What Are Bobbies?

The friendly-sounding British bobbies, created by Robert Peel in 1829, were the first professional police force, copied by cities around the world.

Organized policing dates back less than 200 years. Until the Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s brought thousands flocking into cities, most crime was combated by the local constabulary with the help of the occasional citizen patrol. As the cities became more crowded, individual companies organized police forces to protect their interests. In England, one of the most prominent was the Thames River Police, created by the powerful West India Trading Company in 1798 to deter thefts along the London wharves.

The Thames River Police, numbering about 80 full-time men, policed by establishing a patrol presence in the London port. The private police force was so effective that Parliament authorized money to add the men to the public payroll. But for the most part the public was suspicious of waves of permanent police roaming the streets. But the plagues of urban ills brought on by surging immigration and mounting poverty began to weigh on Londoners.

It took the vision of 41-year old statesman Robert Peel, later a two-time Prime Minister of England, to establish the world's first permanent police force. In 1829 Peel sponsored the Metropolitan Police Act which passed Parliament. As the founder of the police force, the men on patrol became known popularly as "peelers" or "bobbies." The former nickname faded away and the moniker "bobbies" lives on today.

Much of which Peel created lives on today as well. He believed that the police force should operate from a centrally located headquarters which should be easily accessible to the public. Of prime importance would be recruitment, selection and training of the police force. All "bobbies" would be dressed in proper uniforms and be paid a full-time weekly wage. Peel established a system to determine crime rates to measure the effectiveness of the new force.

The police would be responsible only for crime detection and prevention which would be accomplished by the establishment of regular patrol areas, known as "beats." Historically, police would only show up after a crime had been reported. Peel wanted his men to become familiar figures to the public within specific geographic zones. He reasoned that a conspicuous, known figure would be able to better elicit help from the citizenry in the event of a crime. By becoming familiar with the people and places on his beat, the "bobby" could readily recognize suspicious things out of place and help deter crime. The patrol concept would be universally adopted by police forces the world over. It was Robert Peel's greatest innovation.

To maintain organization among his men on patrol, Peel adopted a paramilitary structure of command. Lacking such a line of command, it would be all too easy for the "bobbies" to lapse into the uncommitted ways of their watchmen predecessors. Peel's men were to be patient, impersonal and, above all, professional.

The Metropolitan Police Act was initially limited to the outer parts of London and did not apply to the mile-square City of London. The "bobbies" were not immediately popular and were often jeered at on patrol. The preventive tactics proved successful, however, and the police force showed skill in handling erupting street riots. Crime prevention was not the only duty of the "bobbies." They kept a lookout for fires. They lit streetlights as they walked the beat. They called out the time.

The public was won over and the police began patrols in the City of London in 1839. Slowly the concept of the police force expanded to rural areas. In 1856 Parliament finally mandated that police forces be established in outlying provinces. By this time police departments were forming in the United States and the rest of the world based on Robert Peel's model.

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