Peace Officers Memorial Day falls on May 15 each year to pay tribute to the brave local, state, and federal peace officers who have died or been disabled in the line of duty. Falling in Police Week, the day is marked with a memorial event in Washington D.C., a candlelight vigil, and speeches commemorating officers past and present. Since we owe so much to those who keep the peace, we’ve put together the day’s history and the best ways to show your appreciation.
History of Peace Officers Memorial Day
We began formally marking Peace Officers Memorial Day in 1963, several months after President John F. Kennedy signed the bill into law in October 1962. In Kennedy’s proclamation relating to the events in May 1963, he began by stating that “law enforcement officers have played an important role” since “the beginning of this Nation.” But the development of the peace officers we know and respect today is more recent than you might think!
The first enforcement officers in the U.S. operated privately, employed by wealthy individuals to protect their assets. Public peace officers developed shortly after this in the mid-1600s, first in Boston and then in New York and Philadelphia. They were predominantly volunteers who acted as night watchmen and reported fellow citizens behaving badly.
Boston continued to lead the way in peace organization, with the first publicly funded, organized police force set up in 1838, which paid officers to keep the peace full-time. By the late 1880s, all major U.S. cities had police forces, although their priorities differed from state to state, depending on the problems faced in each area. Law enforcement heads were often chosen by the local political leader so, as a result, the enforcement could work in favor of the ruling political party.
In response, President Hoover set up an investigation into the effectiveness of law enforcement nationwide in 1929. It called for peace officers to work in a professional and impartial way to enforce the law and was a turning point in the history of the officers who protect us today. It promoted the selflessness that we now honor every year on May 15.
Peace Officers Memorial Day timeline
The first peace officers in the United States are documented in Boston — volunteers sign up for a shift on a certain day and at a certain time to look out for fellow citizens engaging in illegal activity.
The U.S. Marshals Service is founded to serve the federal court system — they support the federal courts within their judicial districts and carry out orders issued by judges, Congress, or the president.
President John F. Kennedy signs the bill, commemorating Peace Officers Memorial Day on May 15 annually, into law on October 1, exactly a year after it was authorized by Congress.
President Bill Clinton directs, through Public Law 103-322, that the United States flag be flown at half-staff on May 15 to honor the day.
Peace Officers Memorial Day FAQs
What is a Peace Officer?
A peace officer is a public-sector employee whose duties primarily involve the enforcement of laws. They include police officers, sheriffs, mayors, and many more.
Can I read the names of fallen officers without visiting Washington, D.C.?
Yes, you can read and search the names of all the fallen officers included on the Memorial on the Memorial website.
Are there other days dedicated to Peace Officers?
We also celebrate our brave peace officers on National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day in January each year.
How to Celebrate Peace Officers Memorial Day
Lower your Stars and Stripes
Just like the official flags flown at The White House, if you have a U.S. flag at home you can lower it to half its usual height to show respect and solidarity.
Light a candle
Light your windowsill with candles for the brave men and women who have been injured or lost their lives for keeping the peace.
Give back to the peace community
Support a peace officers charity and help the families of officers killed in the line of duty. Find your local one to learn what would help, whether it’s a donation of time, money, food, or clothing.
5 Facts About Peace Officers That Make Them Worth Remembering
The first officers liked going undercover
Early police officers didn’t want to wear badges because police officers weren’t popular amongst civilians for their enforcement of local laws.
Names of the fallen are carved in stone
Much of the proceedings of the day centers on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial found in Washington, D.C., whose walls show the names of more than 21,000 law enforcement officers who have been killed in the line of duty.
You can stand in their shoes
The National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, D.C., next to the Memorial offers you the opportunity to stand in the shoes of a peace officer, with ‘on the job’ experiences like evidence gathering and 9-1-1 emergency call centers.
Police officers are mostly peace officers
Around two-thirds of police officers’ work focuses on peacekeeping and problem-solving, with only one-third of their time spent on criminal law on average.
There are almost a million officers
The United States has nearly 18,000 separate law enforcement agencies with over 800,000 sworn law enforcement officers now serving collectively — more than ever before.
Why We Love Peace Officers Memorial Day
We commemorate new alongside old
Unlike many other memorials, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial is updated annually. New names of fallen officers are carved on it, in time for Peace Officers Memorial Day every year.
It draws impressive crowds
The annual memorial event draws up to 40,000 law enforcement officers, their families, and other visitors to Washington, D.C., each year.
There are so many officers to celebrate
With over 800,000 law enforcement officers working in the U.S., that’s approximately one law enforcement officer for every 400 people. So there are plenty of officials keeping the peace and keeping us safe!
Peace Officers Memorial Day dates