A COMPELLING TOOL
August 29, 2012 By Randy Whittaker
1583 words – MR
A compelling tool
Police night sticks through the ages
by Randy Whittaker
The police baton’s humble beginnings date back several centuries. From simple pieces of wood to ornate symbols of authority, batons continue to be an integral part of the police persona.
Many early societies, including ancient Egypt, provided certain people with authority over their citizenry. To distinguish themselves, these early “police officers” carried large staffs as a symbolic instrument and representation of their authority. While not a true police force, the heavy staffs of office and the right to use them put these men socially above craftsmen and farmers (1).
The staff signified the holder to be acting upon the behest of the pharaoh and these chosen people were given authority to use them to ensure compliance with societal rules. If people disobeyed, the staff could be used as both a defensive and offensive weapon. Drawings from this time show prisoners being escorted by guards holding large staffs (2).
Egyptian citizens understood the symbolism of the staff and usually deferred to it. This strong symbolic representative device was carried forward into the modern world.
Henry Fielding began what is commonly referred to as the first organized police force in 1749. His famous “Bow Street Runners” were organized to arrest people at the behest of the crown. Again, while not true “police” they were equipped with what is known as a tipstaff – usually a short cylindrical staff topped with a metal crown (3). It was carried by the holder of an appointed office and acted as a sign of authority. These tipstaffs or tipstaves were ornate pieces of silver, brass or wood and usually hollow, allowing the runner to place the warrant for arrest inside. To affect the arrest, the runner would simply tap arrestees on the shoulder, thereby deeming them under arrest.
Tipstaves were often inscribed with the royal crest and topped with a metal crown (4). This ornateness reinforced the symbolism of the holder acting upon crown authority. They were often trimmed in ivory, bone or ebony and the coat of arms of the city, county, or village where it was issued was painted or engraved on it (5).
Although usually smaller than a traditional truncheon, the tipstaff often carried a certain girth and weight. Given the dents in surviving samples, it appears they were used to “tap” more than the shoulder during an arrest. (6)
The tipstaff represented a natural, evolutionary step in the progression of police-issued equipment. It makes sense, then, that when Robert Peel organized the first true professional police force in 1829, the baton was the first piece of equipment to be issued.
Peel understood the need for an organized, professional force and knew society during this time was violent and unruly. British subjects, it was noted, had a strong penchant for various forms of revelry and drunken debauchery (7).
Some type of weapon was needed to ensure police officers were afforded the respect required to enforce societal law but Peel didn’t want them to be seen as an invading military force. Additionally, many muskets of the day required a two hand operation, which could become cumbersome during a scuffle (8). Hence, the police truncheon combined portability, ease of use and effectiveness.
Peel understood police could not be seen as too intimidating since community policing was the cornerstone of his concepts, hence his oft quoted, “the police are the public and the public are the police.” Peel wanted his officers to be able to enforce the law while maintaining a certain rapport with the public so officers used their truncheon only when absolutely required. Its mere presence would act as a deterrent to would be criminals, it was believed. While simple in design, the truncheon carried an inordinate amount of authority. It was one of the most obvious differences between a “normal” citizen and a police officer.
Truncheons were affectionately labeled “billy clubs” during this time. It is unclear where the name originated. One theory states it was originally assigned to the clubs burglars used to pry open windows and doors. No doubt police responded with their own clubs to curtail this sort of behavior, however, unlike a criminal’s simple tool, the truncheon of this time was quite ornate, a carry-over from the historical tipstaff.
The ornateness served a very useful purpose. The Royal seal painted on the truncheon advertised to the public that this was indeed an officer of his majesty’s service. It was also the official warrant card of the police officer’s authority to enforce the rule of law. The officers’ badge number would often also be inscribed. Again, this would ensure the public knew exactly who the authority figures were.
Peel required his early police constables to be at least six feet tall. A tall man wielding a large piece of solid wood could certainly inflict a fair amount of damage on a resisting suspect. One can imagine a criminal complaining about an assault could identify the officer from the badge number imprint on his head.
The baton became so inseparable from the constable that it was often presented to him as a retirement gift when he left the force (9).
The truncheon’s central role as an authoritative symbol began to wane around 1880 when police forces started issuing warrant cards as proof of identity. There was a revival in the 20th Century when commemorative truncheons were issued for major events such as World War One and the general strike of 1926 (10). Although its role changed, the baton continued to be an integral part of police issued equipment. Its design was virtually unchanged for a century (11).
Adaptations and changes to the basic baton began during the early 1970’s. The Monadnock Corporation developed the PR-24, which had a side handle, in response to the turbulent 1960s, which saw police as the aggressors during the civil rights movement. People tired of seeing club wielding police officers swinging wildly at peaceful protestors. The Monadnock allowed for a more controlled usage and was seen as a tool which could also be used in a defensive mode. The side handle allowed officers to carry it in a somewhat less aggressive-looking manner.
The argument for the handle was as clever as the design itself. It was held like a shield, apparently to deflect attack rather than initiate injury. Though it could be spun around on the spindle for striking, its preferred use was for leverage-based techniques and control holds. This softer image was precisely what the police industry hoped for (12).
The new design did have its critics. Many felt it was cumbersome when striking, difficult to control upon impact (13) and pandered to the liberals who wanted police to be less aggressive with violent subjects.
The Monadnock wasn’t the only change. Saps – a flat piece of metal usually covered in leather – and slappers, fitted with a spring handle to increase the kinetic energy felt on impact, were popular alternatives during the 1970s and ’80s. Blackjacks – usually a leather wrapped weight with a lanyard on one end for control – were also fitted with a spring handle. Their portability and flexibility allowed officers to carry them in a pocket for quick access.
These tools eventually fell out of favour as the usual choice of target, the perpetrators head, brought about a bevy of lawsuits owing to police brutality. The baton was still a required piece of equipment but portability and public perception needed to be satisfied.
A long piece of wood dangling from the waist has many inherent difficulties. Whatever the design, it was usually the first piece of equipment officers neglected, often simply leaving them in their locker or vehicle. The batons’ effectiveness was negated by its very design; they were too cumbersome to be properly utilized. What was needed was a new twist on the old idea.
The expandable baton, commonly referred to by the early manufacturer ASP, seems to fit all required criteria of a less lethal weapon. When closed, it fits in a scabbard on the duty belt, thus eliminating the public perception of intimidation. Once expanded, it becomes an effective instrument for non-compliant or violent offenders.
New twists on the innovation include the expandable Taser baton, models fitted with pepper spray and adding a flashlight to the end cap.
The police baton has a rich and varied history. Policing and equipment has changed dramatically over the years but the baton has remained a constant. New developments in materials and techniques have changed its role and usefulness but the baton will remain on the side of police officers for years to come.
1) Dollinger Andre. “Ancient Egypt.” http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/law_and_order/index.html. n.d. n. page. Print..
2) Dollinger Andre. “The Police in Ancient Egypt.” http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/law_and_order/index.html. n.d. n. page. Web. 17 Aug. 2012.
3) Cook, Alan. “The history of decorated truncheons through two and half centuries.” Truncheons and Tipstaves. 24 November 2007: n. page. Web. 17 Aug. 2012
4-7) Lynch, Pat. “The Crown’s Justice, A brief look at english Tipstaves..” Policeguide.com. 1999: n. page. Web. 17 Aug. 2012.
9) Young, Dave. “Where have all the batons gone?.” http://www.policeone.com/police-products/duty-gear/articles/99726-Where-have-all-the-batons-gone/. 1 April 2005: n. page. Web. 17 Aug. 2012.
10) “Baton (law enforcement).” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baton_(law_enforcement). n.d. n. page. Web. 17 Aug. 2012.
11) Cook, Alan. “The history of decorated truncheons through two and half centuries.” Truncheons and Tipstaves. 24 November 2007: n. page. Web. 17 Aug. 2012
12, 13) Young, Dave. “Where have all the batons gone?.” http://www.policeone.com/police-products/duty-gear/articles/99726-Where-have-all-the-batons-gone/. 1 April 2005: n. page. Web. 17 Aug. 2012.
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