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The Evolution of Security: From Thief-Takers to Peel's Police

A historical tapestry that weaves private initiative with evolving public mechanisms of control characterises the story of law enforcement in England, from which the Australian system heavily borrows. Early English security was shaped significantly within the feudal system, where lords were responsible for the safety of their vassals and properties. Over time, this responsibility extended to all citizens, although formal officials primarily upheld it.

In the early modern period, particularly in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, private citizens known as thief-takers played a pivotal role in law enforcement. Similar to the bounty hunters of the American West, the monarchy paid these people for each criminal they successfully apprehended. Their main adversaries were highwaymen, notorious figures who made travel through the English countryside perilous.

The Act of Parliament in 1693, in England, which established monetary rewards for the capture of highwaymen, illustrates the governmental endorsement of these private efforts. However, the thief-taker system expanded beyond highway robbery to include other crimes with varying scales of rewards. This system, while effective in some respects, also harboured significant flaws. For instance, it was fraught with corruption, as many thief-takers were former criminals themselves, and it occasionally incentivized the entrapment of innocent people.

One of the most infamous thief-takers, a man named Jonathan Wild, epitomised the complexity of this era. Wild, who became a significant figure in London's underworld, eventually faced execution for crimes similar to those he policed, a stark testament to the ambiguous morality within the thief-taker system.

As urbanisation intensified during the Industrial Revolution, the need for organised law enforcement became more pronounced. Despite the private sector's efforts, including businesses like Crowley’s Iron Works establishing their own regulatory frameworks, the limitations of private policing became apparent in the sprawling urban landscapes.

The pivotal transformation came with Sir Robert Peel's introduction of the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829. This legislation marked the establishment of the first large-scale, uniformed, and organised civil police force in London, fundamentally shifting the paradigm from private security to state-sponsored law enforcement. The formation of the Metropolitan Police, or "Bobbies," as they were colloquially known, was a response to the inadequacies of the fragmented private security forces that previously patrolled London's streets. The Met was the first modern and efficient police force, ultimately setting the standard for law enforcement agencies around the world. However, it became abundantly clear early on that the Metropolitan Police was not without flaws and faced challenges in maintaining public trust and effectively addressing crime in the city.

This transition from reliance on private security to a professional, publicly funded police force reflected broader societal changes and an increasing trust in and reliance on governmental institutions to maintain order. However, it is essential to recognise that private security did not vanish with the advent of public policing. Private guards and police continued to play crucial roles, particularly in the realms of property recovery and personal protection. Many of those employed as bobbies came from the ranks of private security, and it became clear early on that service in the government provided greater opportunities for criminal actions and an ability to avoid accountability.

The evolution of law enforcement in England from private initiatives like thief-takers to the professionalised public police force of Sir Robert Peel highlights a dynamic interplay between private enterprise and public responsibility. This historical journey underscores the complexities and challenges of maintaining security and order in a changing society. The more wealthy in society would seldom rely upon the police force, as private individuals motivated by profit were far more trustworthy and efficient in providing protection for their property. Confidentiality has a price, and there have been well-documented partnerships between the police and criminal enterprises since their initial creation.

The persistent reliance on both public and private forms of security throughout English history, even after the establishment of formal police forces, reveals deeper societal values and concerns about freedom and the role of the state. The resistance to a fully professionalised police force was partly due to the ingrained British belief in personal freedom and a wariness of state corruption and overreach. These sentiments were compounded by a general scepticism towards using public funds for such purposes, as many believed that private enterprises could more efficiently handle security.

This dual system, where both private security and public police forces coexisted, also reflects an inherent flexibility in the British approach to law enforcement. On one side, there was an acknowledgement of the limits of private security, which, while effective up to a point, often lacked coordination and could be susceptible to corruption. On the other hand, there was an appreciation for the structure and broad coverage that a formal police force could provide, however, it became quite obvious that it was as susceptible to corruption as the private sector, and it was far more difficult to hold them accountable.

The establishment of the Metropolitan Police was not just an administrative change but also a cultural shift towards a more organised and systematic approach to public safety. The "Bobbies" became symbols of civic order and, through uniforms and PPE, professionalism, setting a standard for policing that many other countries would later adopt. However, the transition was not abrupt. The integration of private security elements, such as the continuing role of private guards and the ongoing use of thief-takers in certain capacities, indicated a pragmatic blending of old and new methods.

The historical narrative of law enforcement in England also underscores the significant role of public opinion and the media in shaping policing policies. The press (contemporary media at the time), by voicing public concerns and highlighting the deficiencies of existing security measures, played a crucial role in advocating for a structured police force. Yet, even as public police forces gained prominence, the reliance on private security persisted, demonstrating the complex interplay between public expectations and practical policing needs.

In modern times, this historical foundation continues to influence contemporary security strategies. Private security firms thrive alongside public police forces, each addressing specific aspects of law and order. In several countries, the policing experiment has all but completely ended. The prevalence of state corruption and the loyalty to the state over individuality have led to the expansion of private security, fulfilling the role of public policing. The enduring lesson from English history is that effective security is not about choosing between public or private solutions but finding a balance that respects personal freedoms while ensuring public safety. As certain countries have disarmed their populace and militarised their police forces, these state owned militias continue to lose credibility and the trust of the public. The actions of the Victorian police force during the COVID-19 lockdowns, the brutality against women, mothers, and pregnant women in particular, and the cowardice of shooting protestors in the back with rubber bullets, have further eroded public support for the police force.

In this light, the development of law enforcement offers valuable insights into the evolution of societal norms regarding security, authority, and governance. It reflects the journey towards more refined and accountable policing practices while highlighting the ongoing relevance of private security in a modern context. While security remains the fastest growing industry in the world, it also raises the question of the relevance of police in a modern society.

For many, the police are a failed experiment they believe must end; for others, it is a necessary institution that provides safety and security. In countries with strong self-defence laws, gun ownership rights, and a culture of individual responsibility, the role of the police is often viewed as custodial transport to face judicial judgement and due process. In countries with weaker legal systems and corruption, the role of the police is often viewed as a means of control and suppression by the state. The role of the police can vary greatly depending on the society in which they operate.

 From the author.

 The opinions and statements are those of Sam Wilks and do not necessarily represent whom Sam Consults or contracts to. Sam Wilks is a skilled and experienced Security Consultant with almost 3 decades of expertise in the fields of Real estate, Security, and the hospitality/gaming industry. His knowledge and practical experience have made him a valuable asset to many organizations looking to enhance their security measures and provide a safe and secure environment for their clients and staff.

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