Welcome to Year Seven (!) of the New Worlds Patreon! The collection for Year Six will be out next month, but in the meanwhile, if you’ve been enjoying these essays, please consider becoming a patron.
We’re starting off this year with a bang, because my faithful patrons have voted to begin with how societies respond to crime. That means we’re going to be taking a look at policing, which is a highly contentious topic these days — and in the past, too, but it’s my living readers I’m concerned with. I’ll say up front that I’m going to attempt to be even-handed here, insofar as such a thing is possible: acknowledging both the benefits and downsides of policing, with neither meant to erase the existence of the other. That’s true in general for my Patreon work, of course, but I feel it’s important to highlight when the topic at hand is a sensitive one. As is my usual custom with these essays, my focus is as much or more on historical examples than modern ones, but the latter will inevitably appear here as well.
Those prefatory disclaimers established, let’s start off by asking: Where do police come from? And are they inevitable?
Second question first. No, police are not inevitable — certainly not in the sense we think of them today. Like many other institutions, they require resources and organization that not all societies can pull together. In the absence of such a force, people either help themselves in the face of crime, or suffer its slings and arrows without much recourse at all. The former is how you get vigilantism, with all the romance and horror that implies. The latter points toward the sad truth we have yet to really escape, which is that justice is one of many things society tends to dole out unequally to different groups: just as the wealthy and powerful may receive preferential treatment from police, they also have better means by which to go after those who have wronged them. Indeed, there have been many places and times where the closest thing to “police” was the forces of private guards maintained by individual aristocrats and the like.
But there’s one institution that pretty much every sedentary society has enough resources and organization to pull together . . . because if they don’t, they’re soon overrun by their neighbors. That, of course, is an army.
If your police are part of the army, what you have is a gendarmerie. The term comes from the French gens d’armes, and nowadays you most commonly see gendarmeries in Francophone countries, though not exclusively there. This approach makes a certain kind of sense; we’ll be talking about what police do next week, but some aspects of their duties are well-suited to people already trained in and armed for combat.
There are, however, some downsides to this approach. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; when your police are soldiers, they’re going to solve problems with military force. And since the general purpose of the army is to fight enemies of the state, this can have the psychological effect of casting your own population in a hostile light. In pre-modern times especially, that might not be an inapt characterization of how rulers view their own subjects . . . but this points toward another issue rulers might find more concerning, which is that they’re deploying military or paramilitary units within their own borders. The more effective those units are, the greater the risk that they might themselves become a problem in need of a solution.
So despite the obvious logic there, law enforcement is not always handed off to the military. You might instead pull together a separate force . . . but what are you pulling it together for?
“Policing” is not actually the obvious answer. In ancient Rome, for example, the first concern was not crime, but fire: the Vigiles or “watchmen” patrolled the city to keep an eye out for flames or smoke and sound the alarm before a blaze spread too far to be contained. They were paired with the urban cohorts, a paramilitary, gendarmerie-style force used more for large-scale tasks like quelling riots. But since they were out there anyway, the Vigiles eventually acquired other duties, like maintaining order on a smaller scale, deterring burglars, and capturing runaway slaves. That last duty links them to the slave patrols of the antebellum United States, who not only hunted runaways but policed the movements and behavior of Black people in general. In the aftermath of abolition, these patrols fed into a more generalized system of policing, thereby contributing to the racial inequalities and violence of our modern police.
I’m less clear on what the early history of this looks like in East Asia (and not at all clear on it in other parts of the world). I know that translations of Heian-era Japanese literature mention titles translated into English as “police,” but I don’t know what their duties were. In China, most of what I know is that the structure of the legal system meant that from early times, the local magistrate and his officials were the ones who both pursued criminals and then judged them once they were captured. This gave rise to the gong’an or “crime case” genre of fiction, which first arose nearly a thousand years ago — well before Europe had much in the way of organized law enforcement!
But Chinese magistrates shared with the later English constables the characteristic of having a wide array of duties beyond just what we would think of policing. Those poor English sods weren’t even paid for their work: not only did they have to catch rats, collect certain taxes, inspect buildings, and more, but they had to do it on their own time and their own shilling. It’s not surprising that the wealthier ones chose to pay someone else to take on all those annoying tasks for them . . . and this is where the notion of a professional, full-time organization eventually began to take root in British soil. (Though it took quite a while to flower, because France took that step first, and the conflicts of the time meant that Brits equated police with the oppressive regime of the revolutionaries across the Channel.)
If you have a group of people whose sole job is policing and who are paid a reasonable wage for that work, then — at least in theory — you can ensure they are disciplined, well-trained, and well-equipped. In practice, of course, it doesn’t work out that smoothly . . . but it’s an improvement on tucking such tasks in around the corners of some other job, or repurposing groups not trained for them, or letting them be performed by whatever random, unsupervised person can be roped into doing them. With a professional force, you also see a rise in things like standardized uniforms (so most police are recognizable on sight) and standards of behavior. But it can also mean a greater degree of separation from the rest of the community — especially if police are barracked together rather than living civilian lives, which I suspect is more common with paramilitary or outright military units.
Once you have your police force, what do you do with them? For that, tune in next week . . .