Cartoon by Emad Hajjaj
The Police Were a Mistake
The New Republic: Contrary to most of American folklore, the Founding Fathers were not a supernaturally wise monolith. Leading revolutionary figures like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton may have shared certain broad values, like a commitment to republicanism, but they often passionately disagreed about what, exactly, the new nation’s political systems should look like. The Constitution that they ultimately wrote is more of a compromise between those differences than a perfect resolution to them.
One issue where the Founders were virtually unanimous in agreement, however, was their fear of standing armies. From Julius Caesar’s legions at the Rubicon to Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army to the forces mustered by European monarchies, large armed forces in peacetime invariably threatened a free people’s rights. Many of the Thirteen Colonies’ post-independence constitutions included declarations that standing armies “are dangerous to liberty, [and] they ought not to be kept up.” John Adams warned that they should be “watched with a jealous eye,” while Thomas Jefferson referred to them as an “engine of oppression.”
Those fears deeply influenced the Constitution, which includes multiple tools for Congress and the president to keep the military under civilian control. “A standing military force with an overgrown executive will not long be safe companions to liberty,” Madison said in a speech to the Constitutional Convention. “The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending have enslaved the people.”
Those fears took on new meaning as civil unrest spread throughout the country over the last several days. Tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was brutally killed by four Minneapolis police officers last week, and the culture of police brutality and militarism that has permitted a long list of similar killings. In response, police officers in cities across the country have largely responded violently, with abusive and authoritarian tactics. Social-media networks are flooded with footage and accounts of cops shoving elderly pedestrians and innocent bystanders into pavement, bludgeoning journalists or pelting them with rubber bullets, and dispersing lawful crowds with tear gas and overwhelming force.
The American constitutional order is not designed to reform and supervise what are effectively armed paramilitary forces in every major city.
Modern American policing—the militarized departments, the heavy-handed enforcement of minor laws, the deep-rooted racial inequities, the resistance to firm civilian control—has existed for so long that it’s easy to assume that it’s the natural state of our society. In fact, this form of law enforcement is essentially a policy experiment, and a failed one at that. The American constitutional order is not designed to reform and supervise what are effectively armed paramilitary forces in every major city. Eventually, perhaps already, one will have to bend to the other.
There are now more than 18,000 law-enforcement agencies in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Most of them are small, parochial institutions that range from county sheriffs’ offices and small-town police departments to tribal police forces and state park rangers. Some are behemoths. “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world,” former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg boasted in 2011. His claim is only a slight exaggeration. The New York Police Department currently includes more than 36,000 uniformed officers, more than double the size of the state national guard. It maintains its own navy, air force, and intelligence service.
This level of social control and management would have been alien to Americans for a large portion of this country’s history. Early American communities did not have a “police force,” at least not in any form their modern-day counterparts might recognize. Most towns and cities relied upon a night watch to keep the peace after sunset, as well as constables and sheriffs to enforce court orders, execute warrants, and deliver summons. Southern police departments can also trace their genealogy to slave patrols, which helped maintain the institution of slavery before the Civil War with the full force of government power.
American cities would not move towards professionalized and uniformed police forces until the 1830s and 1840s, starting with cities like Boston and Philadelphia. They drew inspiration from London, where Home Secretary Robert Peel had led the creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Historians often frame Peel’s work in the context of London’s population growth and a move towards Victorian-era social and moral reform. It also took place against a backdrop of social and political tensions over Irish nationalism, labor reform, and Catholic emancipation.
“The new force faced hostility from the Whigs, from magistrates, and from parish councils, whose jurisdiction the Act appeared to infringe,” Adam Zamoyski wrote in his book Phantom Terror, which documents the paranoia among European counter-revolutionary leaders after the Napoleonic Wars. “It was widely denounced as an attack on civil liberties, an attempt by the government to establish a private army and introduce ‘espionage’ into the country, and as thoroughly un-English. When they first appeared on the streets, in their blue uniforms and top hats (blue tailcoat and white ducks in summer), their only weapon a rattle and a truncheon, the members of the new force were either ridiculed with epithets such as ‘Peelers,’ ‘Bobbies,’ ‘raw lobsters,’ and ‘Jenny Darbies,’ (gendarmes), or vilified as oppressors and spies.”
Creating American police forces would be no less controversial. In the 1830s and 1840s, New York City was regularly wracked by riots and crime waves. Local constables were either unwilling or unable to impose any sort of order upon the burgeoning metropolis. Reformers and some newspapers demanded action from their elected officials. But local leaders firmly resisted creating any force that would resemble the British military occupation during the revolution, which still lingered in public memory >>>