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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Thin lines: You're doing it wrong.

During the Crimean War, on October 25, 1854, 'wayyyyy out on the southwestern tip of the Crimean Peninsula, the British Army had a little fight on their hands. Pulling back repeatedly, the Brits held the port of Balaclava, but their forces were meager, and they were in no state to fight.

Placed in charge of the port's security was the 93rd Highland Regiment, with some help from the Royal Marines. They were In Grave Trouble. The Russian forces were coming hard and fast, and vastly outnumbered the British defense force. The Brits had already pulled back, spiking their guns before the oncoming Cossacks, and now found themselves with nothing behind them but Balaclava and the cold Black Sea, as a force of 2500 Russian cavalry advanced hard upon them.

Sir Colin Campbell, a man who thought of his men like family, spread his forces in a line two deep, between the oncoming Russian mounted force and the port that they were charged with defending. He told them that there was no retreat. He told them that they would die where they stood, if need be. The message was clear: hold the line.

Now, standard doctrine would be to place the men four deep, so that there was some redundancy. But Campbell didn't haven many men (a bare few hundred), and if he were to put up a proper defensive line without being flanked immediately, he had to spread them thinner. If any man fell, or ran away, he left a hole in the line that would allow the oncoming cavalry to penetrate the line and overwhelm his comrades. They depended on each other to each do his own part, to prevent the enemy from overrunning the port.

The men held. They fired three volleys at the fast-moving Russian cavalry. British Journalist William H. Russell, watching from a nearby high point, later wrote that the only thing between Balaclava and the rapidly-approaching Russian cavalry was "a thin red streak tipped with a line of steel," meaning the 93rd Regiment (wearing the red uniform jackets of the era).

The Russians checked their charge, and turned back. Some have said that they thought that it must be a trap, because their apparent opposition was so thin. Others have claimed that the fierce fighting of the 93rd stopped them. The truth probably falls somewhere in between, but it is clear that without the courage of the men to stand their ground and fight, maintaining their Thin Red Line, they would not have carried the day.

The term "Thin Red Line" took on the meaning of that vastly-important role that sheer grit and determination, even when unsupported by much tangible substance, plays in preventing civility from being overrun by the barbarians at the gate.

The term was, at some time in the late 20th century, applied to the force of police officers who serve to prevent crime and anarchy in our society. As the police traditionally wear blue, this application of the term became known as "The Thin Blue Line."

All well and good. I like the concept. Often our job, as police officers serving our society, is simply to patrol, and be seen, and stand by, being ready, should it come to it, to intervene. It is appropriate that in a free society the line of police be thin, as this is not a police state. The important thing is not to let your society down, by letting the "fight" against crime and anarchy go unserved. Skip patrols, fail to perform investigations and make important arrests, and the line is broken; the criminals break through, and society can become overrun. We are there to protect our society.

But it's true that among society are an officer's fellow police officers. If police fail to take action against dangerous criminals, then it is certainly true that they put their fellow officers at greater risk. To that extent, the concept of the Thin Blue Line also means protecting your fellow police.

THE "THIN BLUE LINE" DOES NOT MEAN THAT WE COVER UP FOR EACH OTHER.

There seems to be a fairly common public perception that "The Thin Blue Line" is a code of protection at all costs, by the police and for the police. This perception often seems to include the belief that most if not all officers are wrapped up in a cult-like fraternity that demands allegiance to the badge at all costs, which includes lying for a "brother officer," or tampering with evidence, to prevent other officers getting in trouble.

That's not the case.

An officer who knowingly breaks the law is not a police officer; he's a criminal who happens to have a badge. He's not my "brother," he's someone that we need to get shed of our professional association. The Thin Blue Line concept doesn't mean that I should protect a criminal officer; it means that I should take firm action against him.

If you're a cop, and you've been putting "Thin Blue Line" decals on your car, or images up on your website, or tattoos on your arm, or pins on your lapel, or whatever, consider what the meaning is for you, and what meaning the public at large thinks you're portraying.

While I do very much enjoy the camaraderie of my friends (and family) among the the law enforcement community, I'm not willing to let myself be thought of as a intimidating others with my status, or as someone who's trying to be excused from a personal responsibility to abide by the law.

If you're using the term "Thin Blue Line" to mean a code of covert mutual protection among the law enforcement community, I submit that "You keep using that term. I do not think it means what you think it means."

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21 Comments:

At Wednesday, November 10, 2010 2:49:00 PM, Blogger Michael W. said...

Good Post!

Small typo however, The French and Turks were allies of the British, but I dare say that good old Tommy Adkins would have rather not had such allies.

 
At Wednesday, November 10, 2010 3:30:00 PM, Blogger Matt G said...

Embarrassing typo. Corrected. Thanks.

 
At Wednesday, November 10, 2010 4:07:00 PM, Blogger Old NFO said...

The Thin Blue Line, to me, means those dedicated officers who are the ones standing between us and anarchy... Not as a CYA for other officers...

 
At Wednesday, November 10, 2010 4:11:00 PM, Blogger Laughingdog said...

"An officer who knowingly breaks the law is not a police officer; he's a criminal who happens to have a badge. He's not my "brother," "

That may apply where you live. But that is clearly not the widespread attitude in the cities on the coasts, or really the major cities anywhere in the country. The attitude of my local department after the Ryan Frederick case, or the constant behaviour of the police in Prince George County in Maryland, or DC, or Chicago, etc., etc. shows how many departments have the attitude that police should not have to suffer consequences for misbehaviour. It's not THAT some do bad things. They're human, and humans can be stupid. It's that their supervision is so prone to sweep it under the rug. It's like they see themselves as soldiers in some war against the rest of us, and have to maintain their "Band of Brothers".

This, above all other things, is why I generally expect the best, until proven otherwise, from rural police, but have the exact opposite expectation from urban police. Oh, and based exclusively on your comments at other sites, I'd be very surprised if you actually work in a major city. You strike me much more as the "officer of the peace" type than the "law enforcement officer".

 
At Wednesday, November 10, 2010 5:36:00 PM, Blogger Matt G said...

Heh. LaughingDog, I've worked my entire career in rural law enforcement. But I know some urban cops who feel as I do on this issue. :)

 
At Thursday, November 11, 2010 2:29:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

I have a lot of respect for your definition, for you, and for any cop who lives by the law. The line between civilization and the barbarians is indeed perilously thin.

Trouble is, in the places where we civilians tend to live, the barbarians are as likely as not to have badges, and we now live in a world where anyone who isn't a member of a riot-prone Designated Victim cohort can be abused at will, without any consequences falling on the abuser, and if we try to resist, we are lumped in with the criminals.

To those who don't wear a badge, "blue line" references are a reference to the fact that we live effectively under siege. If one of the besiegers kills one of us, he will most likely experience a temporary loss of pay, while if we so much as run away from one of them, we will be hunted down like rabid dogs. And if one of them commits an atrocity upon one of us, even his honest brethren will generally not so much as speak against him in public, for fear of being cast out of the pack and into the world the rest of us have to live in.

If you want it to return to its original meaning, the line between civilization and the barbarians, I support you. But for now, it's worth remembering what it _does_ mean in contemporary language.

 
At Thursday, November 11, 2010 4:14:00 PM, Anonymous TJIC said...

Great post, Matt!

Just the other day I walked past a car with a TBL sticker, and I turned to a friend and said "it almost makes me want to print up red bumper stickers that say 'men of honor neither ask for nor accept special privileges', and then people could stick them over TBL stickers".

I'm thrilled to come across a police officer who feels the same way I do.

I've got a family member who was a chief of police and who talked about "professional courtesy" and "police privilege". It wasn't my place to pick a fight in the family with a member of an different generation, but I was always appalled that he acted that way, and - PERHAPS WORSE YET - that he thought nothing of bragging about it.

 
At Friday, November 12, 2010 2:45:00 PM, Anonymous That one chick said...

Name any job, just one single job, where there are not sh*tbirds. Teacher? Retailer? Congressman? Nurse?

I get damn tired of those who do not have the balls to serve being the high and mighty judge of those who do.

If a person's area is so bad, go get hired and make a difference. But I seriously doubt anybody will. It's much easier to sit in the comfort of an easy chair and denigrate others, rather than "being the change you want to see".

Grrrrr.

 
At Friday, November 12, 2010 3:04:00 PM, Anonymous That one chick said...

Never mind... belay my last. I shouldn't have gotten bitchy. ;) It's just one of those things that annoys me. For the record, I hate officers who barter their integrity. I just happen to think they are few and far between.

K, could you delete all these :)

 
At Saturday, November 13, 2010 8:28:00 AM, Blogger Farm.Dad said...

Well said my friend .

 
At Saturday, November 13, 2010 8:06:00 PM, Blogger Tam said...

TJIC,

"I've got a family member who was a chief of police and who talked about "professional courtesy" and "police privilege"."

MattG's dad had the bestest line ever when he said "'Professional Courtesy' would be not breaking the law in my jurisdiction." :)

 
At Sunday, November 14, 2010 7:30:00 PM, Blogger Justthisguy said...

Oh, man, there is so much to write and think about, here.

To start with, I have just cued up "The Thin Red Line" on my Kenneth Alford CD, and set it on endless repeat, just to keep my mind right.

I will now quote from Cecil Woodham-Smith's book, "The Reason Why."

" Lying helpless under artillery fire is notoriously a strain, and at this moment the four squadrons came into view,bearing rapidly down from the Causeway Heights, while behind them, just becoming visible, was the main body of the Russian cavalry. The sight was once more too much for the Turks; they leapt to their feet, and officers and men fled for the port, again crying "Ship! ship! ship!." As they passed the camp of the Highlanders, a soldier's wife rushed out and fell upon them, belabouring them with a stick, kicking them,cursing them for cowards,pulling their hair, and boxing their ears, and so pursued them down to the harbour."

 
At Sunday, November 14, 2010 7:37:00 PM, Blogger Justthisguy said...

Oh, there's more:

"To the Russian cavalry as they came on, the hillock appeared unoccupied, when suddenly, as if out of the earth, there sprang up a line two deep of Highlanders in red coats-- the line immortalised in British history as "the thin red line." Every man in that line expected to be killed and, determined to sell his life as dearly as possible, faced the enemy with stern steadiness."

 
At Sunday, November 14, 2010 7:41:00 PM, Blogger Justthisguy said...

P.s. My cat's previous human, a very nice old lady who poured excellent whisky, had a grandfather in the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava. He was in the Blues, I believe. Family tradition had it that he was never the same afterwards, his health having been destroyed by the bad sanitation then and there.

 
At Sunday, November 14, 2010 7:58:00 PM, Blogger Justthisguy said...

I think of that book, "Murder in Coweta County." A guy ran away from a badly-and-criminally governed county into Coweta County, whose Sheriff was famously an absolutely straight arrow. The guy was murdered in Coweta county by buddies of the Bad Sheriff, but the Straight-Arrow Sheriff did not rest until justice was done.

The Coweta County Sheriff (I wish I remembered his name) was famous for having so much moral authority as to induce a guilty conscience in people who didn't even think they *had* a conscience. When he died, his funeral was attended by some guys he had sent to prison, who wept like babies.

 
At Monday, November 15, 2010 1:55:00 AM, Blogger Justthisguy said...

I'm going to generalize, here. Every group who sets themselves apart from others claims the right to police themselves. I'm talking doctors, lawyers, cops, the ADL, politicians, women (these days), and soldiers. The only ones who are honest about policing themselve seem to be the soldiers. Everybody else just goes, "Trust us to police ourselves!" and then they don't do it.

 
At Monday, November 29, 2010 7:50:00 PM, Blogger Montie said...

Bravo, and seconded Matt.

 
At Thursday, December 30, 2010 6:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alas, the meaning of "thin blue line" that you deplore is a result of the misbehavior of officers that has not been vigorously rejected by their fellows:

The woman beaten by officers in which all 7 dash cameras on the scene had mysterious simultaneous "malfunctions".

The NY city biker assaulted by an officer and wrongfully arrested for assault and resisting arrest, in full view of another officer (the biker was saved by the citizen posted video of the incident in question).

The Ft. Wayne city policeman who, while drunk, drove around in his cruiser shooting his shotgun at car and house windows (and who got a 3 day suspension with pay for it).

The man beaten by police for at least 45 minutes in his own kitchen in an attempt to get him to confess to something he hadn't done (he was fortunate that his wife pressed the record button on the cassette player nearby).

The off duty Melbourne, FL, policeman, drag racing his Ford Probe against a Nissan 300 ZX (talk about unrealistic expectations), exceeding 100 MPH in a 45 zone, IN TOWN, who was pursued and caught by his fellow Melbourne police officers, who couldn't bring themselves to write him the ticket.

The number of cases of police illegally confiscating devices (phones and cameras) so that citizen-recorded video and photos of police misconduct can be illegally deleted (tampering with the evidence of a crime); even though the US Supreme court has already (YEARS ago) ruled that anywhere it is legal for a person to stand (in public), it is also legal to photograph/video record.

And these were just the ones I could recall immediately.

When was the last time you could have stood up for a citizen like one of the above, in defiance of your fellow officers? If the answer is never, then you must be in the perfect place to live, where there are no corrupt or abusive police. Which is fortunate for you, and the citizens in your precinct.

But it has been widely reported by honest police in anonymous postings that they know that to stand up to the abusive and corrupt police among them is to risk being without backup when they need it.

So don't blame the public for the perception we've come to about "the thin blue line", when it is so clear that our perception, while perhaps somewhat exaggerated, is all too often true, and always to OUR detriment, and never to YOURS.

 
At Friday, December 31, 2010 7:47:00 PM, Blogger Justthisguy said...

Umm, anon at Dec. 30th, I don't think MattG is the guy you should be complaining to, or about.

We need to find some way to encourage the straight-arrow LEOs when they get crossways with the bad 'uns in their trade.

If a straight arrow gets shunned by the bad 'uns for ratting one of them out, would you be willing to stand armed guard at his door while he sleeps?

 
At Friday, December 31, 2010 11:12:00 PM, Blogger Matt G said...

Hey, anonymous, if you were a regular reader, you would know that I've always invtited public scrutiny of the police, and have no problems with recording all actions of police.

There are about 600k cops in this nation. Every one of them that is busted for doing something wrong will make the news. That's just how it is. So their misdeeds will certainly be over-represented in the media. In over a decade of law enforcement, I think maybe two of the guys that I've arrested (out of HUNDREDS) have made the news for their arrests. I've arrested aggravated assaulters, robbers, rapists-- all of whom made it under the radar.

But I'll tell you-- it sure does make it discouraging to turn in a cop, in good faith, and have folks like yourself say "Aha! Yet further proof of the evil that cops do!" rather than say, "Look at that; the cops policed themselves."

 
At Friday, December 31, 2010 11:15:00 PM, Blogger Matt G said...

As I've always said: Cops have no reasonable expectation of privacy while in public on the job.

 

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