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Police and the American Mind

The only way to really make sense of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, is to understand two concepts. The first is that police believe themselves to be the thin blue line that stands between civilization and chaos. And the second is the “broken windows” theory of policing.

The “Thin Blue Line” is a common colloquialism for the police, but it’s more than that. It’s the way that the police, and many people in society, particularly conservatives, view law enforcement. Law enforcement is all that stands between civilization and chaos, the police are the Thin Blue Line that protects society from anarchy.

The “broken windows” theory was developed in the early 1980s by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, who found that crime exists in every human society, but crime rates are higher where there are other signs of social disorder. In areas where there are broken windows, for example, there’s a sense that no one cares about the physical infrastructure of society, and that lack of concern trickles up. Vandals break more windows, then maybe break into the building, possibly even burn it down. These little crimes go unreported and unpunished, and so more crimes occur. The result is that there is not only more petty crime in dilapidated areas, but more serious crime. So Wilson and Kelling said that society should spend more time on the small stuff. Fix the windows, scatter the panhandlers, arrest the turnstile jumpers. Deal with the low-level crimes and the more serious crimes will come down.

The police in New York City began to take this approach in the mid-1980s. They went after graffiti artists, panhandlers, toll jumpers and the like, and instituted a zero-tolerance approach to most petty crime. As a result, crime came down, and in some cases significantly. Times Square went from a mecca of porn theaters, prostitutes and drug dealers to a tourist haven. Based on this success, the broken-windows concept spread across the country. Police began to see low-level crime as the first sign of anarchy, a potential the crack in the dike that protects civilization from a flood of crime. Petty criminals aren’t just sad sacks filching cigarettes, they’re the advance guard of social decay.

You can see this theory at work when you watch the video of five police officers confronting, taking down and killing Eric Garner. To those of us watching the video, Garner’s only crime was selling loose cigarettes. But to the police he wasn’t just some petty criminal, he was a broken window, the first sign of anarchy. And anarchy must be confronted with a phalanx of officers.

Read Officer Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony about his confrontation with Michael Brown: Brown wasn’t some kid who may have snatched a handful of cigars from a convenience store. He was a “demon.” And Officer Wilson knew in his bones that he was all that stood between that “demon” and civilized society. And so he acted accordingly.

The view of the police as the thin blue line between chaos and civilization permeates our society. Flip on your TV and watch “NCIS,” “Bones,” “Criminal Minds,” or reruns of “Law and Order.” What these shows all have in common (beyond wooden acting and a high body count) is the view-point that law enforcement is all that stands between civilized society and a wave of crime.

Local news is dominated by fires, car wrecks and crimes. And in virtually every news story there are lots of flashing lights and at least a few police officers trying to repair one of the cracks in society.

We have all internalized this idea. So have the citizens who sit on grand juries. They know that the police are the thin blue line. And even if they don’t think about it in those terms, a district attorney or county prosecutor is there to remind them. The prosecutor may say something like: “Those officers put their lives on the line every day protecting you and me. They need tools to deal with dangerous situations and dangerous people. And they need to be afforded the discretion to deal with those dangerous situations.” So the grand jury grants them that discretion. They afford them the leeway to protect society, which means that they weigh the situation, the deadly encounter, in favor of the police officer and against a potentially dangerous person. The result is that Officer Wilson in Missouri, and Officer Daniel Panteleo in Staten Island, New York, are not charged.

Many people see this and say that it is racism. And so the thin blue line intersects racial lines. There is no denying that black Americans are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites. Blacks make up about 12 percent of the population, but account for roughly 37 percent of the prison population. So on first blush it appears that blacks may be more prone to crime than whites. But if you cut the numbers differently and correct for wealth and poverty, the numbers equalize somewhat. This plays out across all crimes, but is seen most clearly with drug crimes. While five times as many whites use drugs as blacks, according to a NAACP report, African Americans are incarcerated at ten times the rate as whites. And while the violent crime rate is much higher overall for blacks than whites, it is similar for blacks and whites of similar socio-economic levels. So crime is largely a product of poverty not race. This leads back to the broken-windows theory. Poor neighborhoods are often dilapidated, and there is a good deal of petty crime. And so while blacks are no more likely to use drugs or commit crimes than whites, they are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods, and so are treated based on the broken-windows theory and punished harshly.

The result is the perception, based on arrest and incarceration rates, that blacks commit more crimes than whites. Police deal with this on a regular basis. They see the broken windows and the petty crime of poor black neighborhoods, they know the “broken-windows” theory of criminology, and they put two and two together. So when they see a black guy on the street potentially engaged in a petty crime, they don’t really see Michael Brown, they see a representative from the world of broken windows. They think they’re being even handed, but their vision is obscured by facile theories about broken windows and clichés about thin blue lines.

And so when the police, and conservative commentators, see people protesting events in Ferguson or Staten Island, they see a number of things. First, they see the police as being unfairly accused of racism. But more importantly they see a direct challenge to how the police do their job, about how they protect civil society. The protestors are questioning how the police man the ramparts, how they patrol streets fraught with chaos. The police, and their supporters, don’t see protestors raising legitimate concerns about how to protect society; they see people who are naïve to the dangers that face society. They see the protestors as deluded about the steps necessary to keep anarchy at bay, and trying to fray the fabric of the thin blue line. And so conservative commentators respond with outrage, and the police respond in riot gear.

Michael Coblenz is an attorney in Lexington, Kentucky, and was briefly a Democratic candidate for Congress.

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