Quiet and Determined Servants and Guardians: Creating Ideal English Police Officers, 1900-45

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Contribution to Books

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When a young man joined an English police force, he was issued with an instruction book, an essential guide to his basic duties written by chief constables. These books varied in length and content but they all presented a clear image of the ideal police officer as the epitome of a masculine worker. Armed only with a truncheon, men in uniform upheld the law and protected the innocent. Their presence prevented crime and preserved public order. But this image was more challenging than it might first seem to be. At the centre of the English police ideal were policemen who earned the respect of the public, yet who were capable of being physically dominating when necessary. Men exercised authority over the public but did so by keeping command over themselves. Training new constables required reinforcing positive qualities such as vigilance, intelligence and judgement while discouraging negative traits such as insubordination, drunkenness and violence. The strategy in instruction books was to present the police ideal as a challenge to be won. Although superior officers did not really expect their men to embody every virtue, they strived to teach recruits that good policing depended more on mental and emotional strength than on brute force. This basic image had changed little from when the first Metropolitan Police instruction book was issued in 1829. However, beginning around 1900 and continuing into the 1940s, instruction books started including noble histories of English policing, linking policemen not just to 1829 but to valiant medieval traditions. These gave the classic 1829 image more depth, bolstering it up in response to fundamental shifts in policing. Expanding traffic duties were absorbing ever-increasing police resources and for the first time were bringing policemen into significant contact with potential middle- and upper-class lawbreakers. This ushered in an era of incivility as all parties adjusted to these new relationships. At the same time, the invention of the telephone made calling a policeman more convenient and created a new public habit, especially after the introduction of police all box systems in the 1930s. In response to the rising demands on police time and the new interactions with the public, instruction books began highlighting the constable's honour and duty to service and tracing them back to ancient English customs. The basic 1829 police image remained intact but was given more consequence, insisting that the policeman's role remained constant notwithstanding any transformation in his duties.

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