The concept of modern policing has its roots in pre-Victorian England, when the British home minister, Sir Robert Peel (1778-1850), oversaw the creation of London’s first organized police force. Before Peel’s 1829 reforms, public order had been maintained by a mix of night watchmen, local constables and red-coat-wearing army soldiers, who were deployed as much to quell political troubles as to deal with local crime.
In creating London’s Metropolitan Police (headquartered on a short street called Scotland Yard), Peel sought to create a professionalized law enforcement corps that was as accountable to everyday citizens as to the ruling classes. When Peel’s opponents complained that the creation of the new police force would restrict personal liberties, Peel responded, “I want to teach people that liberty does not consist in having your house robbed by organized gangs of thieves, and in leaving the principal streets of London in the nightly possession of drunken women and vagabonds.”
Instead of the resented red coats, Peel’s patrolmen wore black jackets and tall wool hats with shiny badges. They went out armed only with a short club and a whistle for summoning backup, walking regular beats and working to gain the trust of the local citizens. Robert Peel’s system was a success, and by the mid-19th century large American cities had created similar police forces. In London, the policemen were so identified with the politician who created them that they were referred to as “Peelers” or—more memorably—“Bobbies,” after the popular nickname for Robert.