Nine Time-Tested Rules of Good Policing

Police advance on demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The crowded, chaotic, booming London of Charles Dickens’s era is far removed in place and time from Ferguson, Mo., where police have clashed with area residents since a white police officer shot dead an unarmed black teenager on Aug. 9. But Ferguson’s embattled police force could learn a lot from nine principles of collaboration with the public that go back to the founding of London’s Metropolitan Police Force in 1829.

I came across the famous nine principles while researching this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek cover story, “Race, Class, and the Future of Ferguson.” The principles boil down to the commonsense notion that if you have to resort to tear gas, smoke bombs, and clubs to force people into submission … you’ve already lost.

Sir Robert Peel—whose nickname begat London’s “bobbies”—was Britain’s Home Secretary in 1829 and spearheaded the formation of London’s police force. His basic idea was that the authority of the police derives from the consent of the public. That, of course, is the same basic idea as America’s Declaration of Independence.

Among those who have embraced the nine principles is New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, who, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, is in the job for the second time and has also run the Los Angeles and Boston police departments. “I carry these with me everywhere. My bible,” Bratton has said.

New York cops don’t always do it right. A 43-year-old black man from Staten Island named Eric Garner died July 17 after plainclothes officers struggled to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes. A video showed him complaining that he couldn’t breathe as officers applied what appears to be an illegal chokehold.

But the principles are sound even if not always honored. Here is a distillation of them from Bratton’s blog. (For the original list from the London police, click here.)

Principle 1: “The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.”

Principle 2: “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”

Principle 3: “Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.”

Principle 4: “The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.”

Principle 5: “Police seek and preserve public favor not by catering to the public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.”

Principle 6: “Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.”

Principle 7: “Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

Principle 8: “Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.”

Principle 9: “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”

Raymond Kelly, who also served two terms as the New York police chief, had similar advice in an interview this week at Bloomberg headquarters. Good communication is key, Kelly said: “Everything that you can release, you should release early on. … There was a confrontation—you don’t have the details but you want to engage with the family.”

Kelly said the Ferguson police decision to use rubber bullets in their riot-control efforts was the first time he had seen that tactic. He also noted that large cities like New York are equipped for large public gatherings in a way small towns are not. “It’d be nothing for the NYPD to put 1,000 officers at a demonstration like that,” he said, wearing regular uniforms, with undercover police watching the crowds for people inciting violence. “The smaller town can’t do that.”

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