You may think that “de-fund the police” movement in some cities is a new civil rebellion for this country. You’d be wrong.
When this new nation started up in the late 1700s, people at first rejected the idea of “police departments” because they felt police might try to suppress the new government of, for, and by the people.
They’d seen what the British “police” (soldiers enforcing local laws) did to the colonists and wanted no more of it.
So they depended on local militia-cum-police to sort of keep order until the early 1800s, when they dipped a toe into modern policing.
What triggered the change was a Black abolitionist who called for rebellion and said “One good black man can put to death six white men.” Then Boston had citizen attacks against abolitionists. In 1838, Massachusetts set up the first formal police department.
New York copied that in 1844; New Orleans and Cincinnati followed in 1852, then, later in the 1850s, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Baltimore did the same. There had just been too much robbery, burglary and prostitution for part-time militia men to handle.
It wasn’t a total success or even close. A newspaper story of 1857 tells about the Great Police Riot in which New York municipal police under the mayor fought on the steps of city hall with the metropolitan police run by the state.
After the Civil War, there was a kind of Army police force to deal with Native Americans, mainly by killing them.
American police carried guns because Americans carried guns. And until the 1920s and the Oklahoma Osage Indian massacre, mobs, vigilantes, and law officers, including the Texas Rangers, lynched some five hundred Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and killed thousands more. That gave rise to the FBI as a national police force working across jurisdictions.
And about current complaints that police have become too militarized: that began in 1909 in Berkeley, Calif., where the new chief said “I’ve studied military tactics and used them to good effect in rounding up crooks.”
Next, police were used to enforce Jim Crow laws in the South, which had been declared okay by the Supreme Court. They beat and broke the bones of demonstrators for the first 60 or so years of the 1900s.
So no, this civilian disquiet about police in general and the now-very-militarized police is not new.
It comes and goes. Sometimes a little reform satisfies the “de-funders” until the next shooting or beating or engagement with police in military gear and with military weapons.
One thing always intrigued me: why are police sometimes called “pigs”? That term seems to have been born in an 1811 British Dictionary of Slang, with this example:
“The pigs frisked my panney, and nailed my screws.” The translation: “The officers searched my house, and seized my picklocks.”