Former Prosecutor. Powerful Defense Advocate. Certified in the Area of Criminal Law

Why the “Thin Blue Line” Needs to be Erased but Police as a Whole Deserve More Love than They are Getting these Days

There’s been a lot of talk recently about police brutality and excessive force. On extreme fringe number one is the “Thin Blue Line” “Back the Badge” “A few bad apples exist in every profession” people. On extreme fringe number two are the “Burn it all down” “There is no such good thing as a good cop” “Abolish the police” people.

If you are on one of the above fringes you aren’t going to like this post. I’ve spent more than a decade in the criminal justice system, on both sides of law enforcement, watching this issue play out every day. Neither of those sides is correct.

There is a question that has been asked recently that had not been heard for a very long time in the United States. That question is: Would we be better off without the police?

The short answer is “No.” We need the police to keep order. But the total abolition of the police isn’t the only option. To see what other options might be available we need to first ask a few hard questions about all of our relationships to the police:

  • Are all police officers good?
  • Are all police officers bad?
  • Do the good police officers outnumber the bad police officers?
  • Can good police officers and bad police officers both exist at the same time in the same department?
  • Are these the right questions to be asking?”

The answer to the first question is obvious. No, not all police officers are good. Putting on a badge and a gun does not magically transform every newly minted officer into a paragon of virtue. Some police officers are blatantly bad guys. Individual police officers in the United States have been convicted of violating just about every law there is on the books including possession of child pornography, murder, rape, using drugs, selling drugs, child abuse, spousal abuse, and just about any other crime that can be committed by someone in their position. ((I’ve only listed a handful of crimes I personally know that law enforcement officers have been convicted of during my career)).

Mostly what we are talking about, however, when we talk about “bad cops” are police officers who do bad things while on the job. The two major offenses in this category are falsifying evidence and using excessive force. I can say with 100 percent certainty, that individual members of my local police force are guilty of doing both of those things. It happens. There is no reasonable debate on the subject.

Are all officers bad? The answer to this question might at first appear to just as obviously be “no” but it isn’t that simple. Do all police officers falsify evidence and use excessive force? No, they do not. But there are three other areas that need to be discussed:

  • Question 1: Can good police exist if they must enforce bad laws?
  • Question 2: Can good police exist if they must act as the enforcement wing of a bad system?
  • Question 3: Can good police exist if they don’t root out all of the bad police?

Question 1: Can good police exist if they must enforce bad laws?

Not everyone agrees that we have any bad laws today, but just about everyone understands that bad laws can exist. Many people, myself included, believe that our anti-drug-user laws are bad laws because the government has no business criminally enforcing its beliefs about what substances you should or shouldn’t put into your own body. If you don’t agree that those laws are bad, perhaps you might agree that the laws making it a crime to be outside while not wearing a mask during the current Covid-19 crisis are bad laws. For the sake of simplicity, let's take as our example the very old laws that made it a crime to aid fugitive slaves in the pre-Civil War United States. Just about everyone agrees that these were bad laws. Did the existence of these bad laws, which police officers were duty-bound to enforce, mean that all of the police officers in that era were “bad cops.”

I think reasonable people can disagree about the answer to that last question. On balance I am going to say “no.” I believe that police are a necessary part of modern life. It is true that a professional police force has only existed for a relatively small amount of human history. What must be remembered, however, is that for most of human history people lived in small and tight-knit communities. In such communities keeping the peace could be everyone’s responsibility. Once you graduate, however, to large cities, where most people do not know, or even recognize, most of the people who even live on their own street, a professional peacekeeping force is needed. If you don’t have police, then crime will become rampant, or worse, crime will consolidate into factions of warlords who will collect protection money to do the job that public servants should do. This is what you see in much of the third world where professional police don’t exist. Did the police of the slave era arrest good men and women for breaking an unjust law? Yes, they did. They also arrested rapists, murderers, and thieves. In fact, they spent much more of their time keeping the peace, than they ever did enforce the unjust laws. I think that modern police are in the same situation. Unfortunately, if a young man or woman wants to serve and protect, they are forced to arrest people for things that should not be crimes. But the job of serving and protecting must be done. When one weighs the harm of enforcing bad laws against the good of ensuring the protection of good laws, I think that the balance falls on the side of good. This isn’t a clear-cut philosophical landslide by any means. Since the time of the Nazis, the coward's refrain of “I was just following orders” has been rightly decried as no good defense. That being said, the police don’t make the laws, and if they wish to do the good work that most of them became police officers to do, they are forced to accept the necessity of also enforcing drug laws and other oppressive laws that they may not like. Yes, they could choose to simply not work as police, but if someone doesn’t do that job society will be in serious trouble. The blame for bad laws really should be placed where it belongs, on you. That is to say, the blame belongs to you, and me, and everyone else who makes up an electorate who puts the lawmakers into office and doesn’t demand that they pass good laws so that the police can do good work enforcing them.

Question 2: Can good police exist if they must act as the enforcement wing of a bad system?

Many people believe that the whole structure of our society is wrong. They make some very good points. They point out that a shockingly small number of super-rich individuals control a shockingly large percentage of all wealth, while an embarrassingly large percentage of the rest of the United States (to say nothing of the human race at large) lives in relative poverty, forced to work themselves to death without ever receiving the enrichment of education, or the chance to see much more of the world than the hundred miles or so surrounding their place of birth.

It has been pointed out, correctly, that our system is biassed against women, and minorities, and the disabled, in ways that it does not need to be, but chooses to be out of cruelty and avarice. These modern philosophers point out, finally, that the police are appointed by politicians, who are selected in elections that are controlled by the media, which has been bought and paid for by the rich. Police thus serve as the “attack dogs” of the rich, keeping poor people from taking that which is rightfully theirs. In such a system all cops are bad cops.

I do not agree.

I do agree that wealth inequality is shameful and that we as a society have the power and duty to redistribute wealth, by force if necessary. That is because so much of the hoarded wealth of the super-rich is created by our laws. Laws such as Copywrite, and public services like roads, and electricity, and yes even police, make it possible for wealth to be created in the first place. The myth of the self-made man is simply that, a myth.

This post is too small for the hundreds if not thousands of pages necessary to properly explain the systematic differences of pure capitalism (which we have not practiced in a hundred years) pure communism (which we would never practice) and democratic socialism (which has a large range between these points, and whose place on this range makes up the entirety of modern economic theory debates.

What I will say is that the political and economic systems that are put in place in the United States are not the fault of the police. Once again, they are your fault. By which, once again, I mean they are the fault of the electorate and the representatives we put in place to make laws. Besides this point, even if one were to believe that we existed in a terrible system, it would be worse still if on top of the tyranny of the rich we were exposed simultaneously to the tyranny of organized crime, which would quickly rise up in the absence of law enforcement.

Question 3: Can good police exist if they don’t root out all of the bad police?

This is the 100-ton Godzilla in the room. Every police officer sees it. Every prosecutor sees it. Every judge sees it. None of them talk about it. They all know that “good cops” (those who don’t lie about evidence or beat people unnecessarily) regularly lie to protect “bad cops” (those who do). This is why people like me hate phrases like “the thin blue line” or “back the badge” or “I’ve got your six.” Sayings like that among police officers, to say nothing of their fawning fanboys and fangirls, project an absolutist attitude that every person is either “with” the police, meaning every single officer, in every single instance, all the time, or they are the enemy. That is sickening. It is sickening first because the duty of citizens to criticize the government when the government is wrong, is amongst the most “American” of ideals. It is sickening second because statements like this project that the police see a significant part of society as their “enemy.” They regard themselves as an “occupying force” keeping the peace among savages. This is a betrayal of the role that a police officer should have, as a public servant.

This is sickening, finally, because this kind of rhetoric creates a sense that members of the police department need to “protect their own” whether “their own” are right or wrong.

It is no longer an open question whether other police officers have lied to protect bad cops. They have. They do. No reasonable person really believes that it is a coincidence that the rise of cheap commonly available recoding equipment in the modern age, just happens to have arrived at the same time when police misconduct cases skyrocketed. The misconduct was always there, what has changed is that people can prove it now. The more shocking truth is that what this inconvertibly shows is that for generations the only people who could have proved that police officers were breaking the law prior to cheap commonly available recording equipment, chose to lie to protect their own instead.

I feel the need to linger on this point for a moment because it is devastating. Thousands and thousands of complaints of police misconduct have been made for generations, and they’ve all been ignored because, given the choice between trusting the police, especially when there was more than one officer on the scene, and trusting the defendant, who had a motive to lie, we have always done the rational thing and chosen the police. Today we know, we KNOW that many of those allegations were true, and we KNOW that police officers who had “done nothing wrong” lied to protect those who did. This is, by far, the most far-reaching, damning accusation that must be made against police in the United States, and the accusation is this: The SYSTEM of policing we have, the CULTURE, of policing we have, has for generations made good people act badly. Good officers chose not to come forward against bad ones because they knew that the culture was toxic, and they cared more, reasonably perhaps, about continuing to do good in their job, than turning in the “bad apples” they knew existed. This is the best argument, by far, for there is no such thing as a good cop.

Do I believe that this should lead to a blanket condemnation of all police officers everywhere? No, I do not. I do think we need to blanketly condemn the culture of “us vs. them” and “The thin blue line” that have infected police departments like a virus. There are certain symbols that, like the swastika or the KKK hood, need to be banned from police uniforms and workplaces, and the thin blue line should be the first thing to go. But finding out that the group culture is bad is not the same thing as finding out that all of the individuals who make up the group are bad, or that they all need to be replaced.

What can be done to fix police culture? We’ll talk more about that in our next blog post: Why “Defunding the Police” is the most Pro-Police Stance out there.”