The following is a selection from a speech by Mises Institute President Jeff Deist at the Southwest Regional Mises Circle in Houston, “The Police State: Know It When You See It,” on January 18, 2014.
Today when we use the term peace officer, it sounds antiquated and outdated. I’m sure most people in the room under 40 have never heard the term actually used by anyone; we might as well be talking about buggy whips or floppy disks. But in the 1800s and really through the 1960s, the term was used widely in America to refer generally to lawmen, whether sheriffs, constables, troopers, or marshals.
Today the old moniker of peace officer has been almost eliminated in popular usage, replaced by “police officer” or the more in vogue “law enforcement officer.”
The terminology has certain legal differences in different settings; in some places peace officers and police officers are indeed different individuals with different functions, jurisdictions, or powers to execute warrants. But nobody says peace officer anymore, and it’s not just a coincidence.
The archetype of a peace officer is mostly fictitious — sheriffs in westerns often come to mind, stern lawmen carrying Colt revolvers called “Peacemakers.” But the Wyatt Earps of western myth weren’t always so peaceful, and often, at least in movies, used their Peacemakers to shoot up the place.
Outside the Old West archetype, Sheriff Andy Taylor of the Andy Griffith Show is perhaps the best and most facile example of what it once meant, at least in the American psyche, to be a peace officer.
Now of course the Andy Griffith show was fictional. And there’s no doubt that many, many small town sheriffs in America over the decades have been anything but peace officers. Yet it’s fascinating that just a few decades ago Americans could identify with the character of Sheriff Taylor as a recognizable ideal.
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