Public Representations of the Police Research Paper

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Ever since the introduction of organized and systematic police forces in the Western nation-states in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century, they generated great interest in the media. As a prominent institution which evolved in tandem with the rising weight of public opinion in the political arena, the modern police, especially in democratically inclined societies, aimed at cultivating a favorable reputation on the premise that a positive image constituted a key factor in attaining or maintaining their legitimacy, social standing, and efficiency. The interaction between the media and the police, and hence the dominant public representations of the police, changed over time and from country to another. This research paper focuses on England, which, while not necessarily typical as a case study, offers an analysis of a society where the issue of police images was crucial. Although the English police did not refrain from coercive methods, whether overt or subtle, they consistently displayed a marked sensitivity to their public image, and many of their operative decisions were made in this light. Further, the English media, in its various forms, devoted exceptional attention to police activity and personnel, providing a vibrant forum for diverse and contesting views on the topic. Although media coverage contained criticism – at times vehement – of the police and its agents, and relations between journalists and the police were not without tension, current research reveals that on the whole, the portrayals of the police were supportive and thereby also enhanced the power of the state. The uncomplimentary opinion of some sectors of the public, particularly those who were the object of police heavy-handedness and control, tended to be played down in public discourse. Since a sizable portion of the population derived their perceptions from the media and not from direct contact with the police, media images had an important impact on hegemonic public attitudes.

The first section of this research paper explains the focus on England. The second section traces attitudes in the major conveyors of police representations – the press and fiction – from the early nineteenth century to the First World War. At its core is the finding that despite continued criticism and varied messages in each media format, by the late nineteenth century, the media had shifted from wide criticism and rejection of the notion of a strong public police to an acceptance of its beneficial role. The third and fourth sections explore the interwar and post-Second World War periods, respectively, including, in addition to print culture, also an examination of cinema films and television, pointing to the continued largely supportive attitude in the twentieth century. Despite rising dissatisfaction with the police in the media of the turn of the twenty-first century, the English police maintained their elevated position as a national icon.


Ever since their emergence in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century, modern police institutions in Western nationstates have systematically attracted considerable public notice and have become recurring objects of commentary and publicity.

The fact that the evolution of professional bureaucratic policing systems coincided with the accelerated growth of literacy, mass readership, and the publishing industry intensified this phenomenon. Interest in policing was manifested in a variety of formats, including official documents, parliamentary reports, court proceedings, printed and handwritten correspondences, and public speeches, but what brought the police to the forefront of public attention were the mass media, which in some countries, particularly Britain, France, and the USA, became almost obsessed with the topic. The dramatic changes in media technologies in the twentieth century magnified this preoccupation even further. If in the nineteenth century the press in all its forms, along with published fiction and nonfiction, featured substantial amounts of material about the police, this was supplemented, from the beginning of the twentieth century, by the cinema and, after the First World War, by radio and then television, which dominated the media scene in the latter part of the century. Naturally, the extent and content of the coverage depended inter alia on the freedom of communication in each country. Wherever the media enjoyed a relative absence of interference, the more likely they were to report and convey a range of opinions on the vocation and its personnel.

The interest in policing exhibited by the media is not surprising. Narratives about transgressions, breach of the law, deviant behavior, and the responses they engendered have riveted the human imagination ever since the dawn of civilization, as exemplified in the first chapters of the Bible. As a pivotal social institution designed to detect and prevent crime and maintain order, the modern police shared this intrinsic appeal. Moreover, the mass media, which since the nineteenth century were driven by economic interests and the desire to maximize circulation, were determined to satisfy the boundless curiosity of the public in police matters.

This created an acute dependence on the police for stories, information, and insights, whether for news and entertainment or sober appraisal – a dependence that was symbiotic, since the police in turn needed the media as a channel to the public. The introduction of uniformed patrols in the public sphere made police officers ubiquitously present and highly visible. Their performance, priorities, and conduct therefore informed public perceptions on public policing. Nonetheless, whether or not people had some first-hand experience with the police, many relied on the media to fashion their opinion of the police.

Needless to say, what the police sought was positive publicity, as media attention could both benefit and harm them. In fact, few occupations so badly required favorable exposure as public policing. More and more countries in the nineteenth century witnessed the growth of civil society and democratic values. With public opinion acquiring greater influence on government policies and performance, and on the fate of the body politic, it was crucial for the sovereign state to win as much support as possible. The police, seen as the arm of government, needed to be widely perceived as impartial instruments of the law and as functioning for the good of society. This was vital especially against the background of intense opposition both to traditional policing bodies and to the establishment of new forms of law enforcement, sentiments that were pervasive in large parts of the Western world. There was a need, primarily in democratically inclined societies – typically, the French Third Republic – to demonstrate that the new police were utterly necessary and that their presence was poles apart from the dominant public fearsome image (Berlie`re 2007). While the police could not expect entirely uncritical backing on the part of the governed, they aimed for sustained control and gaining the confidence of the public generally.

Heightened sensitivity to the reputation of the police continued to guide the thinking of political authorities in the twentieth century even in countries where the police had managed to improve their initially uncomplimentary image. Demonstrating that the police adhered to the letter of the law was of the highest significance in parliamentary democracies, including Weimar Germany in the 1920s and Spain in the early 1930s, but a degree of consent was critical in every society. Even a totalitarian regime such as fascist Italy, which greatly relied on the coercive and arbitrary power of its police, favored good relations with the population over sheer reliance on terror (Dunnage 2007). The drive to maintain a positive police image strengthened in the liberal democracies during the second half of the twentieth century, according special importance to public approval. This did not mean that, in practice, the police always kept to the letter of the law but that throughout the period, the police and the governments they served felt constantly obliged to reinforce their standing.

The police impulse for sympathetic representation also had prosaic reasons. Their success rate, and hence their aura of proficiency and effectiveness, was markedly contingent on active public cooperation, for example, in providing evidence. Not only was it widely contended that a good reputation prompted people to come forward to aid the police (Johansen 2007) but also that a good reputation made people more tolerant of police violence and the use of other contentious means which in turn helped the police attain good results. Again, the media could contribute greatly toward the establishment of a professional image of the police both by underscoring successes and acting as sources of essential information.

The numerous points of contact and reciprocal relationships between the media and the police were manifested in a variety of forms, changing over time and diverging from country to country in light of particular national norms. As a byproduct, public representations of the police, too, showed considerable variety in each national context. Space constraints dictate limiting the survey of the evolution of the police image during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to a single case study – arguably, the most famous police force in the world – the English police. The reasons for this choice are many.

Why The Focus On England

A consciousness of the fundamental importance of good repute was deeply entrenched in the policing system in Britain. Its core structure, based on all-encompassing patrol networks, entailed constant interaction with the policed population. The underlying premise was that the success of law and order enforcement hinged on mutually respectful, or at least mutually tolerant, relations between the police and the public. While some historians stress the willingness of the new police to serve as agents of middle class control of the social and moral behavior of the lower orders, with little heed to the latter’s sensibilities, others highlight the determination of senior police management to avoid public hostility and defiance in order to facilitate the constable’s work (Inwood 1990). In his comparison between the ascent of police forces in London and New York in 1830–1870, Wilbur Miller quotes Commissioner Richard Mayne, one of the first commissioners of the Metropolitan Police of London, as emphasizing that “the real efficiency of the police depends upon the estimation in which it is held by the public” (Miller 1977). To promote this objective, the first instruction book of the Metropolitan Police, published in 1829 (when the force was established) and in many editions thereafter, commanded police officers to be courteous and considerate as part of a general strategy of inculcating habits of moderation, restraint, and coolheaded response. The spirit of these directives was echoed in the instruction books of the other police forces which subsequently spread throughout the country (Klein 2012).

This embedded sensitivity was a reaction, initially, to the particularly powerful and wide-ranging objections to the notion of a highly organized and systematic police – objections which preceded and accompanied the establishment of police forces in the British Isles. Different social sectors across geography, class, and political boundaries, ranging from Tory gentry to working-class radicals, were motivated by varied fears, namely, that the proposed police would undermine their own particular interests, behave as a standing army, strengthen the central state excessively, become a political tool, intervene in private life, curtail the famous British liberties, or become a financial burden on the ratepayers (Storch 1975). The source of animosity of local elites both in London and in the provinces lay in their desire to retain local control of policing. A recurrent concern equated the new policeman with the figure of the spy, associated closely with despotic governments on the continent and with unlawful and corrupt behavior. The guiding apprehension assumed that under disguise, and therefore unnoticed and unsuspected, undercover police constituted a powerful threat to the norms and habits of life dear to British subjects (Shpayer-Makov 2011).

To overcome opposition, the reformers who backed the creation of the new police molded the concept of a force that simultaneously allayed such fears while meeting the needs of the social and political elite to govern. Officers wore a uniform, but of a blue color, with top hats, to distinguish them from the military, and most were armed with a wooden truncheon only. The uniform made the policeman visible – hence easily identifiable – and approachable when help was sought by the public, thus fortifying the image of policing as a public service. Some policemen occasionally removed their uniform to perform detective tasks, but the scepter of the fearful figure of the spy had the effect of postponing the formation of a fully-fledged detective branch in the Metropolitan Police for 13 years. Ultimately, this famous detective branch (popularly referred to as Scotland Yard) and the few other such branches erected subsequently, mainly in urban police forces, formed only a fraction of the entire police workforce. Additionally, apart from the Metropolitan Police of London, all other police forces were accountable not to the Home Office but to their local authorities.

Even after the institution of the police force in England gained wide acceptance in the latter part of the nineteenth century, suspicions of the potential harmful powers of the police lingered and loomed over their evolution, as in other countries. Yet, perhaps more prominently than other police forces, the English police had come to constitute an established national institution and a source of pride to its citizens, even if not unequivocally, as will be seen below. Moreover, it appears that British policy makers made special efforts to attain this consensus. So ingrained was the recognition of the weight of public opinion, that even minor police policies and ad hoc decisions were often colored by the notion of how these would be interpreted outside the police (Inwood 1990). Indeed, a focus on England in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reveals a culture in which individuals could discuss societal issues and exchange views openly, with the media serving as primary venues for airing a variety of ideas regarding the criminal justice system. In fact, the English media evinced an exceptional and persistent preoccupation with law enforcement, a tradition which reached new heights in the latter part of the twentieth century (Allen et al. 1998). As such, the media facilitated an awareness by the police leadership and state officials of the sentiments and expectations of the public, thereby affecting the evolution of the English police importantly. Notably, research on representations of the police in England is singularly extensive. Although most studies focus on the second half of the twentieth century, quite a few deal with the history of the police image prior to the Second World War. Even if this period does not occupy entire book-length texts, it features in a host of articles and book chapters, particularly regarding the pre-1914 period, and is otherwise interwoven in any number of scholarly texts about the English police or detective fiction.

The rest of this research paper will trace dominant representations of the police in the media between the inception of the first modern police force in London in 1829 and the late twentieth century, focusing on two types of cultural texts which were the principal conveyors of police images in the nineteenth century – the press and fiction, extending to include the emerging electronic media – cinema and television, in the twentieth century.

Key Issues

The Long Nineteenth Century

Against the backdrop of economic and social tensions in the 1830s and 1840s, interspersed by overt manifestations of class struggle resulting in brutal incidents of police crowd control and other constricting interventions in working-class life, many contemporary critics concluded that their worst fears regarding the inauguration of the new police had been realized. Hostility to the reformed police was so profound and widespread that their appearance in the streets of the communities which opted for the new arrangement was commonly met with such appellations as “blue devils,” “blue plagues,” “blue idlers,” “hired mercenaries,” and “unconstitutional bravoes,” as reported in the press (Storch 1975). They were also called “Jenny Darbies,” a misnomer for the much reviled continental gendarmes (Miller 1977). Not only did many articles disparage police actions, but their very existence and function were often described as redundant, and they themselves as “unproductive parasites” (Storch 1975). While responses were not monolithic – the press contained articles upholding the current restructuring of the old police alongside radical demands for the abolition of the new body – on the whole public debate during this period was pervaded by suspicion and distrust of the police.

In parallel with concerns about the potential or actual oppressive or intrusive nature of the police, press rhetoric criticized the reformed police as lacking the capacity to suppress crime or cope effectively with other designated duties. In as much as police manpower was recruited mainly from the laboring classes, the policeman appeared to many to be ignorant, simple minded, and limited, with his power attributable to his imposing physiology rather than his mental abilities. “Punch” mocked constables for their fondness for servant girls and cooks and their partiality for beer and food while on duty (Pulling 1964). These themes were aired time and again in ballads and songs performed in music halls. Yet, if such references indicated disrespect for the new police, they also suggested that fear was not necessarily the predominant sentiment and that even during the founding years of the modern police, some viewed constables with a touch of affability.

Predictably, the many working people who habitually found themselves at the wrong end of the policeman’s truncheon and were subject to orders to “move on,” close supervision, arbitrary arrest, or police violence perceived the police as unwelcome intruders in the community and agents of the political and economic elite. Those with access to the media sometimes expressed their resentment in writing, but many others resorted to physical confrontations not only while resisting arrest but also in taking the initiative and attacking police officers, sometimes unprovoked (Storch 1975). Members of the working class also demonstrated their antipathy by defying new laws and regulations enforced by the new police or simply by refusing to collaborate with them when help was required.

Before long, however, the social classes with a stake in the pacification of political radicalism and in the protection of property gravitated toward staunch support of the police institution. No doubt, the way the new police handled radical protest and public disorders in the 1830s and 1840s, especially in comparison with police on the continent, convinced the propertied classes of the utility of police functioning as being in their interests (Emsley 1991). The many journalists who served as their mouthpiece echoed their satisfaction that the police acted with effectiveness coupled with measured force (Miller 1977), implicitly suggesting that the police were their trusted protectors against the “dangerous classes” (Emsley 1983).

The process was not linear. Miller identifies the 1850s as the decade in which the image of the police improved considerably but regards the 1860s as “a crisis period in police-public relations” (Miller 1977) in light of garroting (a form of violent street robbery) panics in the early 1860s; a well-publicized demonstration in Hyde Park in 1866 which ended in riots and violence; and the rise of Fenian terrorism in the latter part of the decade. However, by the mid-1870s, even though members of the privileged classes here and there questioned certain facets of police behavior, overall, the notion that the police were indispensable for the preservation of the social order reigned supreme in these classes, as is evident in the content of the mainstream press.

Existing studies of police-public relations in the nineteenth century show that it took longer for the working classes to acquiesce in the police presence. The “rougher” elements in the working classes, who continued to be the target of police heavy-handedness during the second half of the century, still regarded the police as their enemy (Miller 1977). But the expanding “respectable” sections of the lower orders, who were victims of criminal offenses no less than their social superiors, grew accustomed to turn to the police as the legitimate representatives of the law and benefit by the services provided irrespective of class, even if they were not particularly fond of the police (Reiner 1985). That a high proportion of working-class adult males were enfranchised in the electoral reforms of 1867 and 1884, thus gaining a certain foothold in the established order, and that the messages of restraint and moderation permeated the police ranks, may have also mitigated the attitude of the respectable working classes toward the police. However, their support was tentative and not deep-rooted. The many instances of police class bias toward individuals in the streets, and their aggressive behavior in working-class demonstrations and strikes which flared up in the late nineteenth century and on the eve of the First World War, kept reviving suspicions of police partiality.

Throughout the period, the size of the press and its readership spiraled numerically, and with it public awareness of various aspects of police existence. The coverage contained a mosaic of approaches and outlooks, depending on the ideological stance of the paper. Broadly, while the Tory press became the most loyal defender of the police, liberal, and to a much greater extent radical newspapers and journals more readily adopted an offensive position vis-a`-vis the police (Curtis 2001). Not surprisingly, socialist papers posited the police as the enemy of the people. However, on balance, from the early days of the police until the First World War, the press, which was not equally accessible to everyone, had undergone a metamorphosis from wide rejection of the notion of the public police to a largely consensual endorsement of it, a change which tended to downplay the nuanced, often inimical attitude in the lower social strata (ShpayerMakov 2011).

Not that relations between the press and the police were consistently harmonious. Despite the rise in the status of journalists, and the mutual and mounting dependence between the police and the press, contacts between them were typified by reciprocal mistrust (Shpayer-Makov 2011).

In varied degrees, police authorities in every community supplied newspapers and journals with the material the press needed to meet the insatiable demands of their readers for stories and reports about the criminal justice system, but they did so sparingly and often kept important information to themselves, especially when it reflected badly on the police. In such cases, journalists were forced to rely either on their own detective skills or on informal contacts within the police, particularly detectives who could provide disclosures about ongoing inquiries and who were willing to divulge inside information, sometimes for payment (Shpayer-Makov 2011). For its part, the press, which progressively saw itself as a watchdog of democratic values, monitored police and state authority and, at times, exposed unwholesome aspects of police work, which, as expected, fuelled further suspicion and even hostility between the two sides.

Notwithstanding the respective displeasure between the police and the press, and the occasional censorious account, journalists played a major role in constructing a predominantly flattering image of the English police, even if not always wittingly or actively. In addition to upholding viewpoints favorable to the police, many journalists promoted such an image in the belief that it contributed to the good of society, while undermining the police had the opposite effect (Shpayer-Makov 2011). Others refrained from judgmental commentary in order to maintain fraternal relations with the police. Moreover, the police had learnt to manipulate the mass media by providing selective material and hiding incriminating information. The outcome was partial and beautified accounts of police reality. Surely, some readers, whose number cannot be estimated, were aware of the bias implanted in the press coverage and did not adopt the perspectives expressed in it. Yet, the period was marked by rising public confidence in the press as the authoritative repository of news and hard facts in society; hence, it can safely be deduced that a great many readers accepted the favorable reports they read as mirroring authentic police life.

So beneficial did the police organization, as well as individual officers, appear that more and more columnists complained not about the police presence but about the shortage of police personnel. Admittedly, the institution of the foot patrol constituted a powerful reminder of the authority of the police and the state, but with time, the constable came to epitomize dispassionate and impartial law enforcement. Although he was often sketched as slowly trudging the streets or country lanes, these descriptions became amicable, if on occasion condescending, especially when referring to the rural constables as plods. Newspapers, including those with a conservative leaning, continued to condemn the police as inefficient when they failed to solve a case which gained headlines, such as the brutal murder of five prostitutes in the East End in late 1888 when the London police proved unable to even identify the perpetrator (popularly called Jack the Ripper) (Curtis 2001), but otherwise, the press treated the police officer as reasonably effective. The radical and liberal press vilified the police as undermining civil liberties when they dealt brutally with demonstrations and strikes, but such cases, as well as publicized instances of police corruption and the employment of spies and agents provocateurs, were increasingly posited as exceptional rather than the rule.

Significantly, as the image of the English constable was consolidated in the latter part of the nineteenth century, it became further removed from the initial adverse portrayal of the policeman as a walking panopticon, the personification of a ubiquitous and oppressive technique of surveillance. Instead, the mainstream press, which was increasingly read by the lower strata as well, was packed with stories depicting police officers sacrificing themselves when needed, for example, to save civilians’ lives. The visual media, which expanded in the second half of the century, used mass-reproduced images to reinforce the verbal texts, transmitting and circulating illustrations of gallant officers, both uniformed and not, for example, in the midst of catching violent criminals. The policemen in all these images conformed to hegemonic assumptions about the ideal model of working-class masculinity (Shpayer-Makov 2012).

Time and again, the English police were compared to their counterparts on the continent and were found superior if not in efficiency than in ethical standing and respect for the law and individual rights (Shpayer-Makov 2011). The press reiterated the fact that the English police, and above all the Metropolitan Police force, became a model of imitation worldwide, inter alia, because of the bobby’s deep-rooted local popularity (Johansen 2007). Further, while in Paris and Berlin the image of the policeman remained that of an agent of the state, the frame of reference in London and in the rest of the country became one of assistance to the community (Emsley 1983).

Even detectives, who initially were identified with the figure of the spy, gained acceptance. At first, journals did not distinguish between uniformed and plainclothes policemen, but before long, even though detectives constituted a small percentage of the police labor force, they drew disproportionate press attention, clearly by virtue of their more intimate connection with crime and hard-core criminals. One of the first opinion leaders to develop an inquisitive curiosity about detectives and their activities was the author and journalist Charles Dickens, who made a point of listening to their stories and accompanying them on their tours of duty, later publishing his impressions in several articles in his journal Household Words in the early 1850s. Partly under his influence and the growing interest shown by many other journalists thereafter, the figure of the detective assumed the role of an urban explorer probing the seamy side of life, where he commanded fear bound up with respect. If uniformed policemen attracted sympathy and even esteem, detectives, most of whom generally followed a mundane and unexciting routine, gained a romantic and heroic aura, depicted not only as adventurous and fearless but also as highly able, sharp, and enterprising. By the end of the nineteenth century, some detectives, particularly those serving in the central squad located at Scotland Yard (the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police), found themselves in the limelight and attained the status of celebrities. At the beginning of the twentieth century, with the adoption of fingerprinting as a standardized forensic practice, they gained the added luster of expert knowledge and scientific rigor.

The combined figures of the helpful and supportive community policeman and the indefatigable and clever detective operating in dangerous venues to restore order to society forged the impression, explicitly reiterated in the press, that they constituted the best police service in the world (Emsley 1991).

This was not the case in the literary world. While fictional texts portrayed police officers as moral, honest, and dedicated to their work, on the whole, these books were also more critical of the capabilities of the police and accorded them much less respect than the press. Yet, similarly to the press, though far more emphatically, literary works demonstrated greater interest in detectives than in uniformed policemen. Indeed, so compelling was the figure of the detective that, by the First World War, a whole genre had evolved around it. However, in contrast to the press, the typical fictional police detective emerged as neither highly competent nor a great achiever, and certainly not heroic. What he particularly lacked was a creative imagination and an elevated facility in reasoning. There were impressive and efficient police detectives in the growing body of books and stories featuring detectives, such as Inspector Bucket in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) and Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868). Such characters also appeared in seemingly factual accounts of crime fighters written in the first person, which flourished in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. However, with the exception of the pseudo-memoirs and certain imports, such as the translated works of E´ mile Gaboriau, centered on the French police officer M. Lecoq, the police detective was seldom the protagonist of the plot and not even the principal enforcer of the law.

The character who gained the admiration of contemporary authors and became the focus of numerous narratives, whether canonical or lowbrow, was the private detective, both amateur and professional, who was commonly posited as charismatic, brilliant, and effective. Sometimes he operated by himself, without the involvement of official law forces, but as the nineteenth century wore on, private and public detectives were progressively juxtaposed in the same narrative. The pervasive motif in these narratives, which contrasted starkly with the reality of criminal investigation, featured the private detective as the person who conducted the investigation and was decisive in the successful unveiling of the mystery at the root of the plot. Frequently, he/she gave the police instructions, which they followed as a matter of course, even enthusiastically. Sometimes it seems as if the mediocrity of the policeman only served to highlight the outstanding abilities of the private sleuth. This theme – the superiority of the private over the official detective – had been interwoven in stories by the American author Edgar Allan Poe, first published in England in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, and in books by English authors which appeared at that time, but with the unsurpassed popularity of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (first published in 1887), it spread like wildfire in popular literature.

Conceivably, the recurrent fictional formula implying that Holmes-like figures (rather than the official variety) were the quintessential detectives was adopted by many authors, as they viewed it as a key to success. Yet, the repetition of this theme may have also had its roots in class-based doubts of the image projected in the press that the police, originating mainly in the working class, could contend by themselves with the many dangers prevalent in the increasingly industrialized urban environment (Shpayer-Makov 2011). Indeed, most of the fictitious private detectives originated from the middle or upper classes, a lineage which apparently lent itself more readily to a heroic stature. At the same time, a subtle message was conveyed that the police, undeniably essential in modern society, should raise the social and professional quality of its manpower, as well as cooperate and consult with the private sector of the privileged classes more closely.

The Interwar Period

Despite changes in various aspects of police culture during and after the First World War, the attitude of the press and the literary world toward the police remained essentially the same as in the prewar period. The press, and not only in its radical periphery, may have felt more disposed to attack the police for misconduct and malpractice, especially in the metropolis. Newspapers embarked on campaigns exposing details of police corruption, such as the Sergeant Goddard case of 1928 (which led to a royal commission examining the police a year later) and several other scandals concerning dubious police methods, which gained headlines in the 1920s (John Carter 2010). The police handling of both fascist and left-wing demonstrations in the 1930s gave rise to critical accounts representing different political camps. The language used may have been more outspoken than before. However, seen in the aggregate, the press continued to present the police as law-abiding servants of the people, treating reports of the abuse of police power as isolated incidents. Viewed against the background of the rise of the Soviet Union and the spread of authoritarian and fascist regimes in Europe, characterized by intolerance and the use of unlawful means and the secret police to suppress dissidence, the English police shone as representing democratic values and the rule of law.

Antagonistic relationships between the police and the populations who were routinely singled out by the police for stringent control, such as slum inhabitants, working-class adolescents, street sellers, and the unemployed who lived on the margins of illegality (White 1983), was not the stuff that attracted press notice. Moreover, the masculine image of the police was not affected by the entrance of a small number of women into their uniformed ranks. Entrusted with the new tasks of directing traffic and regulating the speed of motor cars, the interwar policeman came into close contact for the first time with members of the middle and upper classes, who resented this new role and complained that he should ignore minor traffic infractions and instead spend his time catching criminals (Klein 2007). However, this did not dampen the oft-articulated conviction that the English police were the best in the world (John Carter 2010).

The reasons for the strained relations between the press and the police, and with Scotland Yard in particular, did not disappear. Notably, however, Scotland Yard manifested an increased appreciation of the importance of maintaining a good rapport with the press when in 1919 it set up a press bureau, albeit consisting of a single civil servant whose function was to issue twice daily bulletins to journalists (Chibnall 1977). This appreciation intensified as the century wore on.

Fiction writers still found the private detective more suitable for a commendable profile than the policeman, and although a more agreeable approach to policemen in detective fiction is detectable, they were still portrayed as inferior in intellectual acumen as well as powers of observation and detection. Only infrequently was a police detective the protagonist in the narrative. The most famous author associated with this tradition in this period was Agatha Christie, who invented two private detectives – Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple – both of whom were consistently responsible for ingenious breakthroughs in investigations and for revealing the true story.

The cinematic screen, which since its pioneering days at the turn of the twentieth century featured crime films, more or less replicated printed fictional works in presenting the private detective as more accomplished than police officers. Not only were the officers not cast as heroes, but occasionally, they were depicted as corrupt, unfair, or ridiculous (Reiner 2008).

Notably, a number of real-life policemen, and not only from the highest echelons, took an active part in molding the police image in the media. Starting in the late Victorian period, several police officers, primarily retired detectives from Scotland Yard, managed to publish their memoirs, a commendable achievement given their humble origins (Shpayer-Makov 2011). This trend continued and accelerated in the interwar period (Lawrence 2003). Insulted by the belittling portraits of police officers in fictional works, they took advantage of the growing interest in their life stories as crime fighters to contest this image as unreliable and distorted. Whether consciously or not, the representational strategy adopted by these police authors succeeded in crafting an image of themselves as professional and talented policemen, possessed with a remarkable memory and cerebral acumen (Shpayer-Makov 2011). No private detective was on the scene to advance investigations and protect society. Success was theirs only and many times over.

The Post–Second World War Period

The war and its aftermath promoted greater state regulation in Britain, and with it, the expansion of the public sector, a process that was manifested inter alia in the extension of the welfare state, the democratization of the educational system, and enhanced police powers. Significantly, economic recovery in the late 1940s was accompanied by a rise in crime statistics. Although it is difficult to establish a definitive correspondence between real events and media representations, the convergence of these social and political factors undoubtedly provided the context for major shifts in the portrayal of police officers in fiction and cinema in the postwar period.

The press had long exhibited little concern for private detection, while putting faith in the police as the upholders of law and order. It also maintained a tradition of showing a certain interest in the everyday life of the constable on the beat and in the inner world of police stations, although typically, its preference was a focus on the dramatic and the sensational or at least on what was newsworthy. A new development was that fictional works, whether in print or in film, now followed a similar pattern, shifting away from placing private detection in the foreground of law enforcement and instead highlighting authentic police work. While talented private sleuths still enjoyed a lingering appeal, significantly, a novel literary sub-genre emerged in the late 1940s – the police procedural – which soon acquired popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. The title derived from a conventional plotline in which ordinary police detectives, shown as true professionals, deciphered crimes by employing real-life police procedures and methods, which were at variance with the more fanciful means used by the classic private investigator (Dove 1982). In line with the collective spirit of the age, the resolution of an investigated crime was not the product of the mind and exertions of the individual detective, as formerly, but of the collaborative efforts of a police team headed by a central figure who was invariably a policeman. In the same realistic vein, the principal investigator was not an outstanding individual or from a pedigreed background.

Until the mid-1960s, the police typically played a minor role in cinema films, as in the prewar crime fiction (Allen et al. 1998). Still, in the immediate postwar period, an invented cinematic police figure struck a special chord with contemporary audiences and left an indelible imprint on public consciousness thereafter – George Dixon from the East End of London, appearing in the film The Blue Lamp, released in 1950. Halfway through the film, he is killed by a criminal (played by the young Dirk Bogarde), but television, which since its inception opted for police protagonists in its crime series, resurrected him in the mid-1950s as the central figure (played by Jack Warner) in a series entitled Dixon of Dock Green, which ran until 1976. Dixon, depicted as an honest, kind-hearted, fair-minded, and dedicated patrol officer, respected by all in his neighborhood, fitted in perfectly with the evocation of society in postwar crime cinema “as largely based on shared values and a clear but accepted and just hierarchy of status and authority,” where “criminals were normally brought to justice” (Allen et al. 1998). So idealized was this personification of the English bobby (Emsley 1991) that years later people would nostalgically refer to the period it described as the golden age of English policing.

Although Dixon continued to enjoy public adulation, changes in the police and in society at large during the 1960s and 1970s introduced new police images in the media. The police, and not private civilians, continued to be perceived as the ultimate law enforcers, but the increasing use of cars in policing resulted in a decreased role for the beat officer and a distancing of policemen from the community. This development was reflected in the acclaimed TV series Z Cars, shown during 1962–1965 and 1967–1978, revolving around a mobile team of policemen in the north of England.

Moreover, the general climate of police culture in film and TV no longer connoted fair play and strict adherence to the law, as in the Dixon series. Against a backdrop of student protest, growing permissiveness, the advent of a rebellious youth culture and other challenges to the established order and, more broadly, to the concept of authority, policemen were increasingly featured as callous and manipulative crime fighters who did not hesitate to bend the law and use violence yet were better able to combat hardened criminals and other grave dangers to society. Political terrorism by the IRA and the Angry Brigade in the early 1970s certainly lent force to the notion that policemen needed to be tough and, if necessary, resort to shady practices (Chibnall 1977). A number of reported scandals pointing to abuse of power within the police, while slurring the reputation of the police also reinforced the understanding that the imperfect fictional police characters in the entertainment media were true to life. Here and there, films and TV series depicted police officers as good-natured fools (Allen et al. 1998), but a more typical presentation, even if it focused on their weaknesses, still conveyed the point that they were skillful and hard workers who gave their all to serve the community and obtain just ends (Leishman and Mason 2003). Such police characters appeared in various TV series and films, the most famous of which was television’s Detective Inspector Jack Regan, the protagonist in The Sweeney (1975–1978), which centered on Scotland Yard’s elite squad. Disrespectful of hierarchy, bureaucratic rules, and genteel norms, Detective Regan was the symbol of a relentless urban fighter against threats to the community who utilized unconventional means but was incorruptible.

The late twentieth century is regarded by many scholars as a dramatic milestone period in police exposure in the media, when “the police were rarely out of the news, and very little of the police news was good news” even though police authorities were investing far more in image promotion than previously (Stead 1999; Reiner 1985). Diverse factors may account for this exposure, including controversial police conduct in various circumstances, external and internal investigations of the police which gained considerable publicity, mounting media interest in policing matters, the diminishing role of public policing due to privatization, and the use of more advanced technological means to disseminate information (Leishman and Mason 2003). Still, as Robert Reiner has pointed out, the police remained “a powerful political and cultural force” (Reiner 2008).

Conclusion And Future Research

Clearly, from the rise of the reformed police in the third decade of the nineteenth century until the close of the twentieth century, the figure of the policeman was multifaceted, with each media format recording its own version of police representations. However, viewing the media as a whole, researchers are almost unanimous in concluding that despite twists and turns and periodic sharp criticism, they painted the police in a favorable light (Reiner 2008), generally downplaying the less salubrious features of police life, such as levels of corruption and rule breaking, embedded prejudices and recurrent failures. Admittedly, readers did not necessarily internalize the mediated messages. Media research has long affirmed that audiences are not passive recipients of the material they read or see but rather interpret and make sense of this information, largely according to how it relates to various aspects of their lives (Reiner 2008). Nonetheless, no doubt the media played a critical role in elevating the English police to a prominent and respectful place in the national psyche.

Despite the extensive body of literature on texts related to the police, whether written by or about them, there is still considerable scope for further research of such texts. Undoubtedly, each country merits an overview of its own police representations, including comparisons between the content and impact of the various popular media locally and across national boundaries, exploiting new directions and the interdisciplinary emphasis in historical research. The diverse portrayals of the English police in written texts and on the screen have drawn wide scholarly interest, particularly since the cultural turn in the 1970s, but large gaps in our knowledge remain, for example, in visual representations in print and dominant perceptions on stage. Furthermore, various themes relating to the press in the pre–Second World War period might be explored, including police-press relations, their mutual influence, the role played by journalists in this context, and the self-management of the police image. In addition, little research has been devoted to rival representations of the police in the press of the interwar period.

With the spread of academic scholarship into the area of popular culture in the 1970s, detective fiction assumed primary importance in the reappraisal of popular texts. For example, bestselling detective narratives of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, which did not enter the canon and were forgotten with the passage of time, began to be the objects of academic study, but further examination of these little-known texts is called for as a way of revealing underlying popular sentiments of the time. Similarly, further critical scrutiny of police images on the screen in the early days of cinema is merited. Such studies should focus on the cultural meanings of texts and might well utilize the more traditional approaches in historical analysis. This research would add to our understanding of social experience as well as the collective mental world of the period.


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