Criticizing the police, from the very beginning

May 22, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism, writers.

Criticizing the police and their methods — and defending them — has never been out of fashion. It’s been part of the social fabric since the Metropolitan Police Force was officially organized in London in 1829 by Sr. Robert Peel.

In America, the criticisms often involve race. In Great Britain of the 19th century, the criticisms had to do with class and status.

The problem for the British was that while the police force was naturally given a certain amount of power to do its job, those who joined the force did not come from the middle and upper classes, those who held social and political power in the country. Policemen, for the most part, were recruited from the ranks of the working and lower classes.

Thus, they were viewed with much suspicion.

Kate Summerscale, author of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, has a telling story about how the police were criticized in her excellent book about the famous Road House Murder of 1860.

Jack Whicher, who was a member of Scotland Yard’s first detective squad and whose fame as a clever detective grew to near legendary proportions, once spotted a man he recognized in central London. The man had been sent to a penal colony a number of years before through Whicher’s good efforts. Whicher did not know that he had returned, and he decided to follow the shifty character to see what he was up to.

The man met up with another man whom Whicher found suspicious, and Whicher decided they were both worth watching. Whicher and a colleague kept an eye on the pair for several weeks and found them sizing up a London bank. Their intent was clear. When they robbed the bank, Whicher and the force were waiting outside for them, bagging the criminals and the bounty at the same time.

A great piece of detective work, you might say.

Except, that’s not how some of the letter-writers to the Times of London saw in when the incident was reported. The detectives were criticized because they had not stopped the crime before it happened.

“The credit for skill and ingenuity gained by the detectives,” one writer said, “is probably what greatly inclines them to detection rather than prevention.” (p. 53)

The clear implication of the writer was that the detectives were more interested in getting credit for the collar than in preventing the crime. The underlying thought was that people of middle and upper classes would not have had such base motives.

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