A couple years ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop with several of my fellow officers at the beginning of our patrol shift, when a citizen approached us and politely asked, "Why are you called 'Coppers'?" As I looked around and took inventory of everyone's shocked expressions, I was amazed not with the question posed, but with the zero response provided back to the gentleman. After several moments of uncomfortable silence, I explained the historical significance of the old 19th century copper badges once issued to those who walked the beat many years before us. It was then that I realized that those tasked with educating police cadets, who would one day become police officers, had failed. Imagine this for a moment: you are surrounded by a medical team about to undergo brain surgery, and as you are lying down on the operating table and just before the surgery starts, you ask a simple question about the history of medicine. The surgeon replies, "I have no idea." How would you feel then? Would you begin to question whether or not this physician is qualified to do his or her job? As I left the coffee shop that day, I wondered if that law abiding citizen was thinking the same about us.
Remember the old adage, that we should not forget where we came from? If we do, we risk losing sight of what we have become, and how we got there in the first place. Where you are now is important to know, if you want to progress. The reason why I knew the answer to the "copper" question was because I was a college graduate of a law enforcement program, a segment of which covered police history. However, I realized that not all police officers have had the opportunity to attend college for whatever reason, and most agencies still, to this day, do not require a degree as a minimum entry standard. Worse yet, the peace officer basic training curriculum for my state does not even address law enforcement history, and I surmise that most POST states do the same.
If you are one of those officers that has a little knowledge of police history, but not enough to be comfortable, in the time it takes to sit through roll call you can access online resources that will get you up to speed quickly. For example, searching for the "history of policing" through Wikipedia, I found the following information, and I will summarize it using my own interpretations, with additions for your convenience:
- Once upon a time, in ancient Greece (the hub of modern civilization at that point in history) people were afraid. Governing authorities there established a group of slaves to serve as night watchmen and as a mechanism for early fire suppression.
- Later, when the Roman Empire grew to encompass most of Europe, they instituted their own form of policing throughout their conquered lands. At first, privately owned slaves served in this role until the creation of the "Vigiles," who were publically owned slaves better organized and supported by government.
- About 600 years later, in England, the prospect of societal protection was still provided by a privately organized system, although other advances were occurring throughout Europe. Merchants in England hired watchmen to guard their property against thieving. It is important to note that emphasis was placed on protection of assets instead of the populace at that time, and the English form of policing is where we draw our law enforcement roots from.
- It was not until the early 1800s that public police forces were established in England and the United States. What we know now as private security also continuously evolved, and has partnered with public agencies traditionally to provide protection to the citizenry. For instance, historians tell us that the railroad police (privately owned and operated) were one of the early elements, and sometimes the only facet, of organized law enforcement in the "Wild West" during certain periods.