Thin Blue Lie: The Failure of High-Tech Policing

Thin Blue Lie: The Failure of High-Tech Policing

by Matt Stroud


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“An incisive, muckraking exposé of the ‘police industrial complex.’”The New York Times Book Review

American law enforcement is a system in crisis. After explosive protests responding to police brutality and discrimination in Baltimore, Ferguson, and across the country, debate over ways to reform the police continues to rage. For all the disagreement, though, people on both the left and right mostly take for granted that innovative technologies can only help.

As Matt Stroud's deeply reported book demonstrates, however, tools such as Tasers and body cameras are overhyped and often ineffective. Instead of wrestling with fundamental questions about their work, police leaders have looked to technology as a silver bullet, and allowed corporate interests to insinuate themselves ever deeper into the public institution of law enforcement.

Vividly tracing the development and deployment of these technologies, from the infamous Rodney King beating to the present, Thin Blue Lie is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand how policing became what it is today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250108296
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 03/19/2019
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Matt Stroud is an investigative reporter with a focus on companies that do business with police departments and prisons. Formerly on staff at the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, and the Verge, he has also written for publications such as the Atlantic, Politico, Buzzfeed, and the Intercept. He lives in Pittsburgh.

Read an Excerpt



In 1905, August Vollmer had recently returned from a yearlong stint fighting with the army in the Philippine-American War and was working as a fireman while also running his own business in Berkeley, California. That same year, at age twenty-nine, he successfully ran for Berkeley's town marshal position on an anticorruption platform.

Berkeley had no police department at the time, so the town marshal was responsible for enforcing vice laws, dealing with riots, overseeing the town's jail (with the help of a small group of paid deputies), issuing business licenses, and generally maintaining public safety.

Despite not technically being in charge of a police department, Vollmer would become one of the most influential voices in modern policing. On April 18, 1906 — only a few months after Vollmer became town marshal — a massive earthquake hit San Francisco, causing destructive fires and killing as many as three thousand people at a time when the city's population numbered just a few hundred thousand. It was one of the most devastating natural disasters to ever hit the United States. "Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed," the novelist Jack London wrote that year. "San Francisco is gone." In the aftermath, many San Franciscans fled the city and a sizable number of them landed across the San Francisco Bay in Berkeley. With nowhere to live, more than fifteen thousand of these displaced people built a sprawling, makeshift encampment on Berkeley's outskirts. Overnight, Vollmer found himself in charge of keeping the peace in this new, improvised city, where problems such as theft and food hoarding were rampant.

To manage such a demanding task, he knew he would need additional manpower, so Vollmer placed a newspaper ad calling for former soldiers (including many who had fought alongside him in the same Philippine- American War) to apply for a new taskforce that would maintain order in the encampment. Vollmer received an overwhelming response to the ad, and, in short order, deployed as many as sixteen hundred of these veterans, using them like an occupying force and imposing martial law. With strong-arm tactics and brute force, he managed to quickly drive down crime. He later recalled an incident in which he threatened to execute a group of thieves in the encampment — he didn't follow through but, according to Vollmer's telling, word of his ruthlessness quickly spread.

Before long, his reputation became a source of fascination in the local media. San Francisco was in the midst of a newspaper boom at the time, and reporters from across the bay — as well as others from around the country — flocked to Berkeley to report on the aftermath of the earthquake and the no-nonsense town marshal who had gone from overseeing three people to overseeing sixteen hundred in a matter of days. Vollmer was a phenomenon. He befriended reporters and became known for providing "good copy." This helped to elevate a relatively small Bay Area town — with only a small crew of men in charge of normal law enforcement duties — into the national spotlight. Most of those who sought shelter in the encampment eventually abandoned Berkeley, but many stayed — and within the span of about a year, the city saw its permanent population double.

Meanwhile, across the bay, San Francisco found itself engulfed in another disaster — this one man-made. Around that time, the federal criminal court in San Francisco had brought corruption and bribery charges against members of the city's Board of Supervisors, its mayor, and their attorney Abraham "Boss" Ruef. This triggered what would eventually be called the San Francisco Graft Trials, where it was revealed that the city's government and police were deeply enmeshed in organized crime. Prosecutors alleged that owners of illegal businesses such as brothels and unsanctioned casinos would pay off police to allow their continued operation. City politicians had apparently supported and even encouraged this bribery, taking cuts of the proceeds for themselves. Perhaps most alarmingly, it came to light that members of the Board of Supervisors had conspired with police to rig the board's elections.

All of this was ongoing when, in 1909, Berkeley's leaders decided to officially incorporate as a city, forming a police department and establishing a municipal government led by a mayor and overseen by a city council. Vollmer was appointed police chief, and capitalizing on widespread anger over the abuses in San Francisco he made anticorruption a centerpiece of his new department's goals. He also started doing things that no other police chief had done before, pioneering a number of groundbreaking reforms. He took steps to ensure that the department's operations would be timely and efficient, purchasing bicycles for his full-time officers, which allowed them to respond to emergencies faster, and lobbying the city to install a new alarm system of flashing red lights stationed at intersections that would alert officers about reported crimes.

Perhaps Vollmer's most significant contribution to the future of American policing, however, was his invention of a new system of classifying clues and offenders — essentially a database of criminal records with names, the nature of accusations, and mug shots. As Vollmer saw it, police departments had long been crippled by their own disorganization and lack of recordkeeping; if they tracked all charges and kept as much information as possible on criminals, they would be better able to solve crimes and stop repeat offenders. He called this the Modus Operandi system.

To Vollmer, crime and crime fighting were subjects of great importance that demanded intense and continual reevaluation. It was because of this conviction that, within a few years of becoming Berkeley's police chief, he founded the country's first criminology program at the nearby University of California. During his time as police chief, Vollmer became a prominent voice in the policing community and soon joined the International Association of Chiefs of Police — a burgeoning organization of police leaders that would meet semiannually to trade ideas and discuss strategy. The IACP elected Vollmer president in 1921, and he did not hesitate to use the influence of the position to spread his ideas about the importance of organization and technology in law enforcement. Above all, Vollmer prized intelligence, pushing to hire more cops with bachelor's degrees and requiring new recruits to take IQ tests before they could be hired. Once they were hired, he encouraged his cops to pursue classwork in criminology studies. "Why should not the cream of the nation be perfectly willing to devote their lives to the cause of service providing that service is dignified, socialized, and professionalized," he would later write.

Eventually, as Vollmer's ideas took hold in police departments across the country, they evolved into an ethos of professionalism that valued recordkeeping, science, and technology.

* * *

ONE OF VOLLMER'S most controversial — and consequential — accomplishments was his pioneering use of lie detectors. As he saw it, figuring out how to discern when someone was telling the truth was one of the most important and fundamental questions in law enforcement. In 1921, one of Vollmer's new recruits in the Berkeley Police Department came to him with a request. The recruit, twenty-nine-year-old John Larson, had just received his doctorate in physiology from the University of California. He was intrigued by an academic article he'd read about experiments that tested whether using a machine to measure a person's heart rate, respiratory rate, and other factors could help determine if they were lying. He asked Vollmer for approval to build a lie-detecting machine of his own and to test it on suspects brought into the police department. Vollmer assented. Larson initially called his new invention "the apparatus," and, by 1923, he and Vollmer had tested it on 861 subjects, determining that more than 200 of them were guilty — at least according to the apparatus.

That year, Larson moved to Chicago to pursue a medical degree and continue his experiments with the apparatus. Vollmer also left Berkeley around the same time, in his case to take a job overseeing the Los Angeles Police Department, where he touted the apparatus to anyone who would listen — including the press, his colleagues at the IACP, and criminologists he'd met through his academic work.

Larson, meanwhile, was pressing forward with his tests in Chicago — and the results were not encouraging. After experimenting on hundreds of people, he found that the rate of accuracy for lie detection was somewhere around 40 percent. He later wrote:

I originally hoped that ... lie detection would become a legitimate part of professional police science. It is little more than a racket. The lie detector, as used in many places, is nothing more than a psychological third-degree aimed at extorting confessions as the old physical beatings were. At times I'm sorry I ever had any part in its development.

But by the time Larson had completed this tests, it was too late.Press reports referred to the invention as a "lie detector," and before long it became a tool of police departments throughout the country.

The following years saw the continued proliferation of Vollmer's ideas. By 1929, the Eighteenth Amendment had been in place for nine years, and police across the country were now responsible for enforcing a ban on producing, selling, importing, and transporting alcohol. To help police with this responsibility, local and state governments drastically increased law enforcement budgets, allowing departments to hire more officers, while the federal government expanded its own role in enforcement.

Altogether, law enforcement expenditures increased fivefold between 1920 and 1930 and, by the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, it had cost taxpayers about $300 million, the equivalent of more than $4.3 billion today. That expense was widely understood to have been a colossal waste. But the effects of this financial boost to the institution of policing would be felt long after alcohol was again legalized. Policing had grown exponentially as a result, and the expansion helped to spread some of Vollmer's innovations. In a matter of years, his practice of recording criminal data in a central database would develop into the Uniform Crime Reporting system, a nationwide statistical database of crime data reported by jurisdictions all over the country. His idea of putting Berkeley officers on bicycles eventually led to the use of police cruisers.

By the time the United States joined World War II, police departments had evolved into forces that closely mirrored the military — professional and structured, funded by local, state, and federal governments — operating on the streets of just about every community in the country.

* * *

DESPITE THE MANY modernizing reforms that Vollmer brought to policing, there was one huge problem that he did nothing to solve — and in fact contributed to: the way that police treated communities of color and especially African American communities. It goes without saying that American law enforcement, from its very beginnings in the nineteenth century, had reflected the attitudes and priorities of a profoundly racist society.

One reform that Vollmer believed was essential to improving law enforcement was getting police to integrate with the communities where they worked — walking the streets, getting to know neighbors and business owners, and staying informed about residents' concerns. But it's almost certain that Vollmer wanted to see police officers integrating themselves only within white communities. First of all, policing black neighborhoods just wasn't something that occupied much of his time; as in much of the western United States, Berkeley's black population was astoundingly low. According to U.S. Census figures, black people made up less than 1 percent of the city's population in 1920. Even so, Vollmer made clear in his writings that he felt African Americans were dangerous and that their mere presence contributed to crime. In one instance, he observed that southern cities both contained large black populations and had high murder rates, concluding that "the Negro contributes enormously to this unbelievably high murder rate."

In short, American policing may have become more professionalized, efficient, and humane under Vollmer's influence, but its racism remained potent. This disconnect bears a distinct resemblance to law enforcement's current focus on sophisticated new equipment over efforts to address fundamental, systemic, problems. Then, as now, reforms focusing on efficiency, organization, and technology could do little good unless deeper faults were addressed first.

* * *

DURING WORLD WAR II, because of labor shortages and an urgent need for weapons and supplies, there was a great demand for workers to fill hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs, and increasingly African Americans began to take those jobs. Of course, this was a matter of necessity, not a sign of an increasingly tolerant society; pushback against such integration was swift and vigorous. Fearing race riots, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order in June 1941 committing to a national project of inclusion.

I do hereby reaffirm the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin, and I do hereby declare that it is the duty of employers and of labor organizations, in furtherance of said policy and of this Order, to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin.

The order technically stated nothing new, simply reaffirming the language and spirit spelled out in the country's founding documents. Of course, the United States had not lived up to that spirit, and the integration required by Roosevelt's executive order would in fact constitute a radical departure from the way things stood. The process of implementing the changes was arduous and bitterly contested.

In Detroit, for example, high-paying jobs at automakers such as General Motors and Ford Motor Company attracted workers of all races and origins during the war, a great number of them from southern states. Mostly adhering to the executive order, companies hired vast numbers of blacks — though they were kept separated from their white counterparts.

In the two years following Roosevelt's order, Detroit's overall population increased by about 25 percent, and its black population increased even faster, by about one-third over the same period. The city grew denser, and racial groups that had previously been completely segregated were forced to interact with one another more frequently both on the street and in the workplace. One-off fights would occur in factories; skirmishes would play out in housing developments. Then, in June 1943, the situation reached a breaking point.

That month, the Packard Motor Car Company, which had previously employed black workers but kept them segregated, promoted three of them from unskilled positions to skilled jobs — which until then had been held exclusively by whites — on the manufacturing floor of a facility that produced fighter planes. As many as twenty-five thousand whites walked off the job in protest.

Then, on a warm Sunday, June 20, fights broke out between blacks and whites on Belle Isle, an island city park in the Detroit River, which is connected to Detroit's mainland by the Douglas MacArthur Bridge, which extends nearly a half mile at 2,193 feet. While much of the city remained segregated at the time, Belle Isle was a mostly integrated public property — it was therefore one of the few public places where blacks and whites would intermingle. The fights developed into a full-scale riot, taking over huge swaths of the city and lasting hours. Police responded in force and seemed to break up the melee, declaring it over by midnight. In fact, the conflict had only begun.

In the early morning hours of June 21, fights erupted in mainland Detroit, and amid the confusion unfounded rumors began to spread — that a group of white men had tossed an African American woman off the bridge, and that black men had raped and murdered a white woman in the chaos of the day — fueling new violence. Hours passed and pandemonium reigned. Gangs of white men drove around the city looking for black men to attack; as daylight broke, white people attacked blacks who were on their way to work. White and black mobs assaulted one another, beating innocent motorists and pedestrians, and burning cars, homes, and businesses.


Excerpted from "Thin Blue Lie"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Matt Stroud.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction: When Public Order Breaks Down

1. Confront and Command

2. A Man of Ideas

3. Charts of the Future

4. The Taser Revolution

5. A Different World

6. The Warning Label

7. The Good Shepherd Watching Over the Flock

8. Transparency and Openness

Conclusion: The Problem with Solutionism




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