LETTER OF THE LAW

How Peel Street reminds of principles still relevant to policing in Hong Kong

Ethical guidelines for police forces inspired by 19th-century reformer more relevant than ever

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 January, 2015, 2:54am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 January, 2015, 2:54am

Strolling down Peel Street in Central, you don't just find old shops and traces of colonial memories. You may also be inspired.

The street, one of the city's oldest, was built in the early 1840s and named after Robert Peel, who served twice as British prime minister.

Peel was a reformer. He introduced the Metropolitan Police Act, which the British parliament passed in 1829, marking the beginning of modern, civic policing.

Under the new law, the reformed police force became a full-time, salaried and uniformed constabulary, employed based on merit and carrying batons instead of invasive weapons to keep the public peace. It was accountable to the home secretary through salaried police commissioners.

The police contrasted sharply with the army, in which purchases of commissions by aristocrats and landowners were common, and the local parish watchmen, who were part-time and voluntary.

Later, a set of principles of ethical policing, or policing by consent, emerged. Although widely referred to as the Peelian principles for decades, it was clear that Peel did not author them. Rather, they were created by academics and practitioners during democratic state-building in the 20th century.

The Peelian principles are not constitutional principles, laws or any kind of enforceable rules. They are guidelines widely taught in police colleges and used in educating the public about the role of policing and how it is to be conducted. The core idea is that policing is an alternative to military repression and severe legal punishment. It is to prevent crimes, maintain civil peace and preserve life based on public approval and cooperation. It is important for the police to provide absolute impartial service to the law.

The use of physical force is only the last resort when persuasion, advice and warning are insufficient to gain public cooperation in maintaining order. And when force is used, it has to be minimal and proportional to the disorder.

Good policing also disapproves of any seeming usurpation of the judiciary's powers to avenge individuals or the state. Authoritatively playing the judge and punishing the guilty are not part of the policing functions.

The police should not be seen as tools of social control. They are but members of the public who are paid full-time to carry out duties incumbent on every citizen in the interest of community welfare.

There is every legitimate reason for the Hong Kong public to expect law enforcement agencies, under the principle of "one country, two systems", to police based on ethical principles to enhance, rather than diminish, liberty and democratic life.

In this regard, the Peelian principles remain highly relevant today.

Simon Ng is assistant professor and senior programme director of law at the University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuing Education.