Obsessing About The “Thin Blue Lines” While Elite White-Collar Crime Runs Rampant

By William K. Black
July 4, 2016     Bloomington, MN

The New York Times published a book review entitled “Thin Blue Lines.”  The two books reviewed were about street crimes.  Based solely on reading the NYT book review, and wearing my criminology hat, neither book adds materially to the useful literature.  The two books, and the book review, however, share a common characteristic that is worth analysis.  All three conflate “street crime” with “crime” and “police” with “law enforcement.”  The “blue lines,” of course, refer to police, rather than the FBI white-collar crime section that is supposed to investigate elite white-collar crime.  If the American police represent “thin blue lines,” then in comparison the pittance of law enforcement personnel charged with investigating elite white-collar crime represent the sheerest tissue paper – so insubstantial that they must be described as diaphanous or gossamer.

We are living with the consequences of the three most devastating epidemics of elite financial frauds (liar’s loans, appraisal fraud, and the fraudulent resale of these fraudulently originated mortgages through fraudulent “reps and warranties”) in U.S. history.  Not a single executive who led, and became exceptionally wealthy, by leading those epidemics has been imprisoned or even required to pay back the fraud proceeds.  But none of this shows up in reported “crime rates” for a reason so basic and so outrageous that it reveals how little our political cronies care about crimes by their elite supporters.  The FBI and the Department of Justice refuse to keep statistics on the most damaging white-collar crimes committed by elites.

The reviewer, Barry Friedman, is an academic whose principal areas of expertise are street crimes and policing.  The authors of the two books that Friedman reviews are distinct.  Malcolm Sparrow is a former police official in the UK and a U.S. academic.  He is best known for his disastrous aid to Bill Clinton and Al Gore’s “reinventing government” (ReGo) movement.  ReGo, exacerbated by George W. Bush’s “Wrecking Crew” (see Tom Frank’s devastating book by that title), created the intensely criminogenic environment that was critical to generating the three fraud epidemics that drove the financial crisis and the world’s largest cartels (Libor and FX).

The other book that Friedman reviewed is a travesty by someone who lacks expertise even in blue-collar crime.  It is sad that the NYT would review it and that Friedman’s review draws a false equivalency between Sparrow (supposedly representing “the Left” though he is center-right on white-collar crime and regulation) and a wacko who supposedly represents “the Right.”   Friedman spends most of his review on the wacko’s claims.  (The wacko, in other diatribes, is also hostile to effective regulation and prosecution of elite white-collar criminals.)  While he is critical of her assertions, which are not supported by the data, Friedman leaves the following assertion unrebutted.

Second, there is a “false narrative” of racial discrimination in policing. In truth, she asserts, blacks commit far more crime, and policing simply follows the crime.

If anything, Friedman seems to endorse her claim, for he also leaves the following claim unchallenged.

Take stop-and-frisk in New York. Those who challenged it proved that members of minorities were stopped with a frequency far in excess of their percentage of the city’s population. The Police Department responded that if you compared the frequency of stops with the rates at which minorities were reported to have committed crimes, they actually were not stopping people of color often enough.

Rather than taking the NYPD claim on, Friedman remarks that even if people of color commit far more crimes than whites, it still did not justify stopping millions of innocent people of color.

Notice that the wacko, like the NYPD, conflates “crime” with “reported crime.”  The victims of elite white-collar crime, however, typically do not know that they are the victims of fraud.  Elite white-collar frauds occurred in the three fraud epidemics millions of times annually.  VW committed 11 million fraudulent sales.  Takata sold tens of millions of airbags with defective designs, components, storage, and assembly.  The people who committed those crimes were overwhelmingly and disproportionately not blacks and Latinos.  None of these elite white-collar crimes, however, is “reported.”  Any competent criminologist knows not to conflate “crime” and “reported crime” and not to conflate “crime” with “street crimes.”  The VW and Takata examples also show that elite white-collar crimes can maim and kill.  Had Friedman taken elite white-collar crime seriously he would never have allowed the racist memes of the wacko or the NYPD to go unrebutted.

Friedman’s discussion of reforms is also degraded by his failure to consider elite-white collar crime.

The sort of reform that Sparrow seeks won’t happen until we are candid about, and tackle, the politics of policing and crime.


But mostly what is needed is popular involvement in decision-making, what Sparrow calls “a two-sided deal: the police and public working together not only to achieve results, but also to set the agenda.” That’s exactly right. When the people are collaborating with the police on policy and practice, when there is joint ownership of what the police do, then — and very likely only then — will the debates about the legitimacy of policing evaporate.

Yes, we need to be “candid” about the politics of “law enforcement” and “crime.”  Note that Sparrow and Friedman use “policing” rather than “law enforcement” (reflecting their exclusive consideration of street crime).  Why is it that our police forces, which are massive, not “thin,” rarely investigate elite white-collar crime and refuse to even collect data on it?  Why do Sparrow and Friedman conflate “street crime” with “crime” – implicitly excluding elite white-collar crime?  A candid discussion would demonstrate two uncomfortable truths documented by criminologists.  The criminal “justice” system is rigged in favor of elite white-collar criminals because of their political, economic, and cultural/class power.  The same system is often rigged against disfavored minorities and poorer Americans.

Similarly, Friedman’s discussion of his own policy views would be far stronger if he broadened them to include elite white-collar crime and “law enforcement” rather than “policing.”  Friedman says that “what is needed” is “joint ownership of what the police do” with the people.

Consider how our system of near absolute impunity for elite white-collar financial criminals would be transformed if the American people – instead of the industry – were allowed to take “joint ownership” with the regulators (the regulatory “cops on the beat”) and the law enforcement community to restore the rule of law to Wall Street.  That is one of the central changes that Bernie Sanders has been fighting to bring to America.  Hillary Clinton could, and should, embrace that restoration of the rule of law.

7 responses to “Obsessing About The “Thin Blue Lines” While Elite White-Collar Crime Runs Rampant

  1. You come closest to the truth in this: “The criminal ‘justice’ system is rigged in favor of elite white-collar criminals because of their political, economic, and cultural/class power. The same system is often rigged against disfavored minorities and poorer Americans.” The system is designed to protect white collar predatory-parasitic financial criminals at the expense of their victims.

    The saga of Harry M. Markopolos and the SEC regarding Bernard Madoff is exemplary. Markopolos gives them all the data needed to put Madoff’s head into a noose; underlings are over-ruled by protective superiors; finally, as a compromise, Madoff admits to a technical violation (if memory serves having an excess number of clients of a certain sort without registering as the type of agent required to handle so many) and game’s over until Madoff’s Ponzi scheme collapses on its own in public. So too is the journey of several states attorneys-general to D.C. to report to the DOJ of rampant financing real-estate financing fraud on which they could not act directly because–mirabile dictu!–a legal technicality put the fraud under federal jurisdiction. The DOJ of the Bush administration told them to go home–that it was none of their business. Please, this is control fraud at the highest level; it is how our society is organized.

  2. Nat Uerlich

    Thank you Professor Black.

    A relevant classic (from 1940): “White-Collar Criminality,” by Edwin H. Sutherland ( http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/savvy/images/asa/docs/pdf/1939%20Presidential%20Address%20(Edwin%20Sutherland).pdf )

    • Nat Uerlich

      Please note: ” .pdf ” is part of the URL.

      The article was published in the _American Sociological Review_, Volume 5, Number 1, February 1940.

    • Thank you Nat for the wonderful citation to Sutherland’s brilliant analysis. I read it quickly and noted only one small fault, viz., in his alternative explanation for the genesis of crime Sutherland imagines as a quasi-necessary condition “that those who learn this criminal behavior are segregated from frequent and intimate contacts with law-abiding behavior. Whether or not a person becomes a criminal is determined largely by the comparative frequency and intimacy of his contacts with the two types of behavior.”

      This is misguided. All that is required is that the criminal behavior constitute a “folkway” as he puts it that is profitable and relatively safe and secure because of the implicit and often explicit support of the legal system. The white-collar felons he describes are exposed to all sort of innocent, legal and moral behaviors but these don’t rub off on them and the crooks know enough to conceal their criminal behavior from the more honest people with whom they spend most of their time. They know what they are doing and they do not want to get caught. And of course I am not denying such platitudes as “birds of a feather flock together” nor the fact that thieves tend to spend more time and enjoy more shared emotional intimacy with fellow-thieves. But anyone from the embezzler to the con-man spends his time fooling or bilking the honest folk around him, and even the robber barons spend a good deal of their time with honest people whom they routinely deceive.

  3. And the supreme court ruled 8 nothing that white collar bribery isn’t really bribery. Taking money and giving favors isn’t a crime for governors like McDonnell in Virginia. The court has set the bar so high for bribery that there will be very few cases even brought, let alone convictions.

    • You fail to appreciate the dispassionate wisdom of the Supreme Court. With equal justice it declined to review the conviction of Alabama Governor Don Siegelman–imprisoned by the Rove-Cheney DOJ for exposing their midnight vote-count rigging in 2002 and then having the temerity to challenge them again politically. Despite a hundred or so former state attorneys-general signing a petition for his release on the grounds of prosecution of a factitious crime, he remains in federal prison. The DOJ attorney argued against Siegelman’s appeal on the grounds that “there is no constitutional right not to be framed,” and the Supremes, in their impartial wisdom reflected in such gems as Collins v. Herrera (no constitutional right not to be executed merely because factually innocent), agreed by denying certiorari.

  4. notrealamerican

    Bribery and white collar crime are core Real American values, as much as baseball, gerrymandering, apple pie and leverage speculation. My usual two quotes from political scientist A deTocqueville nearly 2 centuries and historian N Gingrich quite a bit more recently:

    «Consequently, in the United States the law favors those classes that elsewhere are most interested in evading it.
    It may therefore be supposed that an offensive law of which the majority should not see the immediate utility would either not be enacted or not be obeyed.
    In America there is no law against fraudulent bankruptcies, not because they are few, but because they are many. The dread of being prosecuted as a bankrupt is greater in the minds of the majority than the fear of being ruined by the bankruptcy of others; and a sort of guilty tolerance is extended by the public conscience to an offense which everyone condemns in his individual capacity.»
    «If you have a society where almost every middle class person routinely fudges the law, that’s telling us something. We have laws that matter – murder, rape, and we have laws that don’t matter. Speed limits are an example. Why would you think that a regulatory, process-oriented bureaucratic model would work?
    The first thing that every good American says each morning is “What’s the angle?” “How can I get around it?” “What does my lawyer think?” “There must be a loophole!” Then he proceeds to work the angle, and the bureaucracy spends its time chasing that and writing new regs to stop him. America is the most incentive-driven society on the planet.»

    Bill Black is probably perceived by most Real Americans outside the midwest as an annoying jimini cricket.

    Conversely Real American, who themselves love the idea that they might scam a bit more on expenses, on taxes, on whatever they sell, on insurance, we terrified of the threat of subhumans infecting their white-picket fenced suburban enclaves, and have signed a “no velvet gloves”, “licence to kill” approach for the police to terrorize “nasty” people, who it must admitted in large part because of many lifetimes of brutality are in effect often immersed in a quite nasty culture.

    If you want to understand who the classes in control of the political system are, you just have to look at who routinely gets away with it in the practice of the law. In the USA it is light skinned women and all colors of finance executives.