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Basic Information

Police are government officers who enforce the law, prevent crimes, and apprehend criminals. They often operate a patrol car or work out of a police station.

Under some government forms the police are very much separate from the military, militia, or secret police, but in other systems and nations these groups overlap significantly. See Gendarmerie.

The word "police" derives from the Greek word polis (meaning "city") and, in general, police are primarily an urban phenomenon - rural communities tend to be small, orderly and self policing and frequently not able to fund a full time law enforcer anyway.

Police work divides into two main areas: public order policing and investigative policing.

Public Order Policing is the public, uniformed face of policing, comprising of regular, overt patrolling and proactive operations to prevent crime and disorder. Public order police will generally respond to and surpress crimes in progress, but their main function is as a deterrent to lawlessness and a visible symbol of public order. In extremis this role includes the direct application of violence to control serious crime and enforce the peace.
At its best public order policing is a vital public service that keeps the peace and allows everyone to go about their lawful business unmolested … at its worst it is a tool of state control over the population which enforces submission and suppresses dissent. Both aspects can co-exist in the same force.
Public order roles are those most likely to be assumed by the military in the event of armed forces units being committed to police work.

Investigative Policing is mostly reactive and involves police officers - often un-uniformed ones - looking into crimes that have already been committed to identify the offender(s) and gather evidence to bring them to justice.
This is generally an important part of ensuring that justice is served and crime does not go unpunished, but in the wrong hands can equally well shade into the sort of things that a secret police force might be expected to get up to - but again, the same detectives that torture suspects and indulge in extra-judicial killings can also bring back your stolen heirlooms and find the guy that murdered your friend.
This aspect of police work is most susceptible to poaching from intelligence agencies rather than the military - on many occasions their fields of interest can easily overlap.

Police Agencies

Police Equipment and Technology

Police In The News

News articles about police policies, police procedures, major investigations, or just really bad days for the cops

Police Tropes

These are characters and tropes of modern cop drama.

Clem, Go Fetch The Marshal

The Old West in particular can have some really confusing overlap for police roles. "Go fetch the Marshal" might mean a US Marshal (which was a position appointed by government officials back East in Washington), or it might refer to a local Town Marshal. A given town might have both or neither of those, and/or a county sheriff, too. Exactly who has jurisdiction can get a little sticky.

Expect the Sheriff or Marshal to have a few deputies or maybe a whole posse to back him up.

The criminal might get tried by a circuit judge, or just handed over to a lynch mob.

Police-Like Offices of the Middle-Ages

Previous centuries tend to not have as centralized and standardized police forces as we do now. These entries from the List Of Medieval European Professions might serve a police role to one extent or another, but not really in the sense we think of "police" in these days. Most had jurisdiction over just a single legal issue, and a variety of non-policing responsibilities.

Depending on the region and reign, it was quite common for laws of common defense to require that if a hue and cry were raised by an authority figure, the entire populace was required to help catch the culprit. Failure to assist when someone shouted to the call of "stop! thief!" or the like could result in fines or public humiliation. Thieves, once caught, would often be hung. However, if a wanted man could slip or run away to a church or monastery, he could expect to be give sanctuary for up to 40 days. You might also try to "prove" your innocence by compurgation, trial by combat or trial by ordeal.

Law enforcement in rural areas was normally the responsibility of the local magnate and any policing would be performed by his retainers - which was all very well unless the magnate, or someone under his protection, was engaged in crime. Urban policing would normally be the responsibility of the mayor and burgesses, and often limited to guarding the town gates and hiring watchmen to enforce curfew after dark. If there was a military garrison attached to the town, it might well be called upon for some public order duties - although in many cases there would also be friction between the town council and whoever controlled the garrison over spheres of local influence which would limit the degree to which they would be deployed. Other power centres - such as cathedrals and universities were also prone to deploying their own police forces to look after their own interests.

As the middle-ages give way to the renaissance and colonial eras, this gets a little more standardized. Professional police forces eventually sprung up, often with delightfully quaint names like New York City's Shout and Rattle Watch of the 1650s. In many cases there was significant resistance to standing police forces - in much the same way was standing armies - as their public order policing role was also seen as a tool of potential oppression: many early modern forces had a significant secret police element as well.

Investigative policing has an even more patchy history - much of the time any investigation of a crime was either performed by a local magistrate or coroner (or any similar officer who had a duty to keep the peace), if they could be interested in looking into it, or was down to the affected party (or their next of kin) to look into. From time to time professional thief takers and similar creatures evolved who specialised in investigation (normally the recovery of stolen goods) but it would take a long time before such people were a standard part of the police force (also, it was quite normal for the thief taker to be merely the respectable face of the criminal underworld and to, essentially, fence stolen goods back to their owner for a "finder's fee"). In the absence of professional investigators, the traditional approach was to round up likely suspects and attempt to extract a confession and/or testimony from them … one way or another.

Police of the Ancient World

Ancient China: Police "prefects" were appointed by local magistrates (so the judges themselves chose and hired the cops for the region). Prefects could be either gender, and would in some jurisdictions engaged in full-scale investigations like a modern police detective. They were sometimes in charge of subprefects to assist them. This system goes back to at least several centuries BC, to a time known as the Spring and Autumn period.

Ancient Egypt: Police came in two to three versions in ancient Egypt, as near as can be pieced together from the fragmentary references to them. There were door guards stationed at the gates to cities, temples, and major industrial sites. Marketplaces had their own guard units, who employed trained baboons to chase down fleeing thieves. These two types of watchmen were probably hired locally. There was also something of a border patrol made up of Medjay scouts. They served as a paramilitary police unit directly under the control of Pharaoh, guarded the necropolis, pursued runaway slaves, questioned foreigners at the borders, and carried messages to to other cities for government officials.

Ancient Greece: The Greeks employed publicly-owned slaves as officers of the peace. They did not investigate crimes, but could be hired to arrest the accused for a large sum of drachmas. They were also used by the city-state for crowd control and to deter rioting. If the criminal wasn't caught in the act, the burden of investigating fell on the victim (or their family). Greek juries were very large, hundreds of jurors per crime to reduce the chance of bribery. They voted by secret ballot without deliberation, and trials were only allowed to last only a single day. Exiling and fines were common punishments. (See also ostracon.) If a fine was assessed to the guilty, half that fine would be split amongst the witnesses as a reward for informing or testifying.

Ancient Rome: The Roman Empire for the most part used its army as police, but some cities hired watchmen to supplement this. Special elected or appointed officials known as Quaestores were charged with investigating murders and similar high-profile cases, but rather than being full-time permanent positions, they were hired and appointed when needed. Eventually this gave way to a more permanent system when Augustus organized the City into 14 wards and hired Vigiles Urbani to act as night watchmen and firefighters. To deal with riots and violent street gangs, he created the Cohortes Urbanae, a sort of paramilitary police force. If things really got out of hand, the Praetorian Guard might also lend a hand.

Sci Fi Cops

No doubt the future will present new methods of law enforcement, as well as entirely new crimes we haven't yet dreamed up. A few ideas can be found on the punishment page. See also:


Game and Story Use

  • Since player characters are often vigilante-types, they may work with, pick up after, or be pursued by NPC police.
  • A police station could function as PC HQ for a investigation- and mystery- heavy game. PCs play various members of the local police department, including not just beat cops and detectives, but also crime scene investigators and forensics experts.
  • A pre-modern police force might well hire external muscle for various tasks, from a medieval town hiring mercenaries to drive bandits away from its approaches to a nineteenth century force hiring a "consulting detective", occult expert or similar figure.
  • Note that many fantasy settings have anachronistically well developed police forces - much of medieval Europe was poorly policed, if at all, with most urban watches being mainly concerned with curfew enforcement and the directly related work of fire prevention.
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