Sadly, this news doesn't involve chimps wearing badges and shooting criminals... at least, not yet. But our fellow primates do display behaviors much like a human cop, as respected members of chimp populations will intervene in conflicts as an impartial peacekeepers.
Primatologists at the University of Zurich have confirmed that certain chimps will get themselves involved in the conflicts of others, in an effort to maintain the overall stability of the group. That type of behavior suggests a pretty clear moral component. Until now, we only had anecdotal evidence to support the existence of chimp policing.
The researchers observed policing in four different captive chimp groups. While the "cops" interceded in conflicts of varying seriousness, they were most likely to get involved when several chimps were involved in a conflict. That makes sense, considering the end goal of this policing is most likely to maintain order, and a lot of chimps fighting is the greatest danger to a group's stability.
Not just any chimp could act as an arbitrator in these conflicts, just like not every human is going to be able to successfully convince others to stop breaking the law. The police officers tended to be drawn from the alphas and betas of the group, although the gender of these "cops" didn't matter — males and females were about equally likely to intercede in a dispute.
Writing in PLoS ONE, the researchers suggest this basic policing behavior, which is essentially a form of conflict management, could be the basis for the emergence of more complex police forces in human societies. And if it is the basis for our primary approach to keeping the peace, then we could do a lot worse — the researchers found that policing was consistently effective in maintaining law and order among the chimps. We can only hope the followup research will focus on finding a loose cannon chimp cop who plays by his own set of rules... because he gets results, dammit!
Check out the full paper at PLoS ONE. Image by Claudia Rudolf von Rohr.