The Fascinating History of Policing in NSW

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Police station sign

Originally, early colonial police officers in Australia weren’t armed and were paid in alcohol.

Ironically, many ended up being sacked for public drunkenness.

Here’s a quick look through the fascinating history of policing in NSW.

The Peel Police Force

The centralised police force we know today had its origins in nineteenth century England.

Before this, crime control was the duty of local village constables, who became known for their corruption.

In the early 1800s, Sir Robert Peel was the British Home Secretary and later went on to become Prime Minister.

Peel believed that an entirely new approach to policing was necessary – one which was more centralised and organised.

Despite Peel’s strong views about the benefits of a centralised police force – the idea was defeated in Parliament six times before it finally got through. The main bone of contention amongst critics was that such a powerful force would dramatically interfere with people’s freedom from government interference.

The Peel Metropolitan Police commenced operation in 1829, at which time the organisation’s mission was:

“… the prevention of crime. To this great end every effort of the police is to be directed. The security of person and property, the preservation of public tranquillity, and all the other objects of a police establishment, will thus be better effected, than by the detection and punishment of the offender, after he has succeeded in committing the crime”.

The aim was to prevent crime from occurring in the first place through a “highly visible police force”, rather than focusing resources on investigation, prosecution and punishment as is the case with today’s police forces.

The early NSW police force

Like in England, early versions of the NSW police force did not routinely carry arms.

They had access to firearms, but only police officers working in rural areas carried them on a regular basis.

The NSW police force began as a civilian one, and was called the “Night Watch”. Many of these men were drawn from the ranks of the convicts, supposedly the ‘best behaved’, but often it was some of the worst convicts who got the job.

Early police weren’t paid in money, but with one pint of rum on Saturday nights as an ‘encouragement.’

It is ironic, but perhaps not very surprising, that over one-quarter of the early Australian police force was dismissed for drunkenness!

In addition to the Night Watch, other police forces were established in NSW; including the Row Boat Guard, the Mounted Police, the Border Police, and the Gold Escort who patrolled the goldfields.

These groups were amalgamated in 1852; at which time police officers were still not routinely armed. But of this all changed just before the start the twentieth century.

In 1894, Parliament passed legislation to allow officers to carry weapons after several of them were injured when arresting three alleged thieves in the famous Bridge Street Affray.

Since then, all police officers have been armed.

The Royal Commission

Of course, not all was smooth sailing for the NSW police force.

Perhaps the biggest scandal to hit was during the 1990s, when a Royal Commission uncovered countless instances of corruption.

The Commission lasted from 1994 to 1997 uncovering rampant corruption at all levels of the force.

A whopping 284 officers were adversely named and even a retired judge was uncovered. Bribery, framing suspects, supplying drugs, kidnappings and assaults were just a few of the acts that police were found to be engaging in.

The Police Integrity Commission was set up after the Royal Commission in an attempt to reduce corruption within the police force.

The reports of the Royal Commission are still protected by the secrecy provisions of the Police Integrity Commission Act, although individual documents may be released if this is demonstrated to be in the public interest.

Then and Now

The Australian police force has changed a lot since the early days of the unarmed civilian Night Watch.

In 1915, the first two women were added to the force – exactly 100 years ago, but it wasn’t until 50 years ago that women were given full police powers. Today, women make up 35% of the NSW police force.

New South Wales now has one of the biggest police forces in the English-speaking world; with over 500 police stations and more than 20,000 employees.

Regrettably, abuses of power and corruption still feature heavily in the practice of policing today.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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