Credited by many as the founder of the modern police force, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie (1625-1709) was appointed lieutenant general of police of the city of Paris in 1667. An enlightened and advanced thinker for his times, he suppressed the infamous Court of Miracles, later made famous by Victor Hugo, leading a regiment of the royal army to surround the area beforehand.
He also established a large network of paid informers: His "sheep" were infiltrated into the prison system and his "flies" worked throughout the city and its suburbs.
If de la Reynie were to return to France today, he would not find very much changed in principle. Andrew Hussey in his book "Paris, The Secret History" (2006) writes: "The close association, even deliberate confusion, of police and judicial authority was to play a defining role in the nature of Parisian policing for decades to come: unlike British policing, which is mainly concerned with prohibiting, the Paris (and therefore French) police system has been, and continues to be, equally concerned with prescriptive measures, intervention and surveillance."
The particular aspect being addressed by Hussey was of the Paris police in 1200! Surveillance has a long tradition indeed.
Nor is France the least unusual. Alexandra Richie, in her book "Faust's Metropolis, A History of Berlin" (1998), describes the purpose and powers of Berlin's police force in 1850:
"Known activists and street fighters were rounded up and arrested, a curfew of eleven o'clock was imposed and citizens were forced to carry identification with them at all times. Strict controls were introduced at the city gates and all visitors had to register with the police.
"...The (police) force...instead of protecting the new laws and freedoms, it was now reorganized along paramilitary lines and became a highly effective instrument of control" and had "a huge network of informers."
Military ranks, large numbers of paid informers, carrying identification as routine, the collection of visitors names from hotel registrations, paramilitary lines - all these terms and concepts are not thought of in Britain when considering our police force. Yet on the Continent, I always carry my passport and was pulled over whilst driving in Normandy once, a couple of days after there had been a bomb blast (no fatalities to my knowledge) in Paris.
"Papers" demanded the police officer, his submachine gun suspended on a strap from his shoulder. Not too happy with my passport photo, I think he let me go because of my wife and three kids in the back. My daughter remarked that all the time he was inspecting my "papers," his colleague trained his (sub-) machine gun on our car. I pointed out that we were being treated no differently from the other cars being pulled over by the other officers and that "things are different in Europe."
"Europe"! Why should I unconsciously think of Britain being separate and different to Europe? Regarding our policing, Home Secretary Theresa May on 09 August 2011, remarked: "The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities" and went on to pledge that the Metropolitan Police had her full support.
Possibly May has read Peter Ackroyd's description of the development of the capital's police force in his book "London, The Biography" (2000). Originating from "the watch" and the "good men" of each ward and initially considered a public duty, what would become the police force was more formally established in 1285, primarily tasked with maintaining law and order.
This was helped by a custom lonmg held until relatively recent times "that the medieval concept of co-operation within ward and precinct prevailed. ... The citizens of London themselves ensured that their city was at least relatively safe, and an informal system of local justice prevailed." All summed up in the term "community spirit"?
Many fear that after the August 2011 riots things can never be quite the same again. Writing in the Financial Times on 13/14 August 2011, Gautam Malkani invoked Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange," and his colleague Christopher Caldwell, in the same issue, pointed out that Britain had adopted the American concept of individual liberty but omitted to safeguard it in the American fashion.
Caldwell writes: "While Britons are fond of their police, Americans are generally scared of theirs, and take pains to avoid coming to their attention. ... Any encounter is marked by an understanding that one party represents the legitimate authority of the state and one party does not."
Between 06 August and 10 August 2011, London and a number of other cities in England suffered often coordinated, widespread rioting accompanied by arson and looting, on a scale arguably never seen in peacetime England, leaving five dead, 16 civilians injured and 186 police officers injured.
Dozens of people have been burnt out of their homes and many businesses destroyed or badly damaged. The financial cost is expected to exceed £200 million.
The initial cause was the shooting dead by police of 29-year-old Mark Duggan on 04 August 2011, who was carrying a loaded firearm when apparently resisting arrest. A YouGov/The Sun Survey poll carried out on 08 and 09 August 2011 revealed that 42 per cent blamed "criminal behaviour" for the ensuing riots and looting, and a further 26 per cent blamed "gang culture."
It is generally agreed that the police, armed only with shields, were very stretched to begin with and looked, in the eyes of many, only too outwitted and somewhat sorrowful in the face of overwhelming numbers of rioters. This gave the ordinary law-abiding citizen no pleasure at all but it was also obvious that even if police numbers had been doubled there would have been little difference.
Do the British want their police to carry firearms? A large majority would probably regard this as most regrettable, and it's a view shared by an equal number of police officers Provided such events occur most infrequently, say once in 15 to 20 years, Caldwell's commentary need not prevail, but should this become an ever recurring event, then the August 2011 riots will be seen as a watershed.
Now, about forming a National Guard....