The Revolutionary Document That Is The UK's 184-Year-Old Idea Of 'Policing By Consent'

from the US-version:-comply-or-else dept

Jason Kottke of the always informative and entertaining just posted a very interesting look at the genesis of UK law enforcement. In 1829, the UK government shifted policing from a paramilitary force comprised mainly of volunteers to an organized force comprised of citizens. But it made it very clear that UK police derived their power from the consent of the people, rather than from a government mandate.

The government referred to it as “policing by consent,” and even though the guiding principles are nearly 200 years old at this point, they still sound revolutionary, especially in light of escalating militarization, misconduct and abuse by law enforcement here in the US.

(Side note: this was released via a UK Freedom of Information request that was posed as a question.

“Could you please confirm precisely what the Home Secretary meant by the statement ‘policing by consent’, with a practical example to demonstrate if possible.”

That’s something that also sets apart the UK government from the US government. I cannot imagine a situation where a FOIA request answers a direct question. The standard m.o. here is to demand requesters know as much as possible about the information they’re seeking before they ask for it.)

The Nine Principles of Policing

1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.

(US: militarized police and the highest incarceration rate in the world)

2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

(US: police have power whether or not their actions and behavior meet with public approval. When met with disapproval, misconduct and enforcement activity tend to increase, rather than decrease.)

3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.

(US: even law-abiding citizens have reason to fear the police.)

4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.

(US: use of force and compulsion normal “tools of the trade,” applied generously and disproportionately.)

5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

(US: too much to detail here. Minorities (“wealth or social standing”) receive the most police “scrutiny.” Very rarely are police interactions marked by courteousness and good humour. And the UK has no unwritten “First Rule of Policing” (make it back home uninjured/alive; constant deference to officers claiming they “feared for their safety“). BY READY OFFERING OF INDIVIDUAL SACRIFICE IN PROTECTING AND PRESERVING LIFE. If you don’t want to be in dangerous situations, don’t become a cop — apparently the only dangerous job in the US that puts the employee’s safety ahead of the general public’s.

6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

(US: physical force is generally deployed at the first sign of potential non-compliance, even if said non-compliance is simply verbal “contempt of cop.” Physical force should also escalate immediately at the first sign of a struggle and continue escalating until suspect is completely incapacitated/in a coma/dead.)

7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that 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.

(US: the thin blue line, now thicker than ever, continues to isolate police not only from the public they serve, but from accountability.)

8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.

(US: too many police have emptied their weapons into suspects in retribution for endangering officers. Too many officers have handed out extra physical force as payback for flippant comments, moving too slowly, or anything other situation where unearned respect isn’t being shown.)

9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

(US: Ferguson, Missouri. Beyond that, police in the US seem to believe a show of force is a good deterrent. This is part of the reason they acquire military vehicles and weapons. Intimidation seems to be preferable to competent, efficient policing. My-gun’s-bigger-than-yours policing is nothing more than treating playground one-upmanship as a credible law enforcement tactic.)

You can choose anything on this list and find its correlating inversion on display in the US. Not once is “officer safety” cited as a reason to use physical force. Not once does the list make a demand for unearned respect. And above all, it makes it clear that this power is granted by the consent of the public, not provided by the State. What the public gives, it can rescind. The government’s only involvement is administrative.

US police forces talk a good game in mission statements about “honor” and “integrity,” but not once do they acknowledge the fact that they are servants of the public or that they are, in fact, just the public in different clothing. They are part of the government, an institution which derives from the consent of the governed. But there is no way to revoke that consent. Police unions and government officials continue to shelter misbehaving officers and any punishments handed down are delayed and largely ineffective in deterring future misconduct. With rare exceptions, police officials circle the wagons when one of theirs is accused of excessive force or criminal activity. The public is treated as irritating, ungrateful outsiders who don’t realize how difficult it is to be a cop and who are better surveilled than heard.

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Comments on “The Revolutionary Document That Is The UK's 184-Year-Old Idea Of 'Policing By Consent'”

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Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Civilians in a different uniform

The police in the US insist that they are here to protect “Civilians” and distinguish themselves as non-civilians.

If you ignore user-generated-content, international definitions of Civilian include the police and fire and EMTs and other first responders. Only in the US do they pretend they are somehow above civilians and outside civilian [civil] law.

Time to remind them it’s a _THIN_ blue line. They are civilians. They have chosen to help serve and protect. Not pretend to be military conquerors.

Candid Cameron says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Civilians in a different uniform

Humans are competitive by nature and you see the us vs them attitude in a lot of places where one really shouldn’t. Video game development is one, for example. The truly good games are usually the ones where they tell an amazing story while taking the player on a journey of discovery. The bad games, on the other hand, always seem to be made by developers who don’t understand this simple concept and instead do their best to destroy and otherwise demoralize the player. Why? Because we’re seen as the enemy rather than the people responsible for their paychecks. It’s a psychological condition that our schools have encouraged for ages now. Human nature, especially “in group” and “out group” type thinking, is bad enough as it is and doesn’t need encouraging! It can have it’s place, of course, but not in gaming and most certainly not in policing. I feel the other part of the problem is hiring ex-military types who’ve been trained (I’d say programmed) to seek out and kill those in a particular “out group” without mercy, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Dominic Sayers (profile) says:

Unfortunately legislation has eroded these principles

The rosy picture painted by these great principles is an ideal that has been eroded by legislation over the years.

In particular the idea that “the police are the public and that the public are the police” does not survive a glance at the Police And Criminal Evidence Act 1984 ( which lays out the special powers of a constable that members of the public do not have.

That the police are in a different category to the public was made clear by counter-terrorism legislation that gathering information about members of the armed forces *or a constable* could be classed as “offending material” (

Jeff Green (profile) says:

The difference is clear but ...

The British police are not immune to the temptations to up the level of force, and we have had a few unjustified shootings. Minorities are over targeted and many of the other mentioned failings show their face here.
That said, a police officer who shoots anyone is automatically suspended while it is investigated and the senior members of forces do appear to be working hard to eliminate racism and sexism, both institutional and amongst individual coppers.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: The difference is clear but ...

To which one could add the fact that UK police do NOT routinely carry firearms – and thus have to learn to deal with threatening situations without the means to deploy ultimate force.

Add to that the fact that (perhaps surprisingly) the police themselves have consistently opposed the introduction of firearms whenever the question has been raised.

beltorak (profile) says:

Re: Re: The difference is clear but ...

I’d like to point out that in the UK the criminal that is opposing the police is also unlikely to have the means to deliver ultimate force. I think it would be insane for the police to turn down firearms if every criminal they attempt to apprehend turned out to have them. (Someone correct me if I am wrong here….) Likewise it would be insane to arm the police if they had no reasonable expectations of facing this threat from the public. Either way it would be such a disproportionate balance of power.

Keep in mind that our grand experiment in self governance is not over, and one of the concerns the designers of that experiment had was “how do we ensure that the people are able to dispose of a tyrannical home government?”. The second amendment is a guarantee to the civilian populace (codified into law) that they would always have the means to throw off their oppressors. One of the questions this has raised is “does the guaranteed right to ‘arms’ cause more problems than it solves?” I think the only way we could have a chance at answering that is after our first revolutionary war. And even then there’d be room for argument because the police have been given the disproportionate balance of power in the form of military grade weapons, while the second amendment enthusiasts (for lack of a better term – i don’t mean to disparage) have focused on “guns”. And the simple fact is that a firehose wins against a squirt gun every time.

Anonymous Coward says:

i wonder how the UK public feels about the actions of the government in forcing through the DRIP law, with no consultation with the public and how that same public feels about the actions being taken by the City of London Police under the direct orders of the entertainment industries, mainly of those in the USA?
i bet they are not particularly impressed bearing in mind for instance, that:
To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

Anonymous Coward says:


Here in the UK, the response to DRIP has been to see it as “business as usual”. Respect for our politicians is at an all time low, with populist parties becoming ever more popular (and they are a real threat to the major parties, unlike in US politics).

The actions of the London Police have gained little media attention unfortunately. I’m surprised they were able to do it tbh, as it seems something an intelligence agency would do.

Anonymous Coward says:

And then BoJo gets elected and orders a water cannon on their request,

Armed patrols get authorised routinely,

Police cover-ups, of… undercover mess-ups

By and large, sure the relationship is better, but still, I read this piece as too positive. Now off to read the linked article though!

John Cressman (profile) says:

Police Militarization

I am torn about this. On one hand, when REAL criminals – drug lords, crackhouses, etc – run around with AK-47s and MAC 10’s, I want our men in blue to have similar weapons to respond with – including armored vehicles.

What I DON’T like is that once they have them, they seem to want to use them ALL the time. Was there REALLY a reason to have M-16’s/AR-15’s in Ferguson, Missouri?

I get it… on one hand, it’s like a condom… better to have one and not need it, than need it and not have it.

But if I have a disagreement with my neighbor and I show up with an AR-15 and a 9mm, he’s probably going to think that I’m less interested in ironing out our differences and more interested in getting my own damn way.

Maybe the solution is to have SWAT teams that ARE armed that way, but who can only be called out on VERY specific circumstances. Of course, since the police lie about other stuff and make things up regularly, no reason why they wouldn’t make up some reason to bring SWAT.

Mayor: “Why did SWAT go to that domestic disturbance at the elderly couple’s house?”
SWAT: “We could have sworn that little old man was an international drug lord… oh well… our bad!”

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Police Militarization

” when REAL criminals – drug lords, crackhouses, etc – run around with AK-47s and MAC 10’s”

Those criminals are actually trivially easy to deal with without weaponry at all: drug legalization will do it. The massive, enormously profitable black market that prohibition creates guarantees that criminal like that will exist. Eliminate it and they will go away or become much less of a problem.

nasch (profile) says:


7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that 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.

That’s a beautiful idea. Too bad the reality is so far from it.

nasch (profile) says:


Forgot to respond to this one: ” Very rarely are police interactions marked by courteousness and good humour.”

Come now, rarely? I’m sure there are hundreds or thousands of interactions with police in the US every day that are courteous and friendly. It’s just that those generally aren’t the ones that get put up on YouTube, and they obviously aren’t the ones that result in news stories and court cases.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Courteous

I’ll chime in with a good cop story. I got pulled over recently due to expired tags. I’d simply forgotten to renew my registration and was genuinely baffled as to why I was stopped until the cop told me.

The cop was very cool. He was relaxed, joked around with me, and when he asked if I had car insurance (a legal requirement) I said “yes”, but he stopped me when I started looking in my wallet for the proof. He just said “it’s OK, I believe you.” He did write me a (correctable) ticket, but was pleasant and polite — as was I — the whole time. The whole stop didn’t take more than 10 minutes.

Good cop. I hope he gets his doughnut.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Courteous

when he asked if I had car insurance (a legal requirement) I said “yes”, but he stopped me when I started looking in my wallet for the proof. He just said “it’s OK, I believe you.”

That’s one I’ve never experienced. When I’ve been pulled over and haven’t had proof of insurance with me, I’ve always been ticketed (twice, I think).

chris says:

Sheriff vs Detective/Police

Before I start a little disclaimer, my Dad was an Australian Police Detective and I live in Australian so I have an outsiders view to what is happening in the USA. One of the things that has always struck me as very different between the US and AU police is that I always get the feeling that US police are acting like the Sheriff in the westerns movies – always out to get the bad guy, doesn’t seem to be much time left for being Joe Ordinary good citizen member of the public.

I think Australian police are more like a modern version of the British Bobby/Detective (think Jack the Ripper Era), generally they try to keep a lid on things, maintain order etc. and seem to put a lot of time and effort into good public interaction, road safety, public education and general visibility at big public events. Sure they have their problems, and bad cops, and major corruption scandals etc., but generally they seem to handle getting rid of bad apples quietly when needed. Also I so no evidence that the police are trying to make themselves into a military force (they leave that to the military who can be/have been used domestically in times of emergency/natural disaster).

We do have a Sheriff’s Office – it is after all a British Tradition (remember Robin Hood vs the Sheriff of Nottingham) – but the Sheriff is an Officer of the Courts not part of the Police Service. Prosecution is handled at a completely different level from that of Police. I suspect it works very differently in the US and perhaps things have become a little blurred/lost there way.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Sheriff vs Detective/Police

The role of Sheriff in the US is strongly modeled after the British concept. “Sheriff” is a political, elected county position. (The guys driving the Sheriff cars aren’t the Sheriff, they’re deputies.)

Technically, the Sheriff is also the commander of the militia in that county (but that’s merely technical as there are no actual militias in the US anymore as far as I’m aware).

A Sheriff is, in many ways, like the president of the county and has more political and legal authority than most people think — sometimes even trumping state and federal authorities.

“perhaps things have become a little blurred/lost there way.”

I think there’s no doubt about that.

Anonymous Coward says:

The transatlantic view

I grew up in the UK and now live in the US, though I have the advantage of (a) not living anywhere near St Louis and (b) being the wrong colour and level of education to be harassed by the police.

First, the principles paint a pretty rosy picture of police forces in the UK. They have their share of scandals, racism and gruesome overreactions. But there are some big differences: police officers wear identifying numbers – hiding them is against the rules – so they can’t just pretend to be Donald Duck if someone takes exception to their behaviour. More importantly, when the police screw up the reaction tends to be pretty uniform: people are shocked, the police apologize for screwing up, there’s a public inquiry and, gradually, things change. In the US there seem to be more people willing to excuse police misconduct, or ignore it.

Second there is, I think, a feeling that police militarization is a sign of failure UK: the use of tear gas and water-cannons evokes the failure of the police of foreign countries to maintain order. Therefore, riot control in the UK tends to focus on more convention tools – like riot shields, batons and mounted police. Giving riot police tanks and guns and so on would be politically damaging primarily because that would show that the government had failed. In the US, militarization seems to be accepted government policy, justified in basically the same way that anti-terrorist measures are: don’t mind the tank – it’s only for the *bad people*.

Third, ironically, Sheriffs are no longer anything to do with the police in the UK, and there is little real direct political accountability for the police – which is not necessarily a bad thing. Direct election of sheriffs in the US seems to produce a field of candidates determined to prove how “tough on crime” they are – people like Arpiao. Is it really any surprise that if you run on a “tough” ticket, you think it’s OK to tool up your cops and let them run around acting tough?

Anonymous Coward says:

You speak from what experience. I rode with London Officers whom said they will thump an individual with a night stick in a heartbeat. The spoke of being free from as much scrutiny by not carrying guns (sans the armed response units). They are not gentle kinder or whatever their commanders claim either. London is a huge city with major crime.

You speak as many do about police in the US by hyperbole citing the unfortunate incidents that do occur and then straw-man into that into ALL cops. Talk about building a wall between the public and police.

Police by consent means society as a whole not each individual consents to being policed. Further more its a concept or ideal and does not relate to an individual and his or her ability choose what laws to consent to or not. In other words if a UK Cops sees a violation they arrest the same as here.

There are millions of interactions by US cops in each year that follow this ideal just fine. Do not straw-man the screw ups and mistakes into a blanket argument. Policing has become more scrutinized and a higher level of need must b met for lethal force than in the past. Many moons ago before you or I were alive (likely) shooting a fleeing felon with a warrant unarmed in the back was completely justified. That changed in Tenesee v Garner and restrictions have continued since and probably to the better.

As far as militarization goes. The Swat tactics used today came from the UK. The armored vehicles are unarmed (if it was militarized they would be M1A1) and the armored vehicles allow officers to have cover and negotiate rather than return fired immediately due to no cover. This I have seen first hand.

Policing by consent is an ideal. One that Community Policing in America tried to emulate. That has fallen out of favor and been replaced by compstat or crime analysis where only numbers exist not humans. But most veterans understand that most people comply and are not a threat but the bad guys don’t and are. Even our illustrious Community organizer In Chief finally admitted that when speaking about ISIS in a speech.

Paul Spring says:

Missing the Point

Whether or not you can still say that there is still policing by consent in the UK, and I absolutely concede that you probably can’t, it doesn’t change the point that this document represents an ideal that I think all of us would want to see in our modern police forces. It is something that we should aspire to. A first step, in the US at least, would be to indicate that it is an aspiration. I think that is very far from being true at the moment.

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