“To Protect and Serve” became the official motto of the Los Angeles Police Department after the department conducted a motto contest for its police academy in 1955. Since 1963, when local officials formally adopted the motto, this phrase has become enshrined in American police history as a commonplace maxim that police officials have adapted in various forms across the country to express the core purpose and function of police work.
As a police historian, I’ve examined firsthand how this ideal — “To Protect and Serve” — has historically been undermined and overshadowed in policy debates, political discourse, and police-citizen relations crises. Our nation’s history of policing and criminal justice is fraught with injustice, racial animus, polarization, and widespread dysfunction.
This blog creates a space for interrogating the essential questions — historical and contemporary — that complicate ongoing debates about police reform, crime reduction, and restorative justice in American communities. These issues are complex, nuanced, and in grave need of serious reflection and pragmatic discussion. Crafting answers to these dire questions is far from easy or straightforward. Nonetheless, this dialogue is essential and purpose driven.
To Protect and Serve readers will not only learn about police history and read about ongoing innovations in American policing. Viewers can also read about popular media portrayals of police practices on cable TV, streaming services (i.e. Netflix), blockbuster films, and more. The goal is to think critically. Breaking down mythologies, stereotypes, and harmful assumptions about the policed and the police is the first fundamental step in tackling this longstanding issue in American public policy and human history. What does it truly look like to protect and serve? Is it an elusive fantasy? Or, can it be an aspirational vision for moving toward restoration and freedom for all people? That is the question.