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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Thin Black Line

Hugh Holton, a thirty-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, wrote several successful novels before he died in 2001 but one project was still unfinished at the time of his death. Now more than seven years later, that project has been published as The Thin Black Line. The book’s subtitle, True Stories by Black Law Enforcement Officers Policing America’s Meanest Streets, tells Holton’s readers what to expect.

Holton’s editor, Robert Gleason, allows twenty-eight police officers, twenty men and eight women, to tell their individual stories in conversational first person narratives. The twenty-eight interviews include those of three Chicago police officers named Holton: the author, his father, and an officer by the name of Aaron Holton who may or may not be a member of the author’s family. Of the officers interviewed, almost half of them are from Chicago and most of the rest are from large cities such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia. To his credit, Holton included probation and correctional officers in his survey, a decision that adds a much-needed spark to the book.

Given that each person’s account is limited to six-to-eight pages, few of the narrators develop a personality or context of their own and their stories, no matter how dangerous the experiences they describe, tend to blend into a surprising blur of sameness. The most intriguing stories are told by those who decide to focus on one or two experiences rather than a listing of all of their most exciting and dangerous moments.

Because so many of those interviewed became police officers just when police departments around the country were beginning to recruit blacks for the first time, it is surprising that the issue of race is so seldom mentioned in the book. After all, as Holton states in his prologue, it was only after the assassination of Martin Luther King that most big city police departments came to understand there was a certain advantage to having black officers police black neighborhoods. Black policeman were recruited even in the deep South, although Sergeant Melvin Stokes of the Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Sheriff’s Department recalls that “Black officers also couldn’t arrest white people” but, if it somehow happened that they did, they had “to call a white officer to transport them, ‘cause we didn’t want anybody to claim we did something bad to them before we got them into the jail.”

Philadelphia police officer Roger Tucker is another who mentions race during his career recap, however counterproductive and disappointing his statement turns out to be. According to Tucker, “I still believe that police officers are basically hired mercenaries…What you are doing is enforcing the majority laws on a minority community. Also what you are doing is trying to keep a large number of minorities from getting in the same position that you’ve been ‘privileged’ to get.” One wonders how this “mercenary” sleeps at night if he truly believes what he says about his life’s work.

With few exceptions, the twenty-eight people interviewed for The Thin Black Line never seem real. Because very little individual personality is on display, their war stories blend to the point that any potential impact on the reader is severely limited. There is no way to know if this is the book Hugh Holton would have written had he lived long enough to complete the task, but reproducing edited transcripts of the original interviews does not quite do the job, so perhaps Holton had more in mind for The Thin Black Line than this. Unfortunately, we will never know.

Rated at: 3.0

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