When the founding fathers created our Constitution, one of their biggest fears was that of the standing army. In Europe at the time (and in most dictatorships today), the Army was a professional, full-time force, frequently composed of mercenaries whose loyalty to the local king was purchased; in larger kingdoms, it was composed of units from different parts of the kingdom, who had no loyalty or affection to the people of the local province.
The Army, in short, was an agent of oppression.
The first municipal police department (in London in the 1820′s) on the other hand was an attempt to distance itself from the idea of the military.
Kevin Williamson at NRO goes through the squandered legacy of Sir John Peel, the inventor of the modern police force. Peel’s nine guidelines to the then-new Metro Police are – or were – a standard for cops for well over a century:
The first order of police work is, according to Peel, “to prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.” The second principle is “to recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions, and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.” He called this “policing by consent.” The policeman, in Peel’s view, was a citizen: “The police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
And the importance of the uniform. The bright colors and towering headdresses of the uniforms of post-medieval Europe (still worn by the Guards at Buckingham Palace) were intended to try to intimidate the opposition, especially an opposition of peasants and rabble that didn’t have uniforms:
In that context, the function of the police uniform is simply that of an imprimatur — of the municipal government of London or of New York or Mayberry. It tells little Peter Pat whom he can trust.
We seem to have lost that idea:
Our contemporary and increasingly militarized police uniforms are designed for a different purpose: the projection of force. Peel organized the Metropolitan Police as an alternative to “military repression,” but we, in turn, have turned our police into quasi-military organizations: Armored vehicles roam the mean streets of Pulaski County, Ind. Why? “It’s more intimidating,” the sheriff says.
Cops will note in response that there are times when they do need to assert control – to “intimidate”. That’s true. But that “time” is not “when in contact with a general public that is exercising its right to protest”, among quite a few others.
The more I think about it, the more it seems modern law enforcement has become the standing army our founding fathers were worried about.