The Metropolitan Police Service22 minute read

The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) was founded in 1829 by the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, which saw little over 3000 men employed to patrol and watch the Metropolitan Police District (Smiles, 1870). Today, in its 187th year, the MPS employs almost 32,000 officers and 15,000 other staff (Metropolitan Police Service, 2015). This mass expansion and formalisation of the MPS between Victorian London and the modern day is what has inspired this research. This project is concerned with studying changes in the MPS since its inception in the Regency Era of London and, as in Barlow & Barlow (1999), evaluating if and how these changes reflect, and are reflected in, changes in London’s political economy. Given that the MPS was the first modern police force in the world, the governance of London is a unique experience that will inevitably have shaped the development of the city. As such the MPS are an interesting group to use as a focus of study to bring together broader social theories concerning London because they provide an appropriate base to apply theoretical discussion, which allows a more tangible context for understanding. Victorian London was the first large city that was well-policed (Hart, 2012), rendering the MPS of this time (and its subsequent evolved forms) an interesting site of study to evaluate the changing political economy of London.

Though this work will draw on a range of themes, including: labour politics; and crime and terror, the main theme I focus on is the intersection of class and race. The MPS has been instrumental in changes in the labour politics of London since the 1800s, given that the formal organisation of the MPS superseded other Police forces (such as the Night Watch) (Williams, 2014) and was central in the creation of ‘dangerous classes’ in London’s slums (Davis, 1989). As a result, the Police have been subjected to constant scrutiny as to their relationship with the public in the context of crime and terror. The Police can turn ‘from villains to heroes within a matter of pages’ (Marketing Week, 2011), and hence exploring public perception of the MPS is important to ascertain how the wider culture of London has changed. Class and racial conflict are very apparent in society, and hence are well explored in literature (Dahrendorf, 1959) (Drislane, 1975) (Class War Federation, 1999) (Jankiewicz, 2012) (Richmond, 1980). The MPS have been the subject of much examination regarding their attitudes and policies towards minority ethnic groups, with special reviews, inquiries and reports on the subject of institutional racism. Institutional racism is a form of systemic oppression that relies on intrinsic, deeply-embedded (and often subconscious) ‘anti-black’ attitudes within the structure of social institutions that force those from minority ethnic backgrounds into positions of inferiority (Phillips, 2011), therefore it is an important concept in discussions focusing on society in general. As a consequence of these reports and their findings, the Met have become a symbolic institution in race relations in the UK, which may be influenced by the deep and visible involvement of police forces in race relations elsewhere around the globe.

The aim of this paper is to use the Met police to argue that, irrespective of the cultural character of a social institution, the public will tend to project onto it their opinion of wider society. Because of this, it is important to study and understand individual institutions that make up the fabric of society in order to effectively critically engage with the ever-changing political economy of London. This paper will start by providing an account of the Metropolitan Police of Victorian London and major developments that have led to its current status; followed by a discussion on how the proletarianization of the constables interacted with wider social structure of London. I will then draw on case studies, largely that of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, to discuss how race and racial identity in London has been reflected in and intersected with the development of the MPS to the current day. I intend to finish with a discussion of how I have considered the Met as a palimpsest, and how the idea of a palimpsest is a useful tool in discussing changes in the political economy of London.

In 1830, whilst London housed approximately 1.5 million residents, the MPS had employed 3314 officers who were paid roughly 19 shillings per week (Grant, 1838). This means there was one police constable for every 425 residents. The Victorian constable has many colloquial names, but the most common were ‘peeler’, ‘bobby’ – after their founder, Robert Peel, and ‘copper’ (Bennett, 1924). The original Metropolitan Police District covered an area about 7 miles radius from Charing Cross, however by the year after its inception seventeen police divisions were set up and centred on the following areas (Figure 1) : A – Westminster; B – Chelsea; C – Mayfair and Soho; D – Marylebone; E – Holborn; F – Kensington; G – Kings Cross; H – Stepney; K – West Ham; L – Lambeth; M – Southwark; N – Islington; P – Peckham; R – Greenwich; S – Hampstead; T – Hammersmith and V – Wandsworth (The Metropolitan Police, 2016).

Figure 1 – Historical map showing Victorian police divisions (Metropolitan Police Service, 2016)

The role of the police was one of crime prevention, rather than detection, and the duties diverse (Smiles, 1870). Constables in Victorian London were considered public custodians who were in charge of regulating almost every interaction in public life, including: directing traffic, taking injured persons to hospital, checking local security, seizing stray dogs, taking care of drunk people and knowing who lived in each house on their beat (ibid., 1870). In 1842, the Met saw the introduction of the Detective Department (which was later reformed into modern-day Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in 1878) (Metropolitan Police Service, 2016), which was a major development given that the early commissioners of the Met shunned the notion of detection as ‘un-English’ and unwelcome (Gray, 2010). During the 1860’s, largely influenced by a growing population due to in- migration and the building of King’s Cross Railway Station, London expanded Northwards and hence opened a new division (Y) in Highgate. At the same time, two new divisions were also opened in Clapham (W) and Paddington (X) (Smiles, 1870). Owing to a period of high migration in the 1860s to the 1880s, racial tensions ran high and the Met established the first of many special branches – the Special Irish Branch – introduced in 1883 in order to combat the Irish Republican Brotherhood (Metropolitan Police Service, 2016).

After the establishment of new divisions and branches, by the close of century the MPS employed almost 16,000 officers, just over five times the number they had started with seventy years earlier. In line with this, London’s population had increased from 1.5 million to 7 million (Metropolitan Police Service, 2016). With the outbreak of war in the early 1900s, the Police service experienced a devolution of their duties and an expansion in their number. Special Constables were appointed on a permanent basis, with 31,000 sworn in by the end of 1914, along with the foundation of the Women Police, though the Women Police were considered a separate force and were not granted full arrest powers and direct integration into the force until 1973 (Metropolitan Police Service, 2016). By the end of 1915 Police duties were better-defined and the transport of injured persons was undertaken by the newly establish London Ambulance Service. The Police Service further evolved in the 1940s, in line with technological progress, to include the provision of the 999 system as well as the introduction of the Fraud Department in order to combat new types of crime that the rise in technology had allowed. Further expansion occurred in 1960 when the Criminal Intelligence Section and Stolen Motor Vehicle Investigation branches were established in response to more specific types of crime emerging with the changing economy. Incremental recruitment and expansion has meant that, today, the MPS covers an area of 620 square miles, which comprises a population of 7.2 million. The 620 square miles covered corresponds to the Greater London area, excluding the City of London. The Mayor of London is responsible for the governance of the MPS through the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. The area policed by the MPS is referred to as the Metropolitan Police District, which is split into 32 Borough Operational Command Units (BOCUs) (Figure 2). BOCUs became directly aligned with the 32 London Boroughs created by the London Government Act 1963 in 2000 (Metropolitan Police Service, 2016b).

Current MPS Map
Figure 2 – Current Metropolitan Police Boroughs (Metropolitan Police Service, 2016b)

The establishment of a cross-parish policing body in the 1800s created the idea of a ‘dangerous class’ (Davis, 1989) that was heavily criminalised. Smiles (1870) says of lower Victorian society:

‘The miserable and desperate classes of London are almost equal in number to the population of some kingdoms: they would fill a great city by themselves. They include a multitude of beggars, tramps, match-sellers, crossing-sweepers, rag-pickers, organ-grinders, prostitutes, and others hanging on to the outskirts of society, ready at any moment to become criminal’

(Smiles, 1870, p. 90)

This demonisation of the working classes is part of a wider class-conflict that the Metropolitan Police have come to embody. Moult (2012) comments that the establishment of the new police represented the extension of a state apparatus for controlling the urban poor, which created instant suspicion and contempt amongst the working classes toward the new police (Thurmond Smith, 1985). The urban poor were already sceptical of a body with enlarged powers compared to the previous constabulary forces (such as the Night Watch and the Bow Street Runners, or individual parish constabularies) (Taylor, 1997), however in addition to this, the ‘old’ police who had been replaced tended to be a band of constables who were ‘almost all Irishmen of the very worst class in point of moral character’ (Grant, 1838). This meant that the class who were demonised and criminalised by the new police consisted of those who were previously part of the old constabularies, which created resistance that was fuelled by opposition in journals circulated largely amongst lower members of society (Jackson, 2006). Class-conflict and subsequent power relations between the public and police have resurfaced at multiple points in history, with the emergence of ‘no-go’ areas. Davis (1989) uses Broadwater Farm Estate and the Jenning’s Buildings to draw comparisons between working class resistance to police power in Victorian and contemporary London. These areas, where the frontiers of the ‘policed society’ were being overrun by the criminal classes, helped to create and reinforce the idea of dangerous classes (ibid, 1989). Constraints on the Police (both Victorian and contemporary) ensured that they concentrated their resources on groups and individuals they could easily control, who tended to be those who already fitted contemporary stereotypes of the disreputable sections of society that had sorted themselves into particular areas (Maré et al., 2012; Davis, 1989). ‘Resistance is what eludes power, and power targets resistance as its adversary’ (Pickett, 1996), and as such the residents of these areas became the focus of police attention by simply living in a ‘criminal’ area considered impregnable by the police (Davis, 1989). The juxtapositional role that the MPS played in Victorian class conflicts is best demonstrated through the pivotal role that policeman played in political interactions between classes. The police were central to enforcing the attempts by the elite to suppress popular culture, cultural independence, political and industrial action, and the support of Chartism by working-class people, despite  often belonging to the very same social class as those whose lives they tried to transform (Shpayer-Makov, n.d.). The divergence of the policeman from the rest of the public is an interesting one. In Victorian London policemen became familiar with those who lived on their beat, but, testament to the monumental growth of London, today officers are more interdependent with colleagues and are ‘alienated from the populations they police’ (Reiner, 2000, p. 104). Police culture and its variations are reflections of the power structures of the societies policed, and as such the increasing power of the public and its scrutiny of the police have altered culture and policy within the MPS (Sergeant, 2008).

The political ‘thrust’ of the new police was to transform the ‘masterless men’ of the working class into ‘rational calculating machines in pursuit of clearly defined economic goals’ (Williams, 2014). Proletarianisation is the process through which a group of people lose control of the means of production and increasingly can only survive by selling their labour power (Tilly, 1979). Williams (2014) argues that proletarianisation and de-skilling transformed the constable from an independent agent to a wage-earner, which also delivered part of a broader social trend of urbanisation, capitalism and industrialisation. Previously, policemen were ‘professionals’, or artisanal keepers of the law, however the new policeman was an occupational role that was organised by a division of labour, which effectively incorporated them into the capitalist social system (Williams, 2014). Proletarianisation of the police demonstrated the emergence of the capitalist classes and industrial bourgeoisie culture (Williams, 2014). The culture of policing reflected the domination of the capitalist classes and emergence of new class conflict such that career progression was used as a way to control homogenous labour, however recruits with high social status and education had better prospects of promotion and few officers gained middle class status as a result of being a policeman (Shpayer-Makov, n.d.). Proletarianisation caused problems for the new police in their ability to prosecute in court. The defence argument was often hinged on the fact that the prosecuting policeman was of a lower social class to that of the accused (seeing as most cases that reached a court hearing involved members of high-society) and therefore not able to effectively judge character (Williams, 2014). During the industrial revolution, the need for standardised, state-recognised education, qualification or qualities to homogenise the proletariat was increased for the advancement of modern day capitalism and centralisation (Gellner, 1983). Centralisation has led ‘inexorably’ to the politicisation of the Service (Sergeant, 2008), which has framed the Police for use as the focus of political debates, such as those centred around racism.

Stephen Lawrence Plaque
Figure 3 – Vandalism of the plaque laid in memory of Stephen Lawrence (

In 1993, Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racially motivated attack in Eltham, South East London. The investigation into Stephen’s death was, from the beginning, marred by accusations of poor police work and racism in the Metropolitan Police (Stone, 2013). After two investigations and two internal reviews, there were still no convictions for the murder and a large amount of discontent within the black and minority ethnic communities in London (Stone, 2013). The conclusions of a subsequent public inquiry were strong in their condemnation for the poor policing as a result of institutional racism from within the police force (Macpherson et al., 1999). Subsequent racially motivated crimes took place at the site of his death, largely through people defacing the plaque laid in his honour, as seen in Figure 3.

The racial tensions raised during the Stephen Lawrence murder and inquiry mirrored those of the 1981 Brixton Riots, where high unemployment and deprivation, and poor police relations amongst predominantly young black men in the area led to rioting and disorder. Claims of ‘anti-blackness’ amongst the Police has meant that the Service is not representative of the society it polices, feeding the rise of further racial tensions. Lord Scarman (1981) famously commented that there is no time to allow the process of assimilation to run its course, and that affirmative action by the Police is necessary. The image of the police amongst black and Asian people was acknowledged to be a serious stumbling block to recruitment and, despite numerous recruitment efforts (such as requiring candidates to speak a second language corresponding to a range of different ethnic groups in London), the Police Service is still not representative of society. Though the Met have evolved since the 1970s, where popular morality defined black people as ‘an alien wedge out of society’ and unable to assimilate to British culture (The Institute of Race Relations, 1979), the lingering effects of this ‘othering’ can be seen in the differing life chances available to those from minority ethnic backgrounds. Stone (2013) comments that:

‘blacks are underpoliced as victims of crime, and are over policed when going about their law-abiding business’

(Stone, 2013, p. 12)

Highlighting the way in which the contemporary police reinforce the idea of a modern-day dangerous class. Black and Asian migrant groups have come to regard the police as ‘the enforcement arm of the white establishment’ (Roach, 1978), which mirrors the sentiment of the poor and the Victorian police. It is interesting to note that, as the political sphere of London has shifted, so too has the conflict that the Met have come to represent. The Victorian Police were a symbol of class- conflict, whereas the contemporary London Police represent intersectional race-class conflicts with popular opinion particularly interested in race relations between the public and the police. These racial conflicts occur between the police and public and within the internal police ranks, which highlights the pervasiveness of racial conflict and its role in shaping society (Holdaway, 1996). The layering of types of conflict that mould public perception of the Police constantly changes in line with the general political economy, and as such the current climate of xenophobia and anti- immigration sentiment in Britain will inevitably make an impression on the Met.

The palimpsest is a figurative entity that has metaphorical value extended beyond its status as a palaeographic object (The Chicago School of Media Theory, 2016). Dillon (2007) argues that, using Kristeva’s concepts of pheno-text and geno-text, the pheno-text is an elsewise isolated text that is interrupted by the palimpsestuous diversity of the geno-text. This creates the production of a wealth of meaning, where each meaning forms a distinct layer on the wider structure of the canvas in which the pheno-text is presented. To apply this analogy to this research, it would stand that the current culture of Metropolitan Police is the pheno-text, where the society in which is situated and created is the geno-text. Any socioeconomic or cultural changes in the political economy of London will manifest as different pressures on the current culture of the MPS that will, in turn, create a distinct layer in the identity of the wider MPS. Hence, the Police Service is a multiplicity of layers that are built over each other, resembling a palimpsest. Though this work began with a linear portrayal of the development of the MPS between Victorian and contemporary London, it is important to note that the pheno-text (i.e. the culture of the Police) will never be fixed, as the changes in the political economy of London (i.e. the geno-text) will constantly influence and rewrite it (Dillon, 2007). Thus, the evolution of the MPS is non-linear, and can be considered a cyclical set of continuous experiences. The Met has been continually used and interacted with in past and current lived experiences of London and, because of this continuity, the Met can be considered a palimpsest of the City (Pike, 2010).

Taking into account theories of race, class and labour formation it can be asserted that there is no one definite police culture in London (Kiely & Peek, 2002) (Young, 1991), nor is there any one final form the Service will progress to. It would seem that the constant changing of the context in which the Met is situated is constantly changing the breadth and depth of the Service and the perception of its officers (Moult, 2012). It is important to remember that when deconstructing the police force as an institution, each individual is also a member of society in their own right. This means that acts of policies undertaken whilst representing the Police will also have been influenced by individual reactions to society in general, hence further enforcing the relevance of the MPS’s role in the political economy of London. The homogenisation of the many different policemen as one body denies the individuals agency that we have come to associate with the post-Habermasian public (Campbell, 2013). As such, the public have ‘othered’ the Metropolitan Police, forcing them to assume a collective identity as a Habermasian ‘sphere of public authority’ (Habermas, 1989), or even a commodity. Czerny (2014) comments that the Victorian Police were as much on display as they things they were guarding during the 1851 Great Exhibition, and hence through the spectacle of the Exhibition became a commodity coveted by those around the world and a statement of Britain’s imperialist power. The constant Deleuzian sense of becoming that the Police experience as a result is testament to the palimpsestuous nature of the Service and its role in cultural London. This paper argues that the constant change in the public perceptions of the MPS is not so much a view of the service, nor the individual officers, but a general reaction to the broad society in which the general public, and the MPS, exist. Moult (2012) supports this conclusion as, he asserts, the Police were established in a society that was ‘highly suspicious of state intervention’, where the growing force of Chartism directly clashed with Westminster’s rhetoric of targeting the ‘criminal class’ – implying that it wouldn’t have mattered what the ‘Police culture’ was, or how the Force operated: the public would always have regarded them with scorn. Continuing this thought, public perception of the police improved as quality of life improved in London; crime rates lowered as life expectancy and disposable incomes rose. This improvement in society at large had been projected onto public perception of the Police, who are the most visible arm of government for ordinary citizens (Wiatrowski & Goldstone, 2010). In contemporary London, the largest factors influencing the political economy and general aura of society are race, racism and immigration (Redclift, 2014) (Solomos, 1989), with particular emphasis on Islamophobia (Goulbourne, 1991). The right-wing Conservative central and Mayoral administration of contemporary London have been accused of being ‘ultimate racists’ who ‘deal in stereotypes’ (Laud, 2015), and this perception has been visible in public opinion of the police that has culminated in inquiries, documentaries, and reviews that have uncovered institutional racism (Evans, 2015).


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