The Thin Blue Line of Omertà: A Code of Silence

police state

The hypocrisy of justifying police violence as a means of controlling damage to property needs to be dispensed with.

By Anatole d’Ecotopia

Photo by Alec Favale

Previously in this space, we examined the uniquely and specifically American issues of Police Reform — and concluded that America has one of the largest, least regulated, least trained, and most heavily armed police forces on the planet. Until these issues are substantively addressed, incidents like the police murder of George Floyd will continue — and so will civil disobedience in protest of these murders.

It is equally obvious that these reforms require national leadership that is no more likely to occur than any other form of leadership under the current administration. That hope resides with Donald Trump being defeated at the polls and leaving office without fomenting a Constitutional crisis.

It also requires Joe Biden’s willingness to emulate one of the most spiteful acts of one of the Republican Party’s most beloved heroes — only in a good way. We’ll talk about that in a moment.

First, let’s consider just how intractable this problem is… and why.

In the absence of any meaningful national oversight, community policing in America has evolved into a largely unaccountable and powerful presence in every municipality of consequence. Local oversight varies widely, but the prevailing pattern is precisely the one that enabled the serial unpunished abuses that culminated with Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck: Compliant district attorneys (in this case, including former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar) sending police abuse allegations to grand juries… and letting them die there.

But even in the absence of a compliant legal community, police in America find ways to make plain that they regard themselves beyond account. A recent lawsuit was brought against the Police Bureau of Portland, Oregon to restrict their excessive use of tear gas, flash grenades, rubber bullets, and other crowd control measures. In response to that suit, PPB and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s department released a statement claiming protests in downtown Portland had resulted in costs to businesses on the order of $23 million — a highly misleading report, in which 90% of the reported losses were reported by a single downtown shopping mall, and included losses more properly attributed to COVID-19 restrictions.

Once again, police are invoking the self-aggrandizing image of the “thin blue line”, in which they, in their present form, are the only alternative to violence and chaos. It is also, essentially, a gangster’s extortion threat. “Nice little Apple Store ya got there — be an awful shame if we weren’t around to keep something from happening to it.”

Not surprisingly, PPB find themselves entirely blameless in this situation — blaming the usual “outside agitators”, as well as progressive city and state politicians. But should any Portland cop find it simply too impossible to go about the business of busting heads in a notably progressive city… There’s help for that. 

Law Enforcement Move exists for the entire purpose of “Helping Heroes Move to Police Friendly Communities”. Not surprisingly, Fox News thinks very highly of this idea. There are also resources like Police Test Study Guide to ensure that police dissatisfied with their current community’s level of “police friendliness” can transfer into a more authoritarian environment as seamlessly as possible. There is no reason to suppose that such resources (and there are many) are used to perpetuate the careers of “heroes” with a penchant for abuse — but also no reason not to.

Because cops don’t talk about cops.

The Mafia calls it Omertà, the police call it “the blue wall of silence” — but it means the same thing: A code of silence that ensures that “family business” stays in the family. And of all the institutions that enable and perpetuate the Thin Blue Line of Omertà, none are more powerful or pervasive than Police Unions and non-union fraternal societies. In New York, it’s the “Police Benevolent Association”, and it’s president makes as much running it as he makes as a cop. In Los Angeles, it’s the Police Protective League. Of course, no one in Texas trusts unions… but Houston Police officers still have one. 

Nothing better exemplifies the power and the aim of these “unions” than New York Civil Rights Section 50-A, originally enacted in 1976 to guarantee anonymity of police officers and make it virtually impossible to subpoena police accused of misconduct — and recently repealed in the wake of the Floyd incident. The response of New York Police Benevolent Association? “Stop treating us like animals”. 

If Joe Biden should wind up as President and — contrary to his past positions —  have a sincere desire to reform American law enforcement, he won’t just be taking on the police departments — he’ll have no choice but to take on the unions as well.

But it wouldn’t be the first time a U.S. President ever busted a union.

In August of 1981, after months of unsuccessfully bargaining for better pay and safer working conditions, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) called a strike. Despite having supported PATCO in his 1980 presidential campaign (and having received their endorsement), Ronald Reagan chose to enforce the exact letter of Federal law — breaking the strike, breaking the union, and forever changing the relationship between labor, capital, and government in the United States. 13,000 air traffic controllers nationwide found themselves without jobs — in most cases, permanently. Eventually, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association replaced PATCO in 1987. But by that time, the damage had been done.

There is no exact analogy here. U.S. Police Unions are “unions” in only the loosest sense of representing their members in collective bargaining — and they are far, far larger than PATCO ever dreamt of being. The combined membership of the five largest such unions in the United States amounts to roughly 52,000 members (almost half of them in NYC). In Chicago and Philadelphia, the local police unions roll up into the Fraternal Order of Police, which has an estimated overall membership of over 138,000.

When Ronald Reagan broke PATCO, he cited concerns for public safety. There have been over 3,000 police homicides in the United States from 2017 to present. This far exceeds the potential death toll that might have occurred as a result of the PATCO strike. The assumption that these deaths were justified or unpreventable is as sweepingly inhumane as the notion that we, as a nation, should simply accept as “the price of business” the rapidly growing (136,000 to date) U.S. COVID-19 mortality rate.

The thin blue line of Omertà needs to be broken. The hypocrisy of justifying police violence as a means of controlling damage to property needs to be dispensed with as well. As long as American Police remain an unaccountable occupying army, “serving” alone the interests of the powerful and “protecting” merely the assets of the wealthy, there will be no end to the calls for their abolition, no end to the need for their reform. And as long as there is no genuine recognition of that need from what passes as leadership in this country… this country will continue to unravel — governable only as a police state.

The police, needless to say, are utterly okay with that.

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