One of the interesting things about police as an element of society is just how broad the concept is. In various times and places, their duties have included everything from catching stray animals to quelling riots to investigating crimes. Which are three very different tasks . . . and yet all of them have been put under the header of “police.”
For the purposes of fiction, our minds often go first to that investigation angle. It’s a staple of mystery narratives, whether within that genre or mystery plots in other genres, and you can certainly have investigators in various types of culture. What you won’t often find in history are investigators who are part of a recognized, official police source available to the general public. I’ve talked previously about how, if a something was stolen or a family member was murdered, it was up to you to track down and collar the perpetrator (or at least somebody you believed was the perpetrator) and drag them before a judge or magistrate. The same was true of other investigative tasks, like regaining your lost property or finding a missing person. If you weren’t capable of handling this yourself, you could hire somebody or call in a favor, but the Powers That Be weren’t going to provide that service for you.
Enter the thief-takers. We get that term from a specific period of English history, but it works as a generic alternative to the more modern-sounding “private investigator” or “bounty hunter” for anybody who hires themself out specifically for the purpose of chasing down criminals. While often they would be paid by the injured party, there was also a stretch of time in England where monetary rewards were given for the successful conviction of an offender — with, yes, quite a lot of corruption as a result. This is part of how Jonathan Wild, whom I discussed in Year Six, built his criminal empire.
Although investigating crimes might not often have been seen as the state’s business, maintaining order has long fallen under that umbrella. On the small end of the scale, this is where things like patrols of night watchmen come in. In theory, their presence will help to deter crime: they may not be responsible for investigating after the fact, but they will gladly apprehend anybody they catch in the act. If there’s a curfew — and there often is in this setup — they arrest or, if more friendly, send home anyone in violation; the same response may greet anybody being notably drunk and disorderly. Investigation might be up to the individual and long-term imprisonment might be handled by other authorities, but locking away a guilty or accused party in the short term, whether until they sober up or until they can stand trial, is often part and parcel of this mandate to maintain order.
On the large end of the scale, police are called in to break up riots. Where this gets interesting, though, is when you consider what counts as a “riot,” because it doesn’t just mean a rampage of property destruction and other such crimes; depending on the political climate, this may well include any kind of mass protest, or even just a peaceable assembly of the wrong kind of people. The eighteenth-century British Riot Act made it so that any gathering of twelve individuals or more could be declared unlawfully assembled and ordered to disperse. We get the phrase “reading the riot act” from the act’s requirement that an official read a specific declaration commanding the listeners to go home, before force could be used against them.
If this sounds like policing as an overt tool of political control, that’s because it is. I’m not going to get too deep into the concept of internal security forces, as I believe that belongs more with a future discussion of espionage, but remember what I said last week about a gendarmerie potentially treating the populace as enemies of the state? When riots or undesirable political gatherings happen, it’s often a military force that gets brought out to deal with them. And the use of police to quash dissent was a key element of why the Brits of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resisted the notion of having any, despite the rampant crime in London and the absolute ineffectiveness of parish constables; they feared that a more organized force would be used to limit their rights.
Maintaining order and apprehending criminals are probably the core of what we consider police business these days, but their responsibilities can go in many other directions. Anything that violates a law, statue, or regulation is potentially a problem for police to handle, even when it doesn’t rise to the level of what we’d think of as “crime.” Has your neighbor failed to hang a lighted lantern outside her front door after sunset, as she is required to do? Call the police. Has the guy on the other side illegally built his front gate out of cypress wood, which is not permitted to people of his lowly rank? Call the police. Has someone let their pig out to root around in the street? Call the police. (If you live in medieval England and there are no police, anybody can kill your pig, and then you have to pay a penny per quarter if you want to lay claim to the meat.)
Does someone in your neighborhood, in defiance of local noise ordinances, have a rooster shrieking his head off in their backyard? When this happened to me and my husband, we called animal control instead . . . but that’s because we live in a society with a sufficiently developed bureaucracy to have a separate animal control department, trained and equipped to handle various faunal offenses. A similar conversation is happening now in the U.S. around mental health issues, with some municipalities reassigning funds to create specially trained responder units, rather than sending in the cops. Since the latter has often resulted in tragedy, officers responding with violent force to someone who could potentially have been talked down, the benefit of separating this function out is pretty clear.
So the duties of police have oscillated pretty wildly between different societies. They may be anything from absent to omnipresent, paid and authorized to deal with only a tiny fraction of issues or endowed with broadly sweeping powers, supplemented by other, more specialized organizations or left entirely on their own. For stories, the important thing is to stop and consider what makes sense for the society at hand . . . and what will produce the most interesting narrative results.