Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Police and Presence: The Victoria Police and Public Impressions of Authority in Australia, 1900-1930 (1)

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Police and Presence: The Victoria Police and Public Impressions of Authority in Australia, 1900-1930 (1)

Article excerpt

The first quarter of the twentieth century served as the confluence of transport, tele-communications, and time in Australia and other industrialized societies. (2) Although these elements of the Industrial Revolution made the largest impact on people living during this period, their effect on all aspects of society proved incalculable. The impact of these new developments proved most significant for police, as they moved from their nineteenth-century working-class origins and began the transformation toward modernization. This process involved such things as the adoption of mechanized transport, tele-communication, photography, and fingerprinting. (3) These scientific and technological advances changed police procedure fundamentally, and forced Victoria's senior police authorities to examine their presence as "a body which in itself should represent 'Force.'" (4)

This article will examine how three internal police reports--in 1904, 1910, and 1919--ordered by senior authorities and generated by constables carrying out the particular work, signposted the Victoria Police's consideration of their presence in society. The reports also served as a litmus test for the effectiveness of police authority to prevent lawlessness and to deter crime, as they prepared for the challenges of the twentieth century. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, most individual members (5) policed and patrolled a population between 800 and 1000 people; in some country areas, a significantly reduced population was spread over a vast area. Subsequently, modern police have referred to their existence between crime and society as "the thin blue line." (6) In their role as the "buffer" or "shock absorbers" between society and crime, police rely heavily on their presence and public perception of heightened authority both to prevent and to deter crime. (7) At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the processes of urbanization and industrialization were directly connected to the rising crime rate in Australia and other parts of the world. (8) Owing to increased crime rates, the question of police presence became paramount.

Most policemen performed daily order maintenance tasks, such as directing wheeled and pedestrian traffic, arresting drunks, and working patrol, rather than catching criminals. (9) Still, police differed significantly from other government servants because they were sanctioned to use physical force--if necessary. (10) Despite their mandate of "force," the question for police and other authorities became: how could they make themselves more visible so that they portrayed a larger presence in the community? This article explores that question. By achieving a greater physical, legal, and conceptual authority, perceptions of police presence by the public increased and could serve both to stop and deter crime. While attaining their goal of reducing lawlessness, police achieved higher levels of public order and public safety.

Just as conceptions of preventative and deterence models of policing are not wholly separate entities, neither are definitions of police power and police authority. (11) For the purpose of this article, sociologist Max Weber's definition of power will be used. Weber defined power as:

   the chance of a man or number of men to realize their own will 
   in a communal action even against the resistance of others 
   participating in the action. (12) 

This definition suggests that power allows individuals or groups to achieve their goals, even against the wishes of those who oppose the action or who might be adversely affected. Weber also provides a definition of authority. He states:

   Legal authority, that is, the legitimacy of the power-holder to 
   give commands, rests upon rules that are rationally established 
   by enactment, by agreement, or by imposition. … 
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