Protecting the Legacy of July 4th is Year-round Task for Law Enforcement

Protecting the Legacy of July 4th is Year-round Task for Law Enforcement

Earlier this month we celebrated a cherished American holiday: Independence Day. This U.S. milestone, as we learn in school as youngsters, commemorates July 4, 1776—the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted, announcing the 13 colonies’ independence from Great Britain.

Photograph: New York Police Department officer on horse in front of strikers, ca. 1940s. 2007.73.144. Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, DC.

Today, the Fourth of July has come to connote a celebration with family, friends and, of course, fireworks. And as a national holiday, it affords many the privilege of a day off from work, not just to attend a backyard barbeque dressed in red, white, and blue, but to pause and remember the ideals that the Founding Fathers worked to establish more than two centuries ago.

But one profession in particular doesn’t get the day off—and that’s law enforcement. While tradition continues to honor the day the U.S. asserted sovereignty, perhaps we don’t always reflect on the duties and responsibilities that come with such opportunities. Individual liberty. Freedom. Equality. Choice. These are the rights we often take for granted in a democracy, yet they are the same rights that law enforcement professionals protect every day. 

In the United States, when people gather to petition their government and call for change—something that many countries of the world simply do not tolerate—it is law enforcement that defends these precious rights. And when people gather to exercise their right of free speech, for example, they depend on law enforcement for protection and safety. Whether it is a few people on strike clutching signs outside a business (such as above) or a million people marching in our nation’s capital, law enforcement is there to safeguard their First Amendment rights.

Photograph: Kansas City (MO) Police Department
at the moment the first tear gas was thrown
in the April 9, 1968, riot. 2007.114.480.
Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum,
Washington, DC.

Print: Harper’s Weekly periodical, “A riot on
Forty-Second Street, near Broadway,”
February 9, 1889. 2006.406.50.
Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum,
Washington, DC.

Throughout history, exercising these rights has led to riots and strikes that have become dangerous and sometimes deadly, such as the 1968 Kansas City, Mo., riot in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, or the 1889 New York City streetcar workers’ strike (pictured above).

Equipment: riot shield used in training by the Mascoutah (IL) Police Department, 1970. 2008.69.1. Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, DC.

Today, law enforcement officers wear protective riot gear, including helmets with face shields, body armor, and body shields, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that police began to develop crowd control tactics and use special equipment, like this riot shield (left) from 1970.

Magazine: Life cover image, “Alabama troopers await marching Negroes in Selma,” Mar. 19, 1965. 2006.333.1. Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, DC.

The 1960s was an especially tumultuous decade that brought a wave of Civil Rights demonstrations and race riots, including more than 750 riots between 1964 and 1971. The first of three attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in March 1965 (pictured right) is just one example of a peaceful demonstration that turned violent when lawmen attacked the marching crowd.

When protests become heated or confrontational, it is law enforcement that has the unique—and challenging—responsibility not only to protect the free speech rights of each side, but also to maintain the safety of everyone involved. With passions running high, decision-making in such stressful situations has to be instantaneous, and law enforcement has not always defended the rights of both sides equally.

But over the years, laws have been established to position law enforcement in the role of defending the Constitution. For example, what are commonly known as "Miranda rights" were adopted into U.S. law following the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona Supreme Court decision, which found that the Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights of Ernesto Arturo Miranda had been violated during his arrest and trial.

The court held that a defendant “must be warned prior to any questioning that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires,” as this laminated wallet card reminds officers.

Ephemera: Miranda warning and waiver wallet card issued by the Missouri Department of Public Safety, no date. 2011.47.454. Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, DC. 

This month as we continue to wave our American flags and celebrate our country’s heritage, think about the law enforcement professionals who vow to protect our precious freedoms. Consider your role in making sure those American qualities endure. Independence comes with responsibility, and we all have a role to play.

After all, part of the National Law Enforcement Museum’s mission is to build mutual respect and foster cooperation between the public and the law enforcement profession. By doing so, the Museum contributes to a safer society and serves to uphold the democratic ideals of the U.S. Constitution. 


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