I have heard two theories about why police officers were once referred to as “Flatfoots”.

One is that a cop on the beat would develope flat feet from walking a beat day after day. I’ve found at least one dictionary that cites this as the origin.

The other theory (the one I favor) speculates that a job in law enforcement would appeal to those that were not accepted for military service. One common reason for being declined by the Army was flat feet.

If the term is a derogatory one, I think the second theory is more likely. The conotation that a cop was “washed out of the Army” seems more insulting than taunting him because he has to walk a lot.

Does anybody have any evidence that supports or disproves either of these theories? Or perhaps a totally different etymology?

I’ll bite, PapaBear. While I also would wish for that 2nd rationale, I don’t think it quite rings true. The expression is really old, and antedates “volunteer” military service. So the reasoning that a militaristic wannabe would settle for an LE job goes against the stats, I think.

Besides, the term was always associated with urban police - particularly Chicago or NY. If movies were to be believed, it was originally a derogatory term used by wiseacre bad guys - as immortalized by E.G. Robinson, etc…

Cops generally have a pretty good self-deprecatory sense of humor, and woulda latched on to any amusing insulting title that could be twisted to explain the usual gripes (damn low-bid shoes !).

You did ask for evidence, but thought I’d chime in; hope you’re OK with that.

“Proverbs for Paranoids, 2: The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immortality of the Master.”
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow.

More than once in fiction, I’ve seen detectives and other higher-ranking officers use the term “flatfoot” to refer to a beat cop. Also, when used as a derogatory term by a civilian, it was less an anti-police insult (like “pig”), and more a reference to the low status of the cop in question.

I recall seeing this come up in both written and filmed fiction. The only specific example that comes to mind is an episode of The Commish, when the title character goes out to work the beat with some of his men.
At one point the Commish threatens an E.R. doctor with an arrest for obstruction of justice. The doc’s initial response is, “You’re a flatfoot, you can’t throw that kind of paperwork around.” He is of course surprised when said ‘flatfoot’ is revealed to be the city police commissioner.

Brewer’s DICTIONARY OF PHRASE AND FABLE defines flat-foot as a policeman (sometimes called “flattie”) but doesn’t indicate origin.
My other sources, including Wm & Mary Morris’s DICTIONARY OF WORD ORIGINS, don’t mention it.
Not much help, PapaB, sorry.

Found an HL Mencken quote, in an anthology. The column it’s taken from is dated between “1901-1910” acc. to the editor - with no precision.

Briefly, a coroner was upset that a cop, having found 400 bucks on a homeless corpse, turned it in to the State [honestly] rather than split the loot 3 ways between HL, the cop & the coroner. The coroner’s quoted complaint: “…I never did trust that flatfoot.” So it appears at least turn of the century, it was a “trade” term for those on the beat.

“Proverbs for Paranoids, 1: You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.”

  • T.Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow.

cf British plod.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

Thanks, Jorge. I think any cite from before World War One pretty much rules out my theory.

No prob; glad to be of some use. Find me that SEATO/Westmoreland quote and we’re square. (just kidding).