Criminal and constable : the impact of policing reform on crime in nineteenth century London
Educated Londoners in the early 1800s, frightened by crime, tended to demonize the city's criminals, attributing sophistication, organisation and vigour to them. In reality, conventional Metropolitan crime was the product of acute social disorganisation, most of its exponents coming from a marginalised stratum of the urban lower working class. Change in Metropolitan policing was heavily oriented towards combating the unsophisticated, opportunistic, street crime and public disorder that characterised this group's deviance, and (independently of this) at promoting new standards of public order and decorum. The new police made an important, if sometimes exaggerated, contribution to the major reduction in Metropolitan street crime, pickpocketing, robbery, theft from shop fronts, assaults etc. that occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century. They also contributed significantly to the reduction in most other forms of deviance, as well as dramatically enhancing public order. However, historically, the significance of a simple police presence on the streets has been greatly exaggerated. The Metropolitan force were most effective against crime indirectly, promoting social discipline in a manner that closely accords with modern 'broken windows' theory. They were much less successful in directly combating conventional crime. As this became increasingly apparent in the decades after 1829, many came to believe that the institutional result achieved in 1829, and characterised by the triumph of the 'Peelite' school of preventative policing, was inherently flawed. This prompted further change, in particular, a major reassessment of the importance of detective work. Additionally, although a 'broken windows' approach to policing was fairly effective, it had an inescapable darker side. The imposition of new standards of public behaviour and order impinged on many 'traditional' and popular aspects of urban working class life, exciting bitter antipathy amongst the policed. It threatened long accepted civil liberties, which were increasingly attenuated during the century, and impinged on rights to 'due process', which, for minor offences, were greatly reduced. Even more alarmingly, the 'broken windows' approach to urban policing was the raw material for police abuse of power, whether in the form of corruption, perjury or brutality. This was, in part, the price paid for the radically improved personal and public security of the late Victorian period.