The Racist History Of The Thin Blue Line

By Martin Paredes, Special to the El Paso News.

The Thin Blue Line was a 1952 television show about the Los Angeles Police Department. It was conceived and produced by William H. Parker, the then Los Angeles police chief. The show, which lasted for a short time, was a question and answer show about policing. From the show, The Thin Blue Line emerged as the symbol for solidarity with police.

Parker was the Los Angeles Police Department police chief from 1950 to 1966. It was from Parker’s uncontested power over post-war police reform that much of today’s controversial police race relations can be attributed to. The Los Angeles Police Department’s difficult race relations can be trace directly back to Parker. Parker’s national popularity influenced policing across the nation.

To keep control over his policing reforms, Parker attacked his opponents and accused them of being communist sympathizers.

As part of his police reforms, Parker launched a public relations machine designed to build support for police officers. Parker enlisted Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, to write regular news releases about the professionalism of the Los Angeles Police Department. Roddenberry had joined the LAPD as a patrolman in 1949.

While Roddenberry wrote newspaper releases for the police department, he was also working in television scripts, one of them being the Star Trek series that propelled him towards stardom.

Gene Roddenberry was born in El Paso and shortly after moved to Los Angeles with his family.

In 1951, William Parker authorized the transfer of the radio program Dragnet to television and offered to continue to support the show through the LAPD. The LAPD offered the cases portrayed in the television show and checked each script for technical accuracy.

From Dragnet emerged the short-lived question and answer The Thin Blue Line television series where Parker and other guests answered questions about policing. But the show had its genesis in Bloody Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, 1951, seven underage Mexican youths were arrested for drinking in a bar. At the jail, about 50 police officers took the youths out of their jail cells and beat them with wrapped fists and wet towels. The incident became known as Bloody Christmas. [Edward Escobar, “Bloody Christmas and the Irony of Police Professionalization: The Los Angeles Police Department, Mexican Americans, and Police reform in the 1950s,” Pacific Historical Review 72, May 2003]

Eight officers were indicted for the beatings by the Grand Jury that investigated the beatings. The Grand Jury also blamed the beatings on Parker’s poor supervision. Five of the eight officers were found guilty. To counter the negative press about how Parker handled the incident he launched a weekly television program named The Thin Blue Line.

The television program launched in April 1952, the day before the indictments against his officers were handed down.

Although William Parker had created a reputation for professionalizing policing in general and boasted that he had the best race relations of any department in the nation, his tactics of targeting minority communities exacerbated the city’s race relations.

William Parker often denied that racial segregation existed in Los Angeles. Parker also said he harbored no bias towards minorities.

However, when Parker testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1960, Parker said that the Mexican American population in Los Angeles “that came here in great strength were here before us and presented a great problem because I worked on the East Side when men had to work in pairs,” adding, “but that has evolved into assimilation, and it was because some of those people were not too far removed from the wild tribes of the inner mountains of Mexico.” Parker concluded, “I don’t think you can throw the genes out of the question when you discuss behavior patterns of people.” [emphasis mine]

Although Parker denied any bias he refused to apologize for his comments.

The Watts Riots of 1965 was the direct result of the undercurrent of Parker’s sustained police-led racism that he allowed while arguing that his police force was one of the most professional forces in the nation.

On July 16, 1966, William Parker died. During his last few months, he could not escape the controversy he created that led to the Watts Riots in 1965.

The policing legacy he created has continued to this day. In many ways his legacy is the reason why Americans are distrustful of the police today.

The 1991 Rodney King riots is part of the legacy of Parker as manifested by Daryl F. Gates.

From Parker’s short lived The Thin Blue Line television show designed to enforce respect and support for police forces across the nation, the symbol for police solidarity emerged.

It emerged from a man who viewed policing as them versus us and who labeled Mexicans in Los Angeles “as not far removed from the wild tribes of Mexico.”