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, declaring the 13 colonies independent from the Kingdom of Great Britain.
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 fundamental ideals that the Founding Fathers worked to establish more than two centuries ago.
While tradition continues to honor the day the U.S. became a sovereign nation, 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 serve to protect every day.
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 single person clutching a sign outside a small-town courthouse or a million people marching in our nation’s capital, law enforcement is there to safeguard their First Amendment rights.
Throughout history, exercising these First Amendment rights has led to riots and strikes that have become dangerous and sometimes deadly. When protests become heated or confrontational, it is law enforcement that has the unique responsibility not only to protect the free speech rights of each side, but also to maintain the safety of everyone involved. When people gather to petition their government and call for change—something that many countries of the world simply do not tolerate—in the United States, it is law enforcement that defends these precious rights as well.
The 1960s brought a wave of political demonstrations and race riots, including more than 750 riots between 1964 and 1971. It is interesting to note that law enforcement did not have substantial protective gear until the late 1950s, when police developed crowd control tactics and began using riot shields and batons. Some police departments, such as the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Springfield (MO) Police Department, were not issued riot helmets until the late-1960s and early-1970s. Now, law enforcement riot gear includes helmets with face shields, body armor, and body shields.
This month as we continue to wave our American flags and exude patriotism, think about part of the National Law Enforcement Museum’s mission, “…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.”
For more information about the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, please visit www.nleomf.org. For more information about the National Law Enforcement Museum, please visit www.nleomf.org/museum.