Historicizing Police Authority

Michael Postiglione, a PhD candidate at York University and a Nathanson Graduate Fellow, is focusing his research on “Policing the Urban: The Establishment of Authority in Ontario’s Municipal Police Forces, 1890–1918.” He offers this overview of his work and its link to current discussions around police oversight, funding and accountability:

“The police do what is known in the army as a ‘platoon swearing.’ They all stand together, tell the same story, and outsiders have to take care of themselves. If a man is wrongfully arrested and roughly used, it is but necessary to accuse him of being drunk and disorderly” (Toronto Daily Star, 1918). 

A complainant wrote to the Toronto Daily Star newspaper in 1918, recounting his experience at a police enquiry. In a letter that was emotionally charged though articulately written, the complainant compared the clubs of the police to the militia bullets of authority, stating that “it is about as hard to convince the Police Commissioners that the police are guilty of charges made against them as it is to convince a kind-hearted old lady that her pet dog is the one that has been killing sheep all over the township.” 

These comments reflected a transformative framework of police powers disseminated from legislation authority, moral regulation and state legitimacy during the First World War. With the adoption of the War Measures Act, the enforcement of enemy aliens and the recruitment of veterans as police constables, the authority and culture of policing became reflective of a para-military order during a transformative era of state formation and crime control. 

Culminating with what Ian McKay (2010) and Jeffrey McNairn (2018) argue as liberal order and sociopolitical claims over the state, my research examines how police independence and crime control interacted with models of state formation and authority. I begin by unpacking the Municipal Institutions of Upper Canada Act of 1858 in order to understand the early discourse of police authority and independence. Alongside a variety of other archival sources, such as print media, rules and regulations, and annual reports, I dissect police independence in both political and social settings. 

I rely on various socio-legal analyses, such as literature by Phillip Stenning, Kent Roach and Margaret Beare. My study ends at the start of inter-war period, when a recognized authority of policing was indoctrinated and accepted into the structure of municipal institutions. It is my hope that this project will make significant contributions to existing literature on authority, urbanization, colonialism and police culture. In light of recent public discussions and debate around police accountability and funding, the need to understand structures of authority has never been more crucial to policy development.