The Thin Blue Line Versus Data

“The thin blue line’ is a phrase that refers figuratively to the position of police in society as the force which holds back chaos,” says Wikipedia. However you define it, Thin Blue Line ideology serves some as a symbolic tribute to the righteousness of police violence, though it’s not given what the blue line means to any single person. Individual police officers or departments may display blue line symbols openly, on cars or uniforms, while other departments have had the foresight to ban their officers from any professional association.  

The thin blue line has acquired a particular importance in public conversations over the past five years due to the way it informs public and self perceptions of police. On one hand, the blue line postures police as the “force which holds back chaos,” though, by a different telling, it describes police as terrorist occupiers protecting a corrupt elite. Both views are invested in the veracity of their account, and tensions are rising. Meanwhile, corporate media gridlocks public conversation, with “objective” testaments of faith – Tucker Carlson with facts, for example – as if it’s their duty to build a bridge over the most obvious truths.

Fortunately, we have new press armed with comprehensive data on fatal police shootings all the way back to 2015, thanks to the Washington Post’s Police Shootingsdatabase. Those data provide clear insights into the social impacts of Blue Line Warrior Bullshit, which is what I’m calling the dogmatic militarization of heart and soul that’s swept our forces. 

The black line on the graphic above shows the real count of people shot and killed by police, from 1-JAN-2015 to 31-DEC-2019. The blue line shows the real count of people shot and killed by police during the same period though in circumstances where their “threat level” was recorded as an “attack.” For those unfamiliar with the Police Shootings database, “threat level” is a variable with possible values of “attack,” “other” and “undetermined.” 

There are two major takeaways from this graph. First, the police kill-rate held steady through years when police were ostensibly self-reforming in response to the social unrest that followed hundreds of high profile murders by police, see Freddy Gray, Zachary Hammond and Philando Castile. Second, about a third of those shot and killed by police were shot and killed in circumstances that could not be recorded as an “attack” on officers or bystanders.

The value that Blue Line Warriors provide society, by their own telling, is that their violence holds back an otherwise impending force that threatens to “disorder” society. The credibility of that telling is challenged by the fact that it’s not at all clear that restricting the use of nonlethal and deadly force, with a requirement of objective necessity for instance, would impose a social cost greater than 330 human lives per year. That’s not even considering the weight of those unfairly maimed, beaten and caged by wanton police violence. It’s really, if we’re honest about what’s true and reasonable, quite completely insane to entertain the validity of Blue Line ideology against a backdrop of structured economic and political inequality and racism. 

Furthermore, despite resounding democratic disapproval, we remain committed to the catastrophic embarrassment known as the Global War on Terror. Terrorism defies universal definition because it is, in fact, an arbitrary designation used to sort violence into groups of good and bad, though its use in practice is mostly to make violence good. Because when has it ever been hard to sell violence as bad? But even without a universal definition, most security professionals would accept that terrorism is the illegal use, or threatened use, of violence for ideological, political purposes. The police should have been paying better attention to this. By carelessly combining Thin Blue Line ideology with brazen displays of illegal violence at protest sites, the Blue Line Warriors have unwittingly postured themselves as literal terrorists by the terms of their own vernacular. This is not a bombastic claim. If words, such as “terrorism,” have real and consistent meanings, and if the rule of law is firm, the police I saw in May and June, 2020 are literal terrorists. The data rejects claims to the contrary. Ideologically motivated political violence by police is well documented, and a steady kill-rate has been sustained since comprehensive data collection began.

While many “experts” claim we don’t have enough data to properly understand police violence, it is our position at new press that we have too much data to ignore the story it tells, plain as day. It’s a story of criminal terrorists operating under the cover of law, in the unconstitutional, fascist system of Surveillance Capitalism. Luckily, practical solutions to police violence are simple and obvious. Criminal liability for any use of force outside of what’s an objective necessity, as per any regular citizen would expect in a defense scenario. This shouldn’t be a problem. Police should own and carry the risk of policing. But then we can’t leave them hanging when they’re working in good faith and things go south at the intersection of high-stakes and ambiguity, which is inevitable given high rates of gun ownership. To make it work, however, we also need structural deescalation to make law enforcement transactions more palatable, to de-incentivize resistance. That means clearing prisons of drug and non-violent offenders, outlawing profit-motivated policing and passing economic reforms. But first things first, we must limit police use of force to what’s objectively necessary, NOW!!! We’re on the street until it’s done. 

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