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‘Blue lives’ do matter — that’s the problem

How police identity trumps public interest

Police officers applaud as President Trump speaks at the Long Island University campus in Brentwood, N.Y., on July 28. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
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In May 2016, Louisiana became the first state to propose a “Blue Lives Matter” law, which amended hate crime provisions to include targeting an individual “because of actual or perceived employment as a law enforcement officer or firefighter.” Since then, dozens of bills in states across the nation have been proposed to follow Louisiana’s lead.

The reaction to the new legislative agenda was immediate. The common refrain — “Blue lives don’t exist because officers can take their uniforms off” — was an understandable reaction to the constant racism and brutality black Americans experience every day in interactions with law enforcement.

But “blue lives” do exist. That’s the problem.

The “Blue Lives Matter” movement and its corresponding legislation are just the latest chapter in the evolving notion of what it means to be a police officer, one that dates back over 150 years. The subsequent history shows that, at least for white officers, this strong sense of identity and camaraderie — of police-hood — often supersedes an ability to empathize with civilians of color.

The “thin blue line” that separates professionalized police from the policed dates to at least the mid-19th century. By the mid-1860s, the New York City Metropolitan Police was populated by a large percentage of Irish and Irish-descended patrolmen, a product of a system of patronage that supplied police appointments in exchange for immigrant votes.

In incidents such as the 1863 draft riots, in which the Irish and other white working-class New Yorkers rebelled against the Civil War draft, and the 1871 Orange Riots, which devolved from animosities between Protestant and Catholic Irish in the city, Irish police earned the confidence of a skeptical political establishment in Albany for their ability to look past neighborhood or kinship solidarities to suppress disorder by force.

By the turn of the 20th century, policing had become a family business in some households. Some children, having had their fathers and grandfathers serve as police, were given blue wool outfits and child-size billy clubs as soon as they could walk. The women of the family were also brought into the fold, helping to strengthen an increasingly exclusive community both through their labor at home and through organizational work such as fundraising for the Police Pension Fund. By the late 1880s and 1890s, white women could also work as prison matrons, lending their perceived moral purity to the project of policing and incarceration.

Although there was a strong, multi-generational affinity for policing in many Irish families, other community members saw Irish participation in the punitive state as a betrayal. Writing about cooperation between Irish New Yorkers and police, NYPD Commissioner William McAdoo wrote in 1906, “An Irish Mother would rather see her son dead” than work against their kin for the state.

This critique of complicity carried across ethnic lines as the first Chinese and Italian detectives were sent to police their own communities. The famous Italian detective Joseph Petrosino, for instance, often came home to find threatening notes and death threats written in Italian on his door. Celebrated by some but ostracized by many within their communities, ethnic detectives often experienced intense resentment that weakened their neighborhood solidarities and pushed the social networks of police and police families closer together.

Even more so than those of Irish and Italian police officers, the allegiances of black police have always occupied ambiguous territory. Much has been written recently about how black officers do not necessarily reduce police violence on black citizens. “Just because an officer is black,” wrote Jamelle Bouie in Slate, “doesn’t mean he’s less likely to use violence against black citizens.”

But the transition from a black life to a blue one was difficult and incomplete. This is reflected by the story behind the appointment of Samuel Battle, the first black NYPD officer. Unlike Irish or Italian appointments, often given on merit, in exchange for votes or in response to the increasing necessity of bilingual patrolmen and detectives, Battle was brought into the department after years of activism on the part of outspoken members of the black press. Even after passing civil service exams, Battle’s attempted appointment was initially derailed by a police surgeon who rejected him on the false basis of a heart condition that didn’t exist.

When he was finally appointed in 1911, he faced racism both from his white comrades on the force and from insubordinate white citizens on the street. In time, however, Battle claimed to have earned the trust and support of his white co-workers, rising through the ranks to eventually become the city’s first black lieutenant in 1935. Despite his newfound privileges, he never stopped fighting for civil rights, taking a major role in the Harlem boycotts of white-owned businesses in the 1930s.

Yet even as black officers adopt blue lives, their experiences show the tenuousness of the notion that police can adopt a uniform identity, regardless of their race. Without a uniform on, black police are often less able to live unthinkingly in their identities as police, the armed defenders of order and the status quo. “I get anxious in those situations, even more so because I’m legally carrying a gun,” Perry Tarrant of the Seattle Police Department told NBC News. “The potential for things to go sideways makes you well aware of who you are. And I don’t think my situation is unique.”

He’s right. In June of this year, for instance, a white officer shot a black off-duty member of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

And yet as Alex Vitale and other sociologists of policing have argued, the “warrior mentality” of us vs. them sinks in after police training, with black officers often siding with white colleagues.

By using the phrase “blue lives” and equating themselves with protected groups eligible for hate-crime legislation, police — specifically white police — are telling the world that they are police even when their uniforms are off, part of a targeted community in need of special protection. While it’s easy to reject the idea that police are persecuted, it is a mistake to write off the idea of “blue lives.”

The same deep and historic currents that created these communities have often also shaped the worldviews of its associated members, the parents, children, neighbors and friends who see themselves as part of the policing community. By dismissing Blue Lives Matter as nothing more than trite sloganeering, we erase the centuries of history that helped to create these discreet, insular and intergenerational communities of police — and miss why it is such a powerful rallying cry.

The Lexow Committee that investigated NYPD corruption warned of this trend in 1895. The committee found that “it appears that the police form a separate and highly privileged class, armed with the authority and machinery for oppression and punishment, but practically free themselves from the operation of criminal law.” The ironies of lawless law enforcement, of specially protected protectors, have been with us for a long time.

Whether through recruitment procedures, community relations or the abolition of law enforcement as we know it, policing in the 21st century is in need of a drastic reframing and reforming. Not toward blue lives, but toward a broader sense of identity, one that understands the police as being the same as civilians, rather than a separate class looking out for its own.