Saturday, 27 October 1888
An interesting paper on the history and duties of the police of the metropolis is contributed by the Commissioner, SIR CHARLES WARREN, to the November number of Murray's Magazine. SIR CHARLES WARREN has been put on the defensive. He finds himself and the force under his control made the frequent objects of misdirected and misinformed criticism. It is the aim of his paper to clear away some prevailing misconceptions, and to present to the public a correct view of the real facts of the case, and of the essential conditions under which alone the police can be kept level with their work. These conditions are shown to depend not only on the police, but vary largely, too, on the temper and attitude of the whole body of the citizens. It is not enough for the London police to be under good discipline, and to be ready and capable of discharging their duty as guardians of the public peace. Their efforts must be seconded and supported by the general good will of Londoners. The maintenance of law and order must be felt to be everybody's concern, or at least the concern of all who have not avowedly and permanently declared themselves on the enemy's side. But this is far from being the state of things which SIR CHARLES WARREN discovers. The London police do not, he declares, receive the outside support which they may justly claim as their due, and without which they are, comparatively speaking, powerless. He assumes, as a matter of course, the existence of a disorderly mob ready at all times to break out into acts of open mischief, and in standing hostility to the police. With these and with their natural allies, the criminal classes, he has, so to say, no quarrel. They act after their kind, and he understands how to deal with them. His complaint is that this whole heterogeneous mass of criminals and semi-criminals and would-be criminals and criminals' friends obtains from time to time a genuine public sympathy which is denied to himself and to his force. The London temper varies. If there is danger in the air and if a mob outburst seems imminent, the police are the public favourites. But in the quiet intervals between one riot and another, and while there is nothing to disturb the sense of general security, the police are marked down for wide and indiscriminate abuse. Then comes a reaction. The rabble gathers courage, and soon begins to display itself in its old form. Peaceful and law-abiding citizens then take alarm and turn to the police for help against the attack which they apprehend, forgetful meanwhile that they themselves have been doing their best to promote and encourage the movement which they now dread.
It is this oscillation of public feeling, this withholding of steady and regular sympathy from the police, which is the great difficulty in SIR CHARLES WARREN's way. He has no fear of the disorderly classes as long as they are left to themselves, but when he sees persons of influence, ex-Ministers among the rest, taking the side of the rabble, and forward and eager in finding fault with the police, he claims a right to protest against the embarrassment thus created. The present moment is a critical one. Lord Mayor's Day is near, and it is coming after a quiet time in which the London mob has been kept under due restraint, and Trafalgar-square has not been suffered to be the general rendezvous for mob orators and roughs. SIR CHARLES WARREN scents danger accordingly. There has, he perceives, been something like an organized preparation made for a new outburst and for crippling the power of the Executive, but he sees with pleasure that he is not alone in the discovery and that the citizens of London are beginning to rally to the side of law and order. The strange thing is that they should ever be in a different mind. The fact is proof of the great need for care and delicacy on the part of the police in the discharge of their appointed work. It is quite right that they should be watched, and that their mistakes and offences and shortcomings should be brought to light and should receive the comments they deserve. But how this is done makes all the difference in the world. There is a right and a wrong way, and when we find endeavours made to hold the police up to public opprobrium, and to bring the whole array of Liberal clap-trap to bear against them, we may with good reason suspect the motives of their critics. They probably mean mischief, or, if not, it can only be because they have no notion whatever of the natural and necessary tendency of their words. The London police are, as SIR CHARLES WARREN points out, not a body dangerous in the least to the proper liberty of the subject. Their powers are far less than those enjoyed by the police in other countries. If they exceed their duty in the most minute particular, they are open to rebuke and punishment from the Metropolitan magistrates - an entirely independent body. This separation of the executive and judicial functions is regarded by SIR CHARLES WARREN as the most important step ever taken in the interests of justice. It gives to both orders, to the executive and to the judicial alike, a claim on the public confidence which they could not otherwise possess. The decisions of the magistrates in police cases are received with a trust which would not be felt if the police force were under their direct control; and the police are well aware that they must not look to the magistrates for the support and countenance in wrong-doing which their own officers would be at least suspected of granting them if it were by them alone that the final verdict could be pronounced. It is, we fear, inevitable, even so, that some of the multifarious duties cast upon the London police should bring them into a disfavour not wholly undeserved. It is a part of their business to maintain public decency in the streets, and in nothing has their conduct been more open to unfavourable comment than in this. They have made mistakes in some cases. In every case public sentiment is apt to be with the weaker, with the woman rather than with the policeman. The clamorous brawler who has been disturbing the peace overnight, who has been molesting passers-by, and has been dragged off after a most determined resistance, appears the next morning in quite a different character in court, a modest, down-cast personage, strong only in the weakness of her sex, more like a victim than an offender, and not in the least to be recognized for what she was twelve hours before and will be twelve hours afterwards if she escapes with a bare reprimand. But there have been instances, too, in which real mistakes have been made, deplorable on every account, for the misery which they cause to the victim, and for the opportunity which they give to those in search of it for raising a general clamour against the police and discrediting the whole body for the fault of a single member. If caution must be a watchword of the police at all times and in all duties, it is more than ever needful in the discharge of a duty more delicate than any other, and more likely to expose them to hostile remark, with or without cause.
On the constitution and method of the detective force SIR CHARLES WARREN does not tell us much. It is a secret order, told off for special and secret work, on the particulars of which the criminal classes and their friends and abettors would very gladly be informed. But it is no part of SIR CHARLES WARREN's purpose to gratify them. He tells us what he can tell with safety, and he points with satisfaction to results as the best proof possible that the detective service is well organized and efficient. He has a curious argument in support of his laudatory words. With a perfect detective system there would be no murders but those of so exceptional a character as to elude inquiry. We may expect, therefore, with a detective system so good as our own, that there will be a preponderance of undetected murders, and this the more certainly in the degree in which the proportion of murders per thousand of population approaches a minimum. Detectives are not, SIR CHARLES WARREN says, as well known to the criminal classes as they are thought to be. He quotes a remark of his own - "You know all you know, but you do not know those you do not know." The public, he adds, do not know the detectives as a body, and they often assume that they are not present when they are actually standing at their side.