During the first few years of my law enforcement career, I tried to toe the line. I tried to be that Type-A, hard-charging cop chasing the bad guys, trying to clear the streets of criminals, wanting to rid communities of gang members, drug dealers, and predators. The mission seemed simple, a job with real urgency and obvious boundaries.
After two years, though, I was becoming unsettled. Despite some exciting, perhaps heroic moments, I didn’t feel appreciated. I’d risked my life: running into a burning house to save a three-year-old child, pursuits with stolen cars, a near shooting. Command said it was just part of the job, peers were competition, and the citizens I tried to protect were suspicious at best, often hostile.
I’d become cynical, hard-edged, and resentful. I was feeling the pull to isolate myself from the world outside the profession, rationalizing that nobody but other officers would understand – and only those other officers who were hard-charging, dedicated to the job, and trustworthy to have my back no matter what happened.
There was a constant dread that I wasn’t measuring up to expectation, that I wasn’t perceived as capable, reliable, and valued. It felt like the slightest mistake, a moment of hesitation or a stutter in speech could place me outside the clique, outside the zone of protection where other officers hesitated to provide backup, driving a little slower to a call for assistance or ignoring me all together.
I had nightmares about facing an armed suspect all by myself, shooting him but unable to put him down, standing alone the whole time as this lumbering demon closed in, slashing at me with a knife, shooting me repeatedly, or beating me to a pulp, sirens wailing in the distance but nobody ever arriving.
I think most police officers have a similar experience. It’s part of a process of identity fortification, a turn in their psyches where they start perceiving themselves as fighting on the front lines against a world gone mad, holding the thin blue line representing the sliver of protection that keeps the world from falling into chaos and criminality.
They start separating themselves from mainstream society, limiting or disallowing candid interactions with the law-abiding community because they perceive people outside the job as blissfully, perhaps willfully, ignorant of the ever-present dangers that plague society, often feeling resentment because these people choose to walk the streets like they’re wearing blinders. Sometimes this resentment turns into a feeling of superiority, like they have a special dispensation, like they’re knights armed with pistols instead of swords, badges instead of shields. It’s a romantic ideal, a compensation for all the heartbreak they witness, the hatred they experience, and the lack of appreciation they perceive.
Police officers spend a lot of time answering calls in dysfunctional communities ravaged by poverty, isolated from culture and creativity, and barren of beauty. They often see the state of these communities as products of deprived morality and wanton lawlessness instead of the endemic consequences of social injustice and systematic failures. After all, police officers operate in the realm of personal responsibility, holding individual people accountable for bad behavior and poor choices. It is easy to see only the trees and not the forest because they are embedded in these situations, part and parcel to the oversights and failures of our government, elemental participants in a broken system, often as powerless as anyone, too often reacting to crises instead of being empowered to proactively engage communities to bring about real change.
As a result, many police officers retreat from the communities they patrol, seeking to live in cul-de-sacs of protection where they can engulf themselves in a sense of order, a new version of circling the wagons, defending the orderly way of life, protecting themselves and their loved ones from an unsettling reality, an encroaching darkness circling us all.
The truth is the thin blue line is not a prophylactic barrier between order and chaos; it is a permeable illusion, a product of binary thinking, a result of the human need to simplify the world we experience, offering explanation to the inexplicable, too-good-to-be-true easy answers to complex problems.
My own answer to this dilemma was to get out of my patrol car, to meet people where they were, to learn their stories and concerns, to seek their guidance and cooperation. I began to see myself not as a knight coming to the rescue but as a servant offering my skills and authority. This fundamental shift allowed me to see the humanity of the people I served, the strengths in a community that had seemed stark and inhospitable. I began to feel appreciated and valued in a way that had escaped me before, developing real relationships instead of keeping my distance.
Even my own answer is too simplistic, too individual, to address the systemic adversarial relationship between police officers and communities. There needs to be a cultural shift, a restructuring of the criminal justice system into a restorative process instead of a mechanism of punishment. We need to create real partnerships that focus on respecting the human dignity of all citizens, an appreciation of human diversity, and the cultivation of an awareness of community strengths. We need to develop a willingness to help communities build upon those strengths instead of merely trying to come to the rescue.
For me, fostering relationships calmed that monster that would attack me in my dreams, allowing me to see the humanity of that person, allowing him to see the humanity in me. When I did this, I felt safer, and I slept better. I believe if we can stop creating monsters out of others, we will be a more peaceful society, safer and more secure. I believe it is time to deconstruct the thin blue line.