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‘Gentle Bobby’ and Rigid ‘Pickelhaube’? Communicating Order, PolicingSociety: A Comparison of Policing in Great Britain and Germany in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

9-11 July 2009

Venue: German Historical Institute London

Conveners: Philipp Müller (University College London) and Andreas Gestrich (GHIL)

The Colloquium for Police History was founded at the annual conference of German historians in 1989. Subsequently, the Colloquium has become a platform for Police History in Germany during the last two decades, and as a consequence, it holds a central position not only in Germany but also in Central Europe. Now it is our intention to stage the 20th Colloquium of Police History in the United Kingdom. Moreover, in accordance with the tradition of the Colloquium it is our aim to provide a platform which allows both policemen and historian to discuss.

Differences between British and German society are palpable when it comes to policing. The strong institutional tie between the Police and the Military in Prussia, the lasting tradition of armed police forces and, finally, the history of extreme violence and the particular role the German police played in it are apparently absent from the British system. However, the 19th century and 20th century witnessed similar developments in technology, administration and media in both societies. The central question is how did practices such as informing, recording and regulating impact on actions of policing and vice versa? How did crucial developments during the 19th and 20th century in technology, administration and media impact on policing? Was there a longue durée of traditional elements of policing which persisted in spite of tremendous changes in the modern period? Or did the rise of mass media, the implementation of new communication technologies and institutional and administrative reforms interrupt the longue durée of policing? Or must we assume, on the contrary, that traditional patterns of policing did foster change in society? Consequently, the leading question is how and to what extent the police's appropriation of products of modernity, e.g. modern technology, modern mass media, means of recording etc., put the police in a position to enhance the popularisation and democratisation of society and, thus, played a crucial role in furthering the formation of a modern mass society?

In order to answer these questions with regard to Great Britain and Germany the conference highlights three essential dimensions of policing in the modern period.

First, although regulations of police work are many in number, a central focus of police history is on the discretionary power of police officers on the beat. However, one may ask whether or not regulations can influence police officers' patterns of behaviour. The regulated use of uniforms is often modified, and bureaucratic procedures have certainly an impact on the use of weapons. For example, nowadays, shooting with a pistol results in administrative paperwork in Germany; the use of a versatile weapon such as the truncheon does not. How do administrative regulations affect daily police work? How does "cop culture" respond to the regulation of policing and under which circumstances do police officers modify and circumvent certain regulations while on the beat?

Second, throughout history police authorities faced challenges due to the rise of new technologies Whether it was mobile phones, the internet or the mass press, the police often sought to utilise the newly available means in order to communicate with the public. How did the police appropriate new technological means? How did new technology facilitate the spread of police information and did it change public opinion of the authority? Did the result meet institutional expectations?

Third, a pre-requisite of any police work is the recording of information. Arrests of beggars and vagrants had to be counted, pub brawls and street fights were to be reported, interrogations of informers and suspects must be minuted and wrong doers, their personal data as well as their deeds, had to be memorized for security and welfare purposes. Police authorities appropriated and used a range of various media and techniques (e.g. diary, minutes, mug shots, wanted posters) in order to collect, order and re-use relevant data and very often they were compelled to acquire promising new techniques such as photography or computing technology. How did the authorities exploit the various means of recording? Under which conditions, for example, were the famous mug shots (re-) used in order to track criminals? How did the recording itself impact on the representation of the matter? What kind of tacit knowledge did a certain technique require in order to be used properly? In which way did authorities archive their collections of data and sort their files? Did newly implemented means of recording result in an efficient and improved policing and supervision of society? How can it be explained that information is often available but the relevant database remains unused?

Conference programme (PDF file)
Conference Report (PDF file)