Blue Walls

It takes a thief to catch a thief…or so goes one bit of conventional wisdom.  Exactly what or, more importantly, who, it takes to catch a thief or any other criminal is one of the problems that has exercised us for centuries.  Some odd artifacts  of that search haunt us to this day.

The direct genealogy of our modern police force has its origin in a single, crime-ridden area of eighteenth century London known as Bow Street.  The old, entrepreneurial system of the ‘thieve-takers’, was recognized as incurably corrupt.  At the suggestion of his author brother Henry, John Fielding, the local magistrate, added a plain-clothed detective force reporting directly to him.

Mister Justice Fielding was one of the most fascinating characters of his era.  He became Bow Street Magistrate in 1754 and ruled there for twenty five years.  Although blind, he was said to be able to recognize half the criminals in London by voice alone.  He recruited many who, “reformed,” brought considerable practical experience of crime into his detective force.  They became known as Mr. Fielding’s People and later would gain fame as the Bow Street Runners.

By the early part of the next century, with Napoleon defeated and the Industrial Revolution throwing up more and more streets and alleys full of the dispossessed, London was much larger, much more dangerous and becoming possessed of a desire to be more respectable.

Young Victoria was not yet on the throne, but the emotions that would label the sober, middle-class London of her day as “Victorian” were already being felt.  Mr. Peel’s first Commissioners at Scotland Yard, Mr. Richard Mayne and Colonel Charles Rowan, in their class conscious way, repeated Fielding’s technique.  They did not recruit reformed criminals.  However, by recruiting ex-soldiers born in the London slums, they were culling from the “lower classes” those who had “made something of themselves.”

It was probably semi-accidental, but their recruits had an invaluable asset, one that has been at the core of effective police work ever since.  They knew (having been born into it) the world that bred London’s criminals and hid them.  They understood it, knew its rules and had invaluable contacts there.  Since no affordable police force can be everywhere, it must rely upon the public, which, by definition, is.  Those early “Peelers” demonstrated a truth that has proved universal:  A police force is precisely as effective as it is close to the community it polices.

The British served as the model, deliberately or not, for the growth of our own police.  In the West, the town marshall (again, on that “it takes a thief…”) had often been a gambler, rustler or what have you…and would be again.  But he was tough, knew his opponents and was reasonably loyal to the “brand” that paid him.  In the cities of the East, the Irish, Polish and (later) Italian slums provided the main recruiting grounds for the police.  The stereotype was the solid Irish beat cop, patrolling the neighborhoods he grew up in.

Up to a point, it worked.  Because of his network of close contacts and relationships built up over years, the old beat cop was expected to be able to name just about every one of the fairly small number of professional criminals in his turf, know where they were at any given time and make a shrewd guess as to which ones might have committed the latest crime.

So long as the crime they were expected to control stayed small and local, it worked.  So long as the amount of money involved in the crimes stayed petty and unattractive, it worked.  So long as the immigrant standards of hard work and honesty were the norm, it worked.

But, beginning in the twenties of this century right up through the Second World War, all that was to change.  Crime became networked and a criminal could graduate out of their neighborhoods into a wider world of opportunity.  As crime got more organized, it got more profitable.  Finally, as the old neighborhoods passed through their second and third generations, the old immigrant ways broke down.

The police still recruited from the old places, but the recruits themselves changed.  The neighborhoods they came from were far tougher and meaner.  The criminals were organized into gangs that enforced their own ruthless discipline.  The ablest and the toughest bought silk suits and became glamorous idols for hungry little boys.  The policemen still came from this world, were still attached to it and understood it.

[In one of those scenes that Hollywood would have trouble writing, one of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre victims, Frank Gusenberg, lived a few minutes after the police arrived.  One of them, Clarence Sweeney, cried out, “Frank, Frank!  In the name of God, what happened?” — They had grown up together.]

If the police were inclined to “sweat” the truth out of somebody in a back room with a rubber hose, both sides knew it was within the rules, even if the public didn’t.  Part of what was happening was simply that as the cities grew more brutal, so did the police.  Another part was that as the matters and people they dealt with were pushed to the extremes, they were carried along with it.  A process was starting that would have the police coming to see themselves as separated from the part of the community they were supposed to protect and misunderstood by it.

In some ways, the police and the criminals would seem to have more in common with each other than with the community.  The fork in the road that led to one life instead of another was less distinct.  As the money involved got bigger and bigger, the police (and so, for that matter, did the politicians, judges and lawyers) turned out to be tragically susceptible.  This was the most corrupt period in the history of American law enforcement.

This feeling of separation (or alienation, as we would call it today) had some other peculiar effects.  First, the police began to share standards with the gangs themselves.  In the gangs, loyalty was the foremost attribute and betrayal the greatest crime.  No criminal was so loathed as one who “ratted” on his friends.  For the police, this made sense.  Any group who depend on each other for their lives tend to understand that loyalty is vital.  As the police also saw themselves as separated from everyone else, their loyalty to each other became their sine qua non.  They also came to see the politicians, judges and lawyers who were supposed to be their bosses as ignorant “others” who wanted the job done but were afraid to know how it was done.  They began to look suspiciously at those representatives of the community as something like the enemy.

They adopted the Italian gangs’ Code Of Silence as their own (even to calling it the same thing), where to report a crime committed by another officer was considered to be “ratting” to “the enemy.”  No punishment meted out to a “rat” was too extreme, including death.

Reform finally came to the police departments after World War Two.  Cities around the country were swept with new brooms in the form of ex-military officers as police commanders and ex-servicemen as new policemen.  Entrance standards were raised, with first a high school diploma being the goal, then a college degree.

New equipment came with them, in the form of patrol cars, scientific labs and computers.  The old style beat cop became a virtual antique, with young, crisply uniformed patrolmen replacing him.  They brought with them a high standard of honesty, pride in their uniform and real professionalism.  They tended to reject the idea that the community they served was alien or the enemy.  But these were young people fresh from the war, where life often depended on your buddy.  As they moved into the ranks of the police, they accepted the Blue Brotherhood attitude along with its Code Of Silence.

An unforeseen result of moving the patrolmen into cars and off the streets was that it broke that essential bond between the policeman and the area he served.  This problem was made worse by the fact that the new/reformed departments treated their police like soldiers and transferred them from one place to another as needed.  The policeman ceased to be a neighborhood guy walking the streets.  He became an anonymous stranger just driving through.

Still, building from the respect born of their new honesty and professionalism, these new forces were, for a time, both effective and admired.  They may have become removed from the communities they policed, but the were not yet considered foreign.  The police may have become alienated again, but nobody realized it.

But the situation was unstable.  If a police force is precisely as effective as it is close to the community it polices, then this new situation merely needed a challenge from either side to break down.

In a sense, it received its challenge from both sides.  First the Civil Rights movements showed the country the southern police as brutal oppressors.  Then the anti-war movements of the sixties showed the North that their policemen could act just as badly.  From the policeman’s side, the young of the middle classes suddenly began calling them pigs and attacking everything these veterans believed in.

Once the alienation was visible to both sides, the effectiveness of the police began to crumble.  This was a tragedy, because they were moving into an era that would desperately need effective police work.  It was a time when social norms collapsed.  And as they did, the police found themselves with more and more demands upon them.  They felt themselves to be misunderstood by an ungrateful public all of whom seemed willing to commit crimes if the risk was low enough.  They saw themselves as alone, with only their brother officers to depend upon and to understand.

In fact, by isolating themselves from the communities they were supposed to serve, they guaranteed that the demands upon them could not be met.  By separating themselves from the citizens who were everywhere, they restricted their effectiveness to what they could personally see or what forensics could decipher.  Their frustration and the immorality they saw around them opened them up to the three temptations of a policeman:  authoritarianism, corruption and brutality.

Their response, predictably, was to close ranks.  The Blue Brotherhood became their only truth and the Code of Silence their best protection.  Bending and breaking the rules became a way of life and accepted as the only way to get the job done.  If an officer succumbed to the temptations along the way, he (or she, now) was to be shielded at all costs.

The public’s response to all this was also frustration, along with a growing fear.  The police seemed incapable of stemming the flow of crime, drugs and money that was eroding their world.  They came to seem part of the problem, particularly as they seemed to think that the laws they were supposed to enforce did not apply to them.  The cry has arisen for Civilian Review Boards, an idea that the police see as the worst possible heresy.

It is a sign of how far we have come that they should see it so.  If the police are to be seen as part of the community, they must be open to the community.  The police cannot be successful alone.  They are not, and do not have the power to be, the “Thin Blue Line” that alone keeps us safe.  The community keeps its members safe.  The only possible solution to the policemen’s predicament is to bring the police and community back together as a functioning unit.  The police are, and must be, an arm of the citizenry, not its opponent.

My own opinion is that for the police’s job to move from the impossible to the possible, they must re-integrate themselves into the community.  The police have to trust the community and the community must trust the police.  For that, two things must happen:

The public must feel that the actions of the police are subject to meaningful review.

The Code of Silence has got to go.  The public will never trust people to enforce the laws who shield some who break those laws.

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