Peelian principles of policing: How to get the public on your side

An informed public is more likely to support us


The Peelian principles have been quoted, lectured on and written about since they were first put into a list in 1829. The principles, followed by many, seem to be as important now as they were when they were conceptualized.

Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing, was responsible for the centralization of police services in London. Prior to Peel, policing was done by multiple groups of sometimes unpaid men who lacked organization and the skills necessary to carry out all their duties. Without the centralization of these small groups, investigations and quelling of uprisings were often handled by military troops. There was distrust among the citizens of having a government organized and run force. Peel suggested a citizen-based force that would be able to relate to the citizens cops served. Although the nine principles would come to bear his name, they were originally concepts maintained in the general orders given to people hired to provide full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen. 

In Peel’s model of policing, officers are regarded as citizens in uniform. They were to exercise their powers to police their fellow citizens by the consent of the people. It is this equality of position that carries over to the concepts that should be in the heart of every American police officer, that as public servants, we derive our power and authority from the U.S. Constitution.

Prevention of crime and disorder

Let’s begin to apply these principles in a meaningful way and build on our public relationship.
Let’s begin to apply these principles in a meaningful way and build on our public relationship.

Peel’s first principle is about prevention of crime and disorder. The visibility of the police force is on the forefront of this principle. It is every police officer’s first duty to be present for the public to see and consult. The argument in many inner city locations is the lack of police to prevent crime by high visibility. 

As budgets are cut, the number of officers available to patrol and deter crime falls. In many locations officers have stopped patrolling and now respond to crimes that have occurred like firefighters putting out fires. There is nothing that citizens want more than to be able to leave their houses and  come home to all of their property untouched. 

The same holds true of people who want to be able to walk their neighborhoods or allow their children to be in public without fear of robbery or worse. It is the opinion of some that the police should not be in their neighborhoods, but my experience is that talk like this comes from individuals who have an ill-intentions or don’t care about their neighbors. The true victims are those who live in areas that are being successfully de-policed by this type of agenda. But visibility is difficult to do without the second leg of this principle. Police officer visibility must come with relationship building.

Building community relationships

Visibility in a neighborhood without building relationships with the citizens in those neighborhoods looks a lot more like an occupying force than consent of the people. I know this concept may anger some of my brothers and sisters in law enforcement, but stop and think of how this looks from the other side for a minute. I have had the good fortune of working in small and large communities, and I know that it is possible to build those relationships in every neighborhood. There are larger communities that struggle with their police relationships. There are many reasons for this and most are not the fault of the police, but it is incumbent on officers to build those relationships. Some officers may have difficulty achieving this because of the cultures we develop within our police departments.

Officers don’t have to wait on the administration or the community relations officers to develop a program of outreach. Every day the line officer is in contact with the public. They are public servants and without taking that to a ridiculous conclusion, they are present by consent of the people. Many officers do a wonderful job at this, but many treat the public as if they don’t owe them an explanation about what they do. Take the time on your call to build a relationship with everyone you meet. It is your duty to do so and it will improve the quality of your police work.

Policing with the public

In attempts to prevent crime and disorder, officers must realize that the public is in this battle with us. Part of the disconnection with the public may be that officers do not include them in their endeavors. Seeking out the public’s input, help and assistance will go a long way in reconnecting with them. I often hear officers complaining about the disconnection between the administration of the department and the line officers. It is this same principle that causes the public to feel as if they are not part of the effort.

Public transparency

This is another area where the public has come to feel disconnected in our role with them. Officers often don’t think the public can understand what goes on with us. Except for keeping investigations quiet, for obvious reasons, there is no reason that the public is not entitled to know how we operate. We work for them and have an obligation to explain to them who we are and what we do. We often say they don’t understand us, but what have we done to get the public to understand our job, obligations and the difficulties we encounter?  An informed public will more likely support us if they see what we see.

Let’s begin to apply these principles in a meaningful way and build on our public relationship.

About the author

Tim Barfield is entering his 34th year as a police officer.  He was recently appointed as police chief in a village outside of the Cleveland, Ohio area.  He spent almost 32 years on a police department  in an inner ring suburb of Cleveland where he worked many different aspects of the job.  He has taught police combat mindset, defensive tactics and firearms to numerous officers in the Cleveland and Chicago areas.

Contact Tim Barfield

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