Policing the 21st Century: Reform or transform?

Published: 12 December 2018

Dr Julie Berg reflects on the limitations of current police reform efforts and and the need for a more transformative approach. She also considers these in relation to policing in the Global South.

1829. This was the year the Metropolitan Police was established by Sir Robert Peel in London. The year considered to be the birth year of the public police as we know it, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world of today.


This police organisation established almost 200 years ago was “from the beginning a bureaucratic organization of professionals. One of their tasks was to prevent crime by regularly patrolling beats, operating under strict rules which permitted individual discretion. The police also had a mission against the ‘dangerous classes’ and political agitation in the form of mobs or riots. ... from being a considerable novelty, they quickly became a part of ‘British tradition’.”[i]
Nothing much has changed since then, except that preventing crime has in many respects, by default, been translated into a narrow law enforcement and deterrence understanding, consisting of enforcing the law (whatever those laws might be) and arresting persons who break that law in the hopes that imprisonment will resolve the crime problem (it doesn’t). The very idea of a public police – a uniformed group of (mostly male) persons undertaking to prevent crime and disorder – has become common sense: “It takes a small but appreciable stretch of the historical imagination to put oneself back into the time when there were no professional police on the streets...”[ii]


But this common sense view is not necessarily a universal one. The story of the public police in the UK is also a story of public policing in the colonies – “The history of England is also the history of our colonies...”[iii] Ireland was the testing ground for colonial policing (a half a century earlier than the arrival of the London Met) and it was this model of Irish policing that was subsequently rolled out to the other colonies.[iv] This rolling out of policing models did not stop with the end of colonialism. Considerable investment has continued to pour into exporting the common sense public police model into postcolonial contexts with much emphasis on ‘police reform’ and the ultimate end-goal of achieving ‘democratic policing’ in the Global South. Although policing scholars speak of ‘postcolonial’ policing in acknowledgement of this history, what we still do is buy-into this common sense police system by trying to reform it, so that it works in Global South contexts. We don’t often re-think the system altogether. That is a stretch in the imagination that very few are willing to take.


Recently I attended a workshop at Utrecht University entitled 'Guarantees of Non- recurrence: Transformative Police Reform' attended by a number of scholars working on Global South policing issues. The aim of the workshop was to acknowledge the limitations of current police reform efforts and the need for a more transformative approach. It is only in retrospect that I realise that much of the workshop – while engaging with the realities of public policing in the Global South (not a happy story in many respects) and the failures of reform – was also trying to accommodate this common sense understanding of a singular, democratic, public police institution in contexts where sometimes this doesn’t make sense at all. In other words, there was much engagement with the realities of insecurity and policing in the Global South, but when we arrived at the normative or the ‘where-to-from-here?’ we ended up trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.


Let me explain. The quest for safety is becoming ever more urgent as we are confronted with new harm landscapes or ‘harmscapes’ affecting crime, violence, insecurity, and our very existence – such as the profound impacts of climate change, and the convergence of intractable global challenges such as conflict displacement and mass migration, growing civil unrest and violence, right-wing extremism, and so forth.[v] There are so many state and non-state organisations and institutions that need to be involved in mitigating and/or preventing these harms – intergovernmental organisations, insurance companies, private security companies, community organisations, civil society bodies, think tanks, local and international NGOs, global corporations, and so forth. In light of this, can the almost 200-year old common sense model of the police see us through these times? Or is this “the end of policing” as we know it?[vi] Do we abandon the ‘reform’ of the public police institution and embark on a transformation of ‘policing’ broadly speaking? In fact, how far do we stretch this concept of ‘policing’? For me, therefore, one of the questions that loomed over the Utrecht workshop was: What does ‘policing’ look like in the 21st Century? The question is not whether there are alternatives to the common sense idea of a singular public police – these alternatives already exist. The question is rather: how to align the often-disparate system of ‘policing’ into a whole-of-society approach that deals with the complexities of both old and new harmscapes in ways which are effective but also aligned to the good and interests of the public? This is the question that is increasingly at the forefront of scholarly engagement, with which I, and many other policing scholars, attempt to grapple.


[i] Silver, A. (2005) The Demand for Order in Civil Society: A Review of Some Themes in the History of Urban Crime, Police, and Riot.’ In Newburn, T. (ed) Policing: Key Readings. Devon: Willan Publishing, p. 10.

[ii] Ignatieff, M. (2005) Police and People: The Birth of Mr Peel’s ‘Blue Locusts’. In Newburn, T. (ed) Policing: Key Readings. Devon: Willan Publishing, p. 25.

[iii] Sumner, 1982, p.8 in Brogden, M. (1987) ‘The Emergence of the Police – The Colonial Dimension,’ British Journal of Criminology, 27(1):4-14 at 5.

[iv] Palmer, S.H. (1988) Policing and Protest in England and Ireland 1780 – 1850. London: Cambridge University Press.

[v] Berg, J. and C. Shearing (2018) ‘Governing-through-Harm and Public Goods Policing’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 679(1):72-85.

[vi] Vitale, A. (2017) The End of Policing. London: Verso.


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Dr Julie Berg is a lecturer in criminology at the School of Social and Political Sciences, and a member of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, at the University of Glasgow. She is also a member of the Evolving Securities Initiative, which is a global network of scholars and security professionals focusing on the generation of knowledge about existing and emerging harmscapes and associated policing developments.

First published: 12 December 2018