Community Policing: Learning the Lessons of History

Unfortunately, many officers seem to think the history of police work began the day they first pinned on a badge and strapped on a gunbelt.12 min read

Community Policing: Learning the Lessons of History

by Jeffrey Patterson

[Sgt. Patterson serves with the Clearwater, Fl, Police Dept.]

An old saying holds that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Unfortunately, many officers seem to think the history of police work began the day they first pinned on a badge and strapped on a gunbelt. For this reason, each emerging movement in law enforcement tends to be seen as something completely new, without historical context. Such is largely the case today with community policing.

To better understand today's debate over community policing, law enforcement administrators should study their history. History debunks the more outrageous claims made by some of the proponents of community policing and cautions against forgetting the important lessons of the past. It shows us that calls to change the way the police operate have been a constant theme from the very beginning of municipal policing. And, it reminds us that our problems today--while serious--are really nothing new.


The history of modern law enforcement began 166 years ago with the formation of the London Metropolitan Police District in 1829. By creating a new police force, the British Parliament hoped to address the soaring crime rate in and around the nation's capital, attributed at the time to rapid urban growth, unchecked immigration, poverty, alcoholism, radical political groups, poor infrastructure, unsupervised juveniles, and lenient judges.

The principles adopted by Sir Robert Peel, the first chief of the London Metropolitan Police, for his new "bobbies" have served as the traditional model for all British and American police forces ever since. These principles include:

  • the use of crime rates to determine the effectiveness of the police;
  • the importance of a centrally located, publicly accessible police headquarters;
  • and the value of proper recruitment, selection, and training.

However, perhaps the most enduring and influential innovation introduced was the establishment of regular patrol areas, known as "beats." Before 1829, the police--whether military or civilian--only responded after a crime had been reported. Patrols occurred on a sporadic basis, and any crime deterrence or apprehension of criminals in the act of committing crimes happened almost by accident.

Peel assigned his bobbies to specific geographic zones and held them responsible for preventing and suppressing crime within the boundaries of their zones. He based this strategy on his belief that the constables would:

  1. Become known to the public, and citizens with information about criminal activity would be more likely to tell a familiar figure than a stranger
  2. Become familiar with people and places and thus better able to recognize suspicious persons or criminal activity, and