Thin Blue Lines + Sudden Death

Thin Blue Lines + Sudden Death

By Eugene S. Robinson



Because in the wrong light and wrong circumstances, this could probably be you.

By Eugene S. Robinson

“Do you have anything in the trunk we should know about?”

Three cops in a sleepy suburb outside of Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, stopped a black guy named Eddie W. It was daytime. The bodybuilder-physiqued W. was driving a newish BMW.

“Like what?”

The cops smiled. “Guns, drugs.”

Only an idiot would cop to this, and W. was no idiot. But he copped to it.

“Yes. Both.”

Backup was called. Now there are 10 cops, one Eddie W. He’s spread-eagle on the ground. As they tear his car apart looking for other contraband, an Asian cop says to the sergeant in charge, “Hey, Sarge … there’s something not right here…” but he’s summarily shushed up.


Various threats and imprecations are thrown W.’s way: “We got you, boy…” And these all continue right up to the time that they find W’s badge and gun, along with the show cocaine he had in the trunk.

You see, the Candid Camera reveal here is that W. was a veteran cop on undercover gang detail.

“Goddamn it, W., why didn’t you say something?”

“You didn’t ask. And we’re at a major intersection. And I am working undercover, so I have no idea who’s driving by right now, but glad-handing with cops when I’m on gang detail is probably a no-no. But you all broke procedure about five different ways.”

So the roll call rolls on: Amadou Diallo, shot 19 times while reaching for his wallet…

The most significant breach of procedure, of course, would have seen W. losing his life in a burst of bullets, like all the recent incidents America’s been riffing on this theme. But W. didn’t die. What he did was get his fellow officers written up. A small measure, but better than joining those events typically sectioned off under the formula “tragic but understandable, given the circumstances.”

The circumstances? According to a widely circulated report last year, a black person is killed by someone acting under the color of authority every 28 hours in America. Add this to the self-inflicted damages the community endures, and the oft-told tale of a dead black man becomes wearyingly and tragically familiar.

So the roll call rolls on: Amadou Diallo, shot 19 times while reaching for his wallet; 16-year-old Kimani Gray; 23-year-old Sean Bell on his wedding day; Oscar Grant, about whom the movie Fruitvale Station was made; and now Michael Brown in Missouri, who was unarmed and had his hands over his head; and most recently, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles; and other sons, brothers, husbands and fathers. All killed in the line of someone’s duty. 

Amadou Diallo looking into camera smiling

Amadou Diallo.

Various solutions have been trial-ballooned: more minority officers, dashboard cams … and yet the killings continue. So do the efforts to stop them — all well-intentioned, but none sufficiently effective.

Because try as you might, office-managing your way around raw animal fear won’t work. The black man is an enduring boogeyman who drives that fear like all get-out. The narrative spools out in film and video, reel and real life.

In 2008, I was driving solo on the Oklahoma panhandle on a book tour, doing 77 in a 75-mile-per-hour zone. I know this because I set the rental’s cruise control to 77 miles per hour — partly because of a belief in luck (lucky number 7), and partly due to a belief that no sane cop would stop me for going 2 miles over the speed limit.

Stopped I was.

Two cops approached from either side, guns drawn. One walked up to the driver’s window and tapped on it with his pistol. 

“Open the window, please.” And then, “Can I see your driver’s license?”

The officers were tense, and their bows drawn tight.

“Certainly,” I said.

And with that one word, the air hissed out. They holstered their guns, did the obligatory radio-check song and dance, returned my license and suggested I drive a little slower. 

“This road can be dangerous.”

Certainly. Did being well-spoken allay that animal fear? Was it my martial-arts-fueled sense of calm? Class privilege?

But then, should anyone exit cop interactions feeling “lucky” to be alive?

Is it paranoia if they really are out to get you?

“No one is saying it’s not a tough job,” says W., now retired and long past his undercover detail days. “But we’re professionals, professionals paid to do a tough job, and as long as we’re going to get paid to do it, we should do it well.”

University of South Carolina professor Geoffrey P. Alpert has spent more than 25 years digging into the how’s and why’s of structurally dysfunctional police activity. His trial by fire? Getting summoned by 27 police departments after the 1980 Miami riots to figure out what the hell had happened, with an eye to trying to keep it from happening again.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” says Alpert. “But the issue is how those mistakes are dealt with.” Police forces that do well are proactive and affirmative, he says; the ones that don’t are “reactive and laissez-faire.”

In Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown lived and sadly died, blacks make up 65 percent of the local population. But blacks account for 80 percent of traffic stops, according to the Missouri attorney general. They were twice as likely as whites to be arrested in these stops, even though police found contraband on blacks 22 percent of the time, versus 34 percent for area whites. Is it paranoia if they really are out to get you? 

Parents of MIchael Brown saddened holding up poster of their child

Lesley McSpadden, right, the mother of 18-year-old Michael Brown, watches as Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., holds up a family picture of himself and his son.

But most of these people are walking away alive from these arrests and traffic stops. We notice mostly when they don’t walk away. And if the commander in chief is noticing, like he did just recently, and the attorney general is, too, then maybe it’s time to find a better way to serve and protect the people who are paying to be served and protected.

What works to reduce violence? “Community involvement, before there are problems really makes a difference,” Alpert says. Starting, maybe, with low-cost loans to cops looking to live in the neighborhoods they’re policing. Cops who live closer can build empathy and some social capital that can later be used when things get dicey.

Procedural justice that is fair, respectful and gives them voice. This is very different from acting on the urge to dominate.

There are also courses in violence de-escalation, for police departments that want to do things right. “Saying, ‘Get the fuck back on the sidewalk!’ creates a situation where if the person being spoken to doesn’t follow the order, the cop has to escalate,” says Alpert. 

And once things have escalated?

“Every time there’s a problem in Los Angeles now, some internal affairs representative or police spokesperson gets out in front of folks and talks as long as people want … answering every question so that everyone feels made part of the process,” says Alpert. When the Occupy protests hit Boston, city cops let people have their say and exercise their rights of free speech and to assemble, but established firm lines that could not be crossed — “without tanks and riot gear,” he says. 

“You want to know what the public focuses on when they deal with public officials?” asks Tracey L. Meares, the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor at Yale Law School. “Procedural justice that is fair, respectful and gives them voice. This is very different from acting on the urge to dominate. And we’ve seen this work successfully in Chicago, Oakland, Salinas [California] and Milwaukee. Even Cincinnati seems to have learned a lot.”

So here’s hoping that the possibility becomes probability much sooner rather than later, and that all of our citizens are served equally well under the law — without someone else getting shot under shady circumstances to make that happen.