In April 2017, the Alabama Senate voted to authorize the formation of a new police department. Like other officers in the state, officers at the new agency would have to be certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission. These new officers would be “charged with all of the duties and invested with all of the powers of law enforcement officers.” Unlike most officers in Alabama, though, the officers at the new agency would not be city, county, or state employees. Instead, they would be working for the Briarwood Presbyterian Church, which Senate Bill 193 authorized to “appoint and employ one or more persons to act as police officers to protect the safety and integrity of the church and its ministries.”
The prospect of a private church with its own police department seems like a radical departure from modern practices. The contemporary conception of policing, after all, is that it is a primarily and foundationally governmental activity. That conception is easy to take for granted. After all, “maintaining order and controlling crime are paradigmatic governmental functions.” That is certainly the role that most police agencies see themselves as fulfilling, and, by and large, that is also how the public sees policing.
Yet the perception of law enforcement and crime-fighting as exclusively governmental activities is inaccurate as both a historical matter and a modern description. Given the historical, operational, and legal overlap between public and private policing, the Thin Blue Line is neither particularly thin nor exclusively blue. This is not a revelatory observation; Elizabeth Joh and David Sklansky, among others, have written about private policing, and there is a substantial body of literature about what is variously called “plural policing,” “joint policing,” or “third-party policing.” Prior efforts, however, do not fully illustrate the distortions in the line that separates public and private policing. This Article contributes to an on-going conversation about modern conceptions of policing. Perhaps more importantly given the broad consensus that policing is in need of reform, this article explores some of the ways in which the blurred blue line should affect the way we think about police reform.
Seth Stoughton, The Blurred Blue Line: Reform in an Era of Public & Private Policing, 44 AM.J. CRIM. L. 117 (2017).