Thin blue line

Thin Blue Line

I’ve seen a number of these images over the last few weeks, including some on motorcyclists on Anticosti Island and on this truck pictured here.

As Wikipedia says,

The “thin blue line” is a term that typically refers to the concept of the police as the line which keeps society from descending into violent chaos. The “blue” in “thin blue line” refers to the blue color of the uniforms of many police departments.

Over the last few years, however, it has come to symbolize more than that. There have been numerous instances of police misconduct, ranging from planting evidence to abuse to outright killing. These attacks have been disproportionately focused on people of colour, and so in the eyes of some the thin blue like has also come to represent the role of the police in the promotion of white supremacy.

I would hope that the instances I’ve seen here in Canada do not represent that sentiment. It’s hard to say, especially with the rise of pro-Nazi sympathies in this country (as across the western world). I’m going to assume that it doesn’t, at least for the purposes of this commentary. And I’m going to express the hope that Canadian police by and large are dedicated to addressing these issues.

And this takes me to the point of this post: addressing the concept of the ‘thin blue line’ directly. And I think it needs addressing, because it’s dangerously misconstrued. It presumes that the enforcement branch of society – specifically, the police – is the only thing standing between civilized society and chaos.

It’s just not true. It’s not true in the sense that the police are not sufficient to play that role, and it’s not true in the sense that (in most cases) the police are not necessary to fulfill that role.

That the police are not sufficient, I think, should be evident from the failure of police states and the failure of unpopular laws. If the population as a whole is not in favour of what the police represent, then the police cannot be successful. In other words, the police plays a role in preventing the ‘descent into chaos’ only if that’s what people actually want.

It’s harder to show that the police are not necessary because we are so focused on the extreme cases where, demonstrably, they are. We hear of crimes and violence every day, and assume that the police are therefore necessary. But these cases are the exceptions, and represent a tiny fraction of actual police involvements with the public.

Mostly, people are peaceful. This is especially the case when people are prosperous, and when people feel that society is fair and just. In most rural places I’ve ever lived, the police were always miles away. On Anticosti Island, there are no police – they only visit once in a while. Sure, there are many specific cases where policing is required – where there are crowds, for example, or crowding (as on roads), or drunkenness, or things like poverty and injustice (where police play the dubious role of preserving the conditions of poverty and injustice while trying to curtail the worst excesses).

This isn’t an argument to ‘defund the police’ or any such thing. That’s just an argument based on accounting, and I don’t really care how we allocate the costs and the spending. It’s an argument addressing attitudes and beliefs about policing.

And the first is, as suggested above, that the police should not be thought of as separate from society. I know it’s easy for people to feel that way, both inside and outside the police. But police and society cannot operate separately. Police must be, and be seen to be, part of the community. This means society needs to find ways to reduce the need for police enforcement, and police need to find ways to protect without needing to resort enforcement. This is what lies behind initiatives like community policing, diversity and inclusion in recruitment, conflict resolution and de-escalation training, and the like.

And second, society needs to find ways to reduce the need for policing. It needs to reduce unfairness and injustice, and to foster equity and inclusion. This isn’t just about reducing racism and violence against minorities (though it certainly includes that): it means addressing things like health (especially mental health) and poverty, it means reducing (and ideally eliminating) the influence of wealth in the social, economic and legal system, and it means aligning the law to not only reflect broad social values but also to protect social outliers.

Right now, when someone displays the ‘thin blue line’ graphic, it feels like they oppose all of this, that they don’t care about unfairness, injustice, racism and violence, that instead they see themselves as living in a world where those things prevail, and are the natural state of things. And if that’s what they believe is normal, that’s what they will produce.

But there is no ‘natural’ state of things. Society is whatever we make it. And I’d rather see police as being on the side of peace, equity and justice, not as a thin blue line, but as a big broad rainbow.

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