A colonial police force

British historians will tell you Sir Robert Peel invented the police as we know them. There might be other opinions, but we can trace the history of our police to his ideas.

Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Royal Irish Constabulary.

He first founded the Royal Irish Constabulary when he was a British administrator in Ireland. Later he founded the British police forces, but they differ from the RIC and our ZRP/BSAP in some important details.

The RIC was set up to force of Irishmen to police their own people for the occupying British power. It was fairly easy to find recruits, because land was scarce and there was very little other employment. The younger son of a small peasant farmer faced only three options: emigrate to America or Australia, or to become a priest or a policeman. It was a difficult choice. So, in a large family there might be brothers who each chose a different one of these three.

The RIC were intended to be separate from the people, their parents. They were supposed to never to work in their home area, though some evaded this restriction. They lived apart in special barracks, like our police camps, and had to be tall enough to look down on most people. They were not even allowed to marry till they had served seven years in the force. Some exceptions were allowed to these last two conditions for sons of policemen.

Many of them identified themselves so well with British power that they preferred to emigrate when Ireland won independence in 1921. A considerable number of these continued to serve in the British police or in colonial forces. The police chiefs in Zanzibar, Nairobi and Kano in the 1950s were sons of RIC members. They had become a special caste in the British Empire.

Significantly, Peel did not seem to think that it was so important for policemen in Britain to be separated from their homes. In fact, English police forces are local. Almost every country has its own police force and, for a long time, the friendly local bobby walking his beat was popular with the people.

Some of the special rules that applied to them might have been justified in the name of efficiency. For example, if a cop is going to start taking bribes or giving special favours to anyone, he will probably start with his own relatives, so no policeman was allowed to serve in the county where he was born.

Other rules were designed to emphasise their power, for example, the rule that they should be at least 178cm tall. The idea was that a cop should be able to look down on people, but it doesn't guarantee that he can “look down” on them morally – as if he could add a centimetre to his own height!

Rules that separate the cops from the people they are meant to serve are bad. They make it easier for policemen to feel they could get away with atrocities like Murambavanhu.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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