Backgrounder: Redefining the ‘thin blue line’

June 15, 2015

“In a recent Quinnipiac poll of New York City voters, 61 percent of black respondents said they wanted the police to actively enforce quality-of-life laws in their neighborhood, compared with 59 percent of white voters.” —Heather Mac Donald in the June 14 Wall Street Journal

For immediate release (645 words).

by Joe Squadrito

Before we let the media redefine what it means to be a police officer, it would be wise to explore the word’s origin. The modern word “police” is based on the French word “policia.” It was a Latin term used by the Romans during their occupation of Western Europe. The meaning, regardless of origin or age, is the same: “the power of the people.”

Police then and now were empowered to enforce the rules of society and to protect lives and property. It is important to note that the police were empowered to enforce the rules of the people whom they served and not the rules that police themselves might contrive. If there were no rule or law in a particular case, then there was no violation.

Indeed, throughout the history of policing it has been true that where society is corrupt in one form or another so are the police, and in that order. Today in America, the problem is not corruption as it is found in large parts of the world but allegations of police misconduct in the form of excessive force.

On that point, U.S. police administrators do everything within their means to ensure that only the best applicants are selected for recruit training; it would be counterproductive to do otherwise. Applicants are screened psychologically, academically and physically.

Nationally the statistics vary, but on average only one in every 100 applicants passes the initial set of police examinations. There are background investigations and oral interviews, polygraph screening and, of course, months of make-or-break training followed by probationary periods of up to 18 months in some jurisdictions.

In spite of all this, recruiting errors occur and police administrators must deal with them straightaway. Remember that when police officers are recruited, there’s only one pool of applicants from whom to draw — the human race with all of its shortcomings.

I spent 12 years as an Inspector of Police in Internal Affairs and can say that neither my superiors nor subordinates would tolerate police misconduct. They dealt with it promptly on all levels. In fact, statistics released in the last decade show that only .1 percent of police officers violate their code of conduct — a better record than clergy and many other professions that must meet the expectations of public trust.

For police officers, that expectation is complicated by the fact that they are the only uniformed representatives of government in a constitutional republic. They are the venting points for society’s general and specific grievances. And as a first-responder, the uniformed officer has to deal with chaos and tragedy that in itself subjects him or her to criticism and second guessing.

For almost a year now, we have seen individual police officers criticized for excessive force or overreaction in certain situations. Some of the same critics voice concern over police inaction in other situations. More citizens are capturing police-involved incidents with their cell-phone cameras, and there are demands that police wear body cameras (a dream come true for both the broadcast media and the defense bar).

Just where will all this take us as a society? Where does the media attention to allegations of racism and a robo-cop mentality merge with reality?

I have no answer. Ultimately, though, you should hope that any new definition of “police,” however complicated by the demands of the job today, is based on an oath to serve the “power of the people.” For how we are policed, and what reforms if any are necessary, is not a determination that should be made in haste or out of political expediency.

Rather, the future of the “thin blue line,” the emblem that President Franklin Roosevelt used to characterize the police and its protective relationship with the citizenry, should be defined by the needs of our society and its broadest well-being — not the self-serving interests of any one individual or group.

Joseph M. Squadrito, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is retired from the Allen County Sheriff’s Department. Squadrito served with the department for 33 years, rising through the ranks before serving two terms as sheriff. He is a graduate of the charter class of the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, F.B.I. National Academy, the United States Secret Service Academy and the Southern Police Institute.



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