Why The Founders Opposed Militarized Police
Just how opposed were the Founding Fathers to a pervasive militarized police force? Their revolutionary experience forged a deep mistrust of standing armies. They were viewed as a pernicious threat to liberty. Here are just a few quotes that explain how and why the idea (what we would call a police state today) was anathema to the first Americans.
During the Virginia ratifying convention, James Madison described a standing army as the “greatest mischief that can happen.”
Fellow delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, George Mason put a finer point on it:
No man has a greater regard for the military gentlemen than I have. I admire their intrepidity, perseverance, and valor. But when once a standing army is established in any country, the people lose their liberty. When, against a regular and disciplined army, yeomanry are the only defence [sic], — yeomanry, unskilful and unarmed, — what chance is there for preserving freedom? Give me leave to recur to the page of history, to warn you of your present danger. Recollect the history of most nations of the world. What havoc, desolation, and destruction, have been perpetrated by standing armies!
In The Federalist, No. 29, Alexander Hamilton echoes not only Mason’s warning against a standing army, but his solution to the threat, as well.
If circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.
In commenting on Blackstone’s Commentaries, founding era jurist St. George Tucker speaks as if he foresaw our day and the fatal combination of an increasingly militarized police force and the disarmament of civilians:
Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.
In an essay published in the Wall Street Journal last August, Radley Balko, author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop” presented chilling and convincing evidence of the blurring of the line between cop and soldier:
Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment — from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers — American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop — armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.
Balko rightly connects the menace of the martial police with the decline in liberty and a disintegration of legal boundaries between sheriffs and generals. The threat of the police becoming a standing army of the sort our forefathers believed to be “inconsistent with liberty” is a reality on our streets. Understanding the issues of law and policy raised by a militarized police force will inform your understanding of any number of issues we will be struggling with as Americans for the next generation.
Note: This article was written long before the images of warrior police officers made front page news in Ferguson, Missouri. We have a great respect for the police, but question the roles that policy makers want them to play in our society. It is not an attack on police officers to question “no-knock warrants” or the War on Drugs.