Condemned to repeat it? How policing can learn from the mistakes of the past

Blog post

Condemned to repeat it? How policing can learn from the mistakes of the past

Ruth Halkon, Research Officer, The Police Foundation and Constable Robert Mackay, Metropolitan Police

Over the past decades the police service has been trapped in a cycle of seemingly endless scandals – over stop and search, corruption, and discrimination. Each time there is a public outcry, the system is tweaked slightly, then fresh scandals emerge and the whole sorry story begins again. Each time, policing seemingly fails to remember the past and learn lessons from it, and so it is condemned to repeat it.  

Only by stepping out of that cycle and thinking critically about where it is and how it got there can policing hope to truly reform. Developing a historical perspective is hard in a fast-paced, reactive organisation. But if the police service hopes to rebuild public trust and bring about positive change, then it must begin to consider its history more seriously. 

Last month, the Police Foundation brought together historians, academics, and current and former police leaders to discuss how learning more about the past would help the police and those who hold them to account make better decisions for the future. Speakers included Dr Timothy Brain, ex-Chief Constable for Gloucestershire Police, police historian Dr Mary Fraser, Dr David Churchill of Leeds University, and Professor Paul Lawrence, Asa Briggs Professor of History at the Open University. 

The discussion focused on three themes. First, it was argued that ignorance of the past can sometimes lead to the perpetuation of unhelpful myths about the origins and development of the police service.  Take for example the Peelian principles, which outline the contract between police and public. These principles are used as a staple in police training, as well as providing a framework in the regulation and accountability of the police. They are however based on a myth. It is commonly agreed among historians that the principles were not written by Peel at all but were established by Charles Reith in his 1948 book, A Short History of the British Police. This knowledge however, is not commonly shared among police officers, and, according to Dr Brain, the principles are often used “dishonestly” by policy makers who regularly “trot them out” to justify any policy rather than promoting it on its own merits. He added that  “demythologising police policy can only be healthy… for modern policing”.  

Conversely, Dr Fraser held the view that some myths serve a useful purpose, and the Peelian principles, while not invented by Peel, can be seen as “stories that help in the way in which the police learn about their job, or the way in [which] they learn about the changes they should be adopting”. She added that without such myths or stories, much of the cultural history of the police may become forgotten, and the ideas of policing by consent may be lost. Thus, it is important to learn about myths, despite their factual inaccuracy, and analyse their individual significance and the context in which they flourished. 

Second, it was argued that because the police pay insufficient attention to their past they cannot learn from it. This means that change often comes about as a reaction to a single incident rather than through a rational process of reform. Professor Lawrence gave as an example the way in which police have used stop and search powers over 200 years. He identified a “clear pattern” in which the powers are used because they are “very useful to the daily business of policing”, but when they are misused and a case is reported in the press, “they will precipitate a questioning in the House with the Home Secretary, then [dial] back on those powers”. But because they are useful, as soon as memories fade, they are used again. The only way of breaking out of that cycle, as Dr Churchill said, is by taking a “historical perspective”. 

Another debate that keeps endlessly being repeated is whether the 43-force model is fit for purpose. The police forces in England and Wales were reduced from over 200 down to 43 during the 20th century. The 1962 Royal Commission, while recommending the amalgamation of these forces into more efficient units, recognised policing was a community function in origin. Hence, in England and Wales the police have never been wholly nationalised, unlike in Scotland. Yet in 2005/2006, the then Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, sought to reduce the 43 police forces into roughly 16 to 18. According to Dr Brain, this demonstrated a clear disregard for police history and the origins of policing as a local service.  

Nevertheless, it is not true that the police do not care about their history, in fact as Dr Churchill said, there is “significant interest and curiosity about the history of policing” from retired and current officers, as well as those wishing to join the service. This is shown in the flourishing Police History Society as well as numerous books on police genealogy and on the histories of old forces.  However, there is a “disconnect” between the “historical past” and the “practical past”. Police history has not been written with an eye to informing policing practice, so while there is a “diverse historical literature” most of it is written in such a way that it is inaccessible to those on the ground who need it most.  

Third, the discussion moved onto how police history might be incorporated into police education. It was maintained by most that police history provides pivotal learning points which must be integrated into the entire course for student constables instead of being a stand-alone introductory module on the policing’s origin, as it is currently. Dr Chris Williams, a senior lecturer in History at the Open University, acknowledged that while the right history at the right time was important, “in practice, there is no single magic bullet which the historian can deliver”. Professor Lawrence nevertheless said  the right sort of police history taught to new recruits could “reinforce professionalism” and a “notion of pride in service”. Moreover, the teaching of the past would allow officers to better understand why certain practices exist, help them look critically at their own actions and assumptions, and ultimately provide a better service to the public.  Therefore, much like other professions such as medicine where history plays a vital part in learning and future development, police history should be treated with the significance it deserves. 

Policing tends to focus very much on the present: dealing with incoming demand and responding to emergencies. In many ways that is the core competency of the police service. However, this tends to leave little space for reflecting on the past (or indeed for thinking about the future). This means views of the past can be clouded in comfortable myths. It also makes it harder to learn from past mistakes. Finding a way of integrating police history properly into police education should therefore be a priority for the service.  

  © Image copyright Mike Faherty and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence