Crime, Race, and the Thin Blue Line

Four decades ago, I worked in oil and gas exploration. I was laying a seismic survey line through a community outside of Dallas when an old man came out of his home to see what I was up to. Before long, he was telling me his problems.

He couldn’t own anything, he said, because boys in the neighborhood helped themselves to everything he had. He caught one in the act once, and the judge made the thief pay $40.

“Forty dollars! And he had stolen $400 of my stuff!” the man complained.

I agreed that the law was crazy, but said maybe it would get right again soon.

“I’ll tell you what they should do,” he said. “They should do like they did in the cowboy days, and that’s look for the nearest tree.”

Let me tell you some more about this man and the community he lived in. It wasn’t a scattering of fine brick houses such as you see today in rural areas all over the Southeastern states. Nor was the community a trailer park, though those are a common sight in the South. And the man wasn’t sitting in a wicker chair on the porch of one of those fine homes, sipping a mint julep, or enjoying his white privilege. Neither was the man some gap-toothed redneck with a KKK robe hanging from the clothesline.

Indeed, a trailer park would have been palatial next to this place. His community was just a collection of shacks and camper trailers separated by varmint-wire fences and dirt streets, tracks as rutted and uneven as you would expect unpaved and unimproved roads to be. And the man who wanted to look for the nearest tree—he was black.

Here was a black man in the South, old enough to have felt the weight of segregation, old enough perhaps even to have seen a Klan terrorist in action—and he wanted to lynch burglars! He wanted to do that because his life was being made miserable by the absence of law and order where he lived.

I have spent the past 40 years hoping for the law to get right again soon—to get right not by lynching burglars, but by hanging murderers. Hanging them with due process, but hanging them inexorably, as certainly as their victims lie cold in the ground, and as swiftly as the wheels of justice will allow.

I turned from surveying to journalism largely with a view toward that end. Writing for newspapers in Texas and Tennessee, I argued the case for law and order, and especially against the idea that there is something contemptible about people who are angry about crime.

Take that guy in the shantytown outside Dallas. Suppose we put on our Social Justice Warrior hats and write him off as a mean old man who cared more for his chickens and tools and transistor radios than he did for the lives of his young neighbors. What, then, can the SJWs say against my friend, Tracy Beard?

Tracy was a co-worker of mine in those days, a fellow surveyor who had been recruited under our company’s affirmative action program. I knew him well enough to know there was nothing mean about him.

On Aug. 18, 1979, The Dallas Morning News carried a front-page story about how a murderer invaded a Houston family’s home, killed four children and set fire to the house. The story was illustrated with a picture of one of the survivors, who watched as emergency workers removed his dead grandchildren from the ruins.

Coincidentally, the grandfather’s family name was also Beard, so I asked Tracy if he had any relatives in Houston. When he said no, I showed him the paper.

Tracy sat for several minutes, reading about the murderer’s evil deeds. Then he looked at me and said, “That guy should be stood against a wall and shot.”

Tracy was not alone in saying such things. When Bill Simpson (a black man who had drawn media attention when he was harassed by white racists in Vidor, Texas) was murdered by black street thugs in nearby Beaumont, the local neighborhood weekly asked people if there was any way to stop gang violence. Five replies appeared in the Sept. 8, 1993, Orange County News.

One respondent, a white man, said, “I wish there were, but I don’t know how.”

A white woman recommended “stronger family values and mandatory parenting classes in our schools.” Another white woman called for “stiffer penalties,” and a black woman requested “more cops.”

Toughest of all was a black man.

“Yes,” he said. “When they commit a serious crime, like the Simpson murder, put them in front of a firing squad and kill them. It works in other countries.”

The reporter was agog at this. Relating the experience to me at the Beaumont newspaper where we both worked, she said she asked the man again if that’s what he meant to say. She was another liberal getting mugged by reality.

So, the three strongest statements against crime I ever heard all came from black people. Where does that leave the progressives’ mantra, “‘Law and Order’ are code words for racism?” That mantra is belied not only by my personal experience but also by recent scholarship:

In his new book, Locking Up Our Own, Yale University Law School Professor James Forman, Jr. points out that in national surveys conducted over the past 40 years, African Americans have consistently described the criminal justice system as too lenient. Even in the 2000s, after a large and sustained drop in the crime rate and hundreds of thousands of African Americans being imprisoned, almost two-thirds of African Americans maintained that courts were “not harsh enough” with criminals.

Where does that leave today’s complaints about “mass incarceration?” Perhaps, like me, the people in those surveys would like to see the prison population reduced, not by setting murderers free to kill again, but by marching murderers to the gallows, whose stark example might restrain everyone’s homicidal impulses and make for less violence both in the communities where murder abounds and in the prisons where murderers are confined.

What of the police shootings that are such a flashpoint of crime today? That at least is a point upon which black people seem to be of two minds about law and order. They may want harsh punishment for gang-banging hoodlums, but they demand it also for trigger-happy cops and vigilantes.

In fact, the absence of capital punishment has aggravated the problem of such shootings. When Michael Brown slugged Officer Darren Wilson; when he tried to grab Wilson’s gun; when, in the face of Wilson’s drawn weapon and peremptory commands, he charged the officer headlong—he didn’t see the gallows looming behind his intended victim. The same goes for Trayvon Martin, pounding neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman’s head against the pavement. Neither one of these young men feared execution as the inevitable consequence of their reckless actions, and we’ve all suffered as a result.

And in cases such as the Philandro Castile shooting, where jumpy officers have pulled the trigger on people who turn out to have posed no threat at all—they all were painfully aware that the gallows aren’t there to back them up. Without its deterrent effect, and lacking a superhero’s skill and discernment in handling the life-and-death situations their job forces on them, the police will make tragic mistakes, rarely but inevitably. How much of the ensuing tumult could have been avoided if the death penalty were not a dead letter?

Proactive policing played a huge role in bringing crime down from the heights of the early 1990s, but it hasn’t solved the crime problem, and today’s anti-cop agitation shows that overreliance on the police to correct it creates its own difficulties. The Thin Blue Line can’t protect people from criminal violence all by itself. It’s high time the courts shouldered their responsibility to ensure that, where the shield of the law has failed to protect, the sword of justice is there to avenge.

About Karl Spence

Karl Spence is a retired journalist living in San Antonio. His work has appeared in National Review, the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker and at

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7 responses to “Crime, Race, and the Thin Blue Line”

  1. Proactive policing is destructive of the constition and rights. I’m not willing to live in a police state panopticon to be safe.
    But your entire article says that we are FAILING TO BE REACTIVE.
    BECAUSE we aren’t reacting to actual crimes sufficently, this might be part of the system not to be conspiratorial, we are being pushed to do more “proactive” things that destroy liberty.

  2. As a SJW, let me offer the following observations:

    • Due process is not the opposite of justice, despite what’s implied here. .

    • Black people can think sentences are too lenient and mass incarceration still be a problem. While you’re focused on violent offenders above, the problem of mass incarceration starts with the troubling number of non-violent offenders who are swept into the prison system – say for low-level drug sales — ruining their chances at productive futures and, by lumping them in *with* the harder criminals, providing a location where they too can be hardened into the bad guys you’re writing about now.

    One study found that “25% of prisoners (364,000 people), almost all non-violent, lower-level offenders, would be better served by alternatives to incarceration such as treatment, community service, or probation.”

Another: “Violent crimes account for nearly half the prison population at any given time; and drug crimes only one fifth. But drug crimes account for more of the total number of admissions in recent years—almost one third (31 percent), while violent crimes account for one quarter.”

So: It’s possible to think the worst guys need to be punished worse, while also thinking that the US far too easily imprisons people who maybe shouldn’t be imprisoned.

    • Despite the thirst of the author’s black friends for justice, the death penalty remains racially problematic – black defendants are more likely than white defendants to receive the penalty, and *that’s accounting for disparities in crime rates.* Justice served unequally is not justice at all.

    * It’s also possible to want both gangbangers and bad cops punished. The two are mutually exclusive only if you’re stupid.

    * The argument that police would wrongly kill less often if only they knew they’d have the backing of the death penalty is ludicrous and, frankly, despicable, for a couple of reasons. First, let’s be charitable to the officer an agree that they (wrongly) apprehended that they were in danger at the time they shot the suspects – that is, after all, why they’re able to walk free despite such tragic mistakes. Knowing that their victim would’ve been killed *someday* probably wouldn’t reduce that officer’s desire to minimize their own in-the-moment danger. What makes this argument despicable is that it frees the officer from the requirement to try and think clearly about whether that danger exist.

    • Thank you, Mr. Mathis, for your continued interest in what I have to say. I’m glad to see that not all self-proclaimed SJWs are such vindictive idiots as those whose exploits are chronicled over at Instapundit. (Just search that site for “because RACISM,” “because EQUALITY” and “because SHUT UP,” and you’ll see what I mean.)

      To take your points in sequence, I’m not sure I implied here that due process and justice are opposed. The whole idea of due process, of judges, courts, counsel, evidence, etc., is to distinguish guilt from innocence. We don’t want innocent people railroaded; neither do we want the guilty to get away with it. I have argued elsewhere that it’s possible for what is called “due process” to cease serving that end, and to become a swamp of justice-thwarting technicalities. See this article of mine ( for more on that.

      I agree that “it’s possible to think the worst guys need to be punished worse, while also thinking that the US far too easily imprisons people who maybe shouldn’t be imprisoned.” But your statistics themselves show that violent convicts far outnumber the drug-mule schlubs who are also doing time. For more on that, see this article by the estimable Heather Mac Donald: And, of course, the thrust of my argument has to do with the penalty for murder, not for drug-running. I’m not Duterte, you know.

      As for racial disparities in death sentences, here’s what I wrote about that some years ago: “Activists point out that of four possible racial combinations — white on white, black on black, white on black, and black on white — the one involving a black killer and white victim is most likely to land the killer on death row. What the activists don’t say is that more crimes in that last category involve the extra factors — multiple murder, murder of a policeman or prison guard, murder committed in connection with other felonies, etc. — that our courts have deemed necessary for execution to be considered a constitutional punishment. Victims of simple ‘crimes of passion’ may be just as dead, but under the arbitrary rules the activists themselves created, those lives don’t count as much as the others.” On the principle that Black Lives Matter, I’d rather murder were punished severely, across the board. A lot more black lives would be avenged (and, prospectively, saved) that way.

      Who says gang-banging hoodlums and bad cops can’t both be punished? But then, who says Darren Wilson, for example, is a bad cop? His actions, according to sworn grand jury testimony, were exemplary. But how many SJWs are willing to admit that?

      I think you totally misunderstood my point about police officers’ fear when facing potentially dangerous situations. The theoretical disposition of a particular cop-killer’s case is not what the officer is thinking about. The general atmosphere of violence and impunity that makes encountering a cop-killer more likely is what ratchets up the fear. I’ve seen several professional police officer/bloggers condemn the Castilo shooter’s actions as substandard and unworthy. But on the dash-cam tape, the officer’s fear is palpable. The point of making death for murder the rule rather than the extremely rare exception is to reduce that fear by making the criminally inclined less brazen — thereby protecting both officer and honest citizen.

      Have you ever seen a blackjack? I have, in a museum. Crooks used to carry them all the time. A blackjack was a handy tool for knocking someone out and robbing him without running the risk of killing him. Its existence testifies to the fear criminals once had of going to death row. Nowadays, robbers don’t bother with blackjacks. If their victims don’t cooperate, it’s no big deal just to shoot them.

      I want to change that. Bring back the blackjack!

    • Leftists have always considered criminals their natural allies. The two groups think along very similar lines: “if I want it, I’m entitled to have it… by any means necessary.” And if the needs of others get in the way (in this case, anyone who thinks safe neighborhoods are a good thing), such people are dismissively viewed as expendable. Additional observations:

  3. You were chugging right along, just fine, until you came up to the Castile murder by cop. This one was clear and undeniable, with plenty of actual evidence of the cause. It wasn’t because, “The gallows wasn’t looming behind” the cop. It was because this cop was a complete and absolute physical coward who had no business wearing a badge. Your point might be quite valid and the likelihood or lack thereof of capital punishment for capital crimes (are rape and kidnapping still capital crimes? Likely not, but they should be) cause criminals to be more bold and be more violent and such…but this was not the case to illustrate that cops suffer from the phenomenon.

    • I’ve read blog posts by other police officers that were highly critical of Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Castile, and I don’t dispute them. Obviously, we want all police officers to be brave and level-headed. But being panicky and not up to the job is not the same as being a murderer. Yanez was acquitted of murder but fired immediately afterward, with the city suggesting he find another line of work.

      There are other cases in which the officer’s conduct was not so substandard, yet still resulted in the death of an innocent citizen. The less bold and violent criminals in general are, the less fear the cops will feel in such situations, and the fewer needless deaths will result from them.

  4. Wish Obama had seen this article before he let all those druggies out. Pretty sure many have re-offended or not with us anymore.