Submitted by Paul Pastor, Sheriff, Pierce County.
During the funeral for Deputy Cooper Dyson, many citizens held stylized law enforcement flags with a “thin blue line” appended to the stripes of a flag. People have asked me what this means.
The historical roots of this “thin line” designation originated with units of the British Army which were referred to as “the thin red line” because of their red battle attire and relative low numbers in the Crimean War (1853-56). “The Charge of the Light Brigade” exemplified “the thin red line.”
It was also applied to the “Bobbies” of the London Metropolitan Police: a relatively few “constables on patrol” in blue tunics and tall helmets policing many citizens. And it has since been adopted by first responders and other public safety professions in America. You may see firefighters display a similar stylized flag with a “thin red line,” for Dispatchers, a “thin yellow line” and for our Corrections Officers, a “thin gray line.”
Despite these origins, the “thin blue line” is sometimes viewed as controversial. Some have suggested that it is somehow intended as representing a wedge between the community and law enforcement. Others have even suggested that it represents some kind of a racial insult.
I do not believe in these intentionally provocative interpretations.
No less a figure than Charles Ramsey, former Chief of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police and former Chief of the Philadelphia Police Department views the symbol as indicating the potential of law enforcement to be the “thin blue seam” which holds America together despite our difficulties and differences.
Perhaps I can offer my own observations on this symbol. Observations of what “the thin blue line” looks like from the inside the Sheriff’s Department.
In the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, we police over 440,000 citizens over an area of about 1800 square miles. We do this with only 359 total law enforcement personnel. We provide police services 24/7/365. As I noted in my last Sheriff’s Log, we do it very efficiently: at a per citizen / per year cost lower than other police agencies. Thus, by the measure of yearly unit cost, we are very efficient.
And usually very effective as well. We have dealt with gang problems and “the methademic” and spikes in violent crime and property crime, we have investigated multiple murders of brother and sister law enforcement officers. And, now, with the help of our mental health co-responders, we are dealing with difficult issues of homelessness and mental illness and addiction. The bottom line? We police a large, densely populated, non-rural county which has more than its share of “real time, big time, prime time crime.” And we deliver a very good product.
That’s the good news.
The bad news? Because we are very thinly staffed, we often need to stretch our people to get things done. Our people regularly encounter a difficult personal ethical choice: do they hold off and wait for back-up or do they step-in immediately and at high risk to themselves when the lives of citizens and fellow deputies are at stake?
We always encourage them to be aware of their own safety as they intervene. But remember, we are dealing with strongly motivated people whose mission is to protect lives. This is part of what enables our efficiency.
Right here is where the concept of “the thin blue line” intersects the real world. With the potential for real time adverse consequences. This is what we mean when we use the term “the thin blue line:” the limited numbers we have available to confront serious high-risk situations.
Make no mistake, it is right to expect our Deputies to intervene in situations which involve disorder and chaos and threats of harm. This is what is expected of us. It is also what we expect of ourselves and one another.
But perhaps we should expect more of the public and our public officials. Specifically, more in terms of staffing resources to see that “the thin blue line” is not stretched beyond its ability to hold.
I know that public safety staffing is costly. It truly is. That is why we strive to be very efficient in delivering our services. But at budget time, we are told time and again that “it is just too much.” And it will continue to be “too much.” “Too much,” that is, until those terrible times when we find that “it is not nearly enough.”Print This Post