Beyond the Thin Blue Line

by Alex Vitale

The US is experiencing a crisis of policing, though it is a crisis of legitimacy more than one of budgets. A parade of damning videos of police violence has undermined support for the police in many areas, especially poor communities of colour. In response, police supporters have mobilised in support, displaying “thin blue line” flags, yard signs, and bumper stickers. As in the UK, the image itself emerged within police ranks as a symbol of internal solidarity and focused on fundraising efforts to support the families of officers killed in the line of duty.

This symbolism, however, has morphed into an ideology that places policing in direct opposition to its critics. It has become a defensive bulwark against claims the American policing has become increasingly invasive, aggressive, and biased. In response, thin blue line supporters routinely claim that it is the police above all who make places safe. They have used this symbolism to call for a raft of new laws designed to further shield police from accountability on the theory that only unfettered police power is capable of producing public safety.

This is a dangerous perspective because it posits that the only mechanism capable of reducing crime is the use of the state’s most coercive institution: The police. Embedded in this is the idea that the poor and disaffected will only respond to punitive state action in the form of arrests and the use of force. This is a deeply conservative idea that views large swaths of the public as inherently dangerous and incapable of managing their own affairs without the constant threat of police action.

This same logic has led to a huge expansion of police power in the US, as police have been given dominion over more and more aspects of daily life. As we suffer cut backs in social services, housing supports, health care, and education funding, we have expanded policing to manage the consequences. Police are now a huge presence in American schools, are a major conduit for the provision of mental health and substance abuse treatment services to the poor, and increasingly manage those that sleep rough and have addiction problems.

It has been exactly this expansion, in the form of simultaneous wars on drugs, gangs, crime, immigrants, and disorder that has badly damaged the relationship between many communities and the police and given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Eric Garner was killed in New York for selling loose cigarettes; Walter Scott was killed in South Carolina after a traffic violation; Alton Sterling was killed in Louisiana while selling CDs. All were poor men of colour struggling on the margins of the economy.

There is a real risk that the UK may be moving in the same direction. Reductions in public services are placing similar pressures for police there to fill the gap. As mental health services become less available, local police end up having to be more involved, often in violation of laws that require people to be taken to a “place of safety’” when, instead, they end up in a police lock-up. The number of people sleeping rough has increased every year for the past 7 years.

The recent increase in knife crimes raises similar issues. A police-centred strategy to dealing with knife crimes is unlikely to be effective. It fails to take into account the real motivations for this kind of violence and the fact that the mostly young people involved are largely impervious to the implications of potential long-term penalties. In addition, these communities are almost totally lacking in services to help young people deal with the trauma of violence and abuse that many have suffered – the clearest precursor to future violence.

Ironically, much of the violence is tied to the fact that, despite extensive police efforts, many young people do not feel safe and carry weapons as a form of protection, leading to even more violence. Intensive police harassment of these young people is more likely to breed resentment, in communities where mistrust of the police is already rampant, rather than cultivate a sense of safety.

Even if such police suppression efforts were to be successful, they come with significant negative collateral consequences. Young people caught up in the courts and jails face very poor prospects. They are more likely to be further removed from education and work and have much higher rates of future offending.

Here in the US, many communities are turning away from a police-led strategy and are embracing public health and community-based initiatives that work with young people from a space of mutual respect and care rather than harassment and criminalisation. A recent study in New York City showed that neighbourhoods with well-funded community anti-violence efforts had dramatically greater reductions in gun violence than similar neighbourhoods without such services. These so called “cure violence” programs work directly with young people at risk of carrying, using, or being shot by guns. Outreach workers come from the community and are known to these young people and thus act as “credible messengers” for their calls to end the violence. Young people are also offered trauma counselling and employment schemes.

The UK has similar initiatives. The 4Front Project in London works with young people in distressed communities, where knife crimes occur, to break the cycle of trauma and violence and give kids a hand up rather than criminalise them.

These kinds of programs are not a cure all. Ultimately, we need to address the structural forces that produce the entrenched, racialised poverty, insecurity, and hopelessness that drive street violence. One thing we know, however, is that turning the problem over to the “thin blue line” is not the solution. Bringing back “stop and search,” utilising high tech “predictive policing” systems, and creating aggressive knife crime units continues the logic that the solution to community problems is coercive and punitive state power.

There are alternatives.

Alex S. Vitale is Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College in New York City. He is also the author of The End of Policing from Verso Press.

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