barricaded suspects, and more. Advanced police forces were developed for very specific specialisations, such as military police, border patrols, water police, and more.
Modern countries recognise the need for a hard distinction between the army (protecting the nation from outside threats), and the police (enforcing law and order within the country). This distinction was also a major driving force behind the creation of some of the specialised response units we mentioned above. Germany’s GSG 9, for example, was founded after the Munich Massacre of 1972, when local police proved inefficient in handling an organised terroristic threat, while the army was not allowed to intervene on constitutional grounds. It’s hard to predict what policing will look like a decade or two from now, with the rise of many new ideas, like AI-assisted police forces, digital threats, and more. But the original concepts that were established centuries ago are just as valid now as they were back then, and they are the main reason police institutions work the way they do now.