Perfectly acquainted with all parts of his beat: Imagining the Ideal Police Officer and His Work in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Canada

Dan Horner

In 1841, Montreal publisher James Starke published a slim volume entitled Regulations for the Governance of the Police Force. Produced under the guidance of the former Police Commissioner of Lower Canada, William Coffin, the book’s target audience was ambitious officers looking to move up the ranks of their organization by familiarizing themselves with the ordinances related to policing. In that respect, it is a work of modest ambition, but it tells us a great deal about how public officials conceptualized authority and social relations in a period marked by popular unrest, political conflict, and the deepening of the colonial project. 21584570_10156310458901289_1683137004_n.jpg

The booklet is divided into sections, each of which addresses the responsibilities of officers in various positions in the hierarchy of both the rural and city police. It is striking to note how much attention is paid to character and deportment. The ordinances are structured in such a way as to sketch a portrait of the ideal police officer. Their conduct took on a heightened importance in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Jurisdictions around the world were in the midst of creating, expanding, and professionalizing their police forces, and how they interacted with members of the public was bound to have an impact on perceptions of their legitimacy. “It is hardly necessary,” the booklet read, “to impress upon an officer in whose activity, intelligence, and zeal, so much confidence will be reposed.” There were fairly obvious warnings about infractions that could lead to the immediate dismissal of officers, including neglect of duty, “insolence in word or manner”, and the use of “violent or coarse language or behaviour”.

The warnings went further than this, however, by speaking more generally to the ideal disposition of an officer. “No qualification is more indispensable to a police officer than a perfect command of temper. A manly forbearance under provocation, and a temperate though firm deportment, will ensure him both sympathy and support in the discharge of his duty.” Conversely, an officer losing their cool would “destroy his individual influence and draw down public odium on the body to which he belongs.”

There were directives clearly outlining the absolute importance of obedience. The correct uniform for both the winter and summer months was outlined in careful detail, from cap to worsted socks. When it came to an officer’s physical appearance, no laxity was permitted. Innovations in the exercise of the local state’s power, in other words, relied on an explicit celebration of a chivalrous brand of masculine restraint. A sense of duty was also idealized here. Not only were police officers expected to eschew other occupations and sources of income, they were also urged to put their work responsibilities far above any familial obligation. “It must be distinctly understood”, the reader was reminded, “that every man who enters into the Police force, enters as a single man. His wife or family, if received at all into the station house, will be liable to removal at any notice.”

While the booklet addresses the duties of rural police officers, there is a clear preoccupation with the colony’s raucous urban landscapes running through it. There are a number of indications here that suggest that alongside pursuing criminals and preventing acts of violence, it was the production of official knowledge about the urban environment and its inhabitants that was meant to be the vocation of the police officer. As was the case with issues around decorum, a great deal of space is devoted to how information about criminal infractions were recorded and passed up the chain of command. The practices outlined in the book suggest that for civil elites, the way to foster public order was to continue to reinforce and expand a pipeline of official information from the street to the desks of colonial authorities.

What is particularly interesting here is how the city was imagined in these documents. In a context of a transatlantic public sphere consumed by fears of the fragility of civil authority and other manifestations of disorder, the Regulations presented the city as an inherently rational and governable space. An effective police officer would be able to master the territory to which he was assigned. This meant becoming “perfectly acquainted with all parts of his beat, – with the streets, thoroughfares, courts, and houses therein.” He would also need to become familiar with each resident who lived there, to the degree that if necessary he would be able to identify them in the course of an investigation. It must be kept in mind that in a city like Montreal, whose population was in the midst of climbing to forty thousand residents during this period, and where the size of the police force remained modest due to a general hostility towards public spending, this was something of a tall order.

Montreal from Street Railway Power House chimney, QC, 1896. Wm. Notman & Son. Wikimedia Commons. 

Furthermore, the reader gets the sense that crimes and the people who committed them were imagined in relatively one-dimensional terms. Police officers were given clear directives to conduct a regular circuit around their beat, the logic being that the victim of a criminal offence could remain in a fixed location and eventually encounter an officer ready to provide assistance. All of this makes for a curious formula that rests on the assumption that all crimes would occur in a fixed location, and that the parties involved would be residents of a relatively contained neighbourhood. Finally, the directives provided in the book communicated the notion that effective and efficient policing could quell outbreaks of social unrest. In the event of any sort of emergency, be it a riot or fire, one of the first actions a chief constable was commanded to do “was immediately assemble and parade all his disposable men…and march his force to the scene of action with all possible expedition.” The strategies outlined in this volume outline the degree to which public officials during this period were imagining the urban landscape in ways that might have been more indicative of the kind of society that reform-oriented elites aspired to build than what actually existed on the ground.

What goes unsaid in a volume like this is often as intriguing as what we find printed across the page. The extensive reminders of the importance of discipline no doubt alludes to the reality outlined by a number of historians of the criminal justice system during this period that police officers were frequently discovered in compromising situations. Furthermore, the political and sectarian tensions that continued to simmer in the colony are never addressed in its pages. The same can be said of assumptions about race, class, and gender that were increasingly being used to legitimize the concentration of power over the colonial project in the hands of elite men of European descent. We catch glimpses of this sort of thinking, however, creeping out of the space between the lines. A number of instructions are given for how an effective police officer would be able to hone an ability to identify those more likely to cause trouble. It details how an officer would ramp up the surveillance of “bad or suspicious” characters by trailing them until they reached the periphery of their beat and then, if they were to leave the area in his care, alerting the officer charged with the adjoining beat to his suspicions. The contours of what constituted threatening behaviour were carefully laid out, and included such signposts as exposing oneself indecently, singing in the streets, screaming, being a common prostitute or in the habit of frequenting “houses of ill-fame”, and “all persons, who, being able to work, refuse and neglect to do so.” Taverns, inns, and houses where games of chance were played were all identified as places that officers ought to pay careful attention to. Through instructions such as this, we see licence being given to officers to focus their attention on the city’s marginalized people, and a blurring of the lines between an officer’s suspicion and evidence of criminal intent.

Taverne J.A. Laporte, rue Saint-Jacques in Saint-Henri, Montréal. 1928. Wikimedia Commons. 

This volume can help us place the policing of the urban popular classes in the broader context of this era’s liberal governance. The editing of the volume, as noted earlier, was overseen by William Coffin. An Etonian with deep family roots in Lower Canada’s British Protestant colonial elite, Coffin was in the early stages of a career in public service that would soon see him appointed as the joint sheriff for the District of Montreal. At the same time as he was overseeing the production of this volume, Coffin was also carrying out inquiries into social unrest in the Mohawk community at Kahnawake and election riots in Toronto. Instructing police officers in their craft was thus part of larger defence of the colonial project that mid-19th century public officials like William Coffin were engaged in. The portrait that it painted of a principled and restrained police officer obediently carrying out his duties was used to legitimize innovative practices of governmental authority. While the Regulations were intended for officers in the newly established Province of Canada, this was clearly part of a project that was global in its scope which cast groups like the urban poor and the indigenous peoples of the colonial frontier as social problems in need of sustained governance.

We are not able to gauge how many of the men employed in police forces across the Province of Canada had a copy of the Regulations stuffed in their coat pocket or slung across their bedside tables. Nor can we know how many took the book’s opening salvo to heart by committing the ordinances and recommendations it contained to memory in order to reach their full potential. Between its covers, however, we see an articulation of how civil elites were grappling with social power in one tumultuous moment and place.


Dan Horner is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology at Ryerson University. He has published a number of articles on urban governance, public life and popular politics in mid-nineteenth century Montreal and Liverpool. He was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Wilson Institute from 2011 until 2013, and is a member of the Montreal History Group.

Cover Image: Halifax City Police, 1914. Wikimedia Commons.

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