FACT CHECK   Do blue lines painted on curbs signify a residence where a police officer can reliably find “back-up”?

Claim:   Blue lines painted on curbs signify a residence where a police officer can reliably find “back-up.”

   MIXTURE

Example:    [Collected via Facebook, September 2015]

The Safe Harbor Initiative:

To all law enforcement who see this line, know that the residents of this home appreciate your service and dedication to keeping the peace. Know that when you enter the neighborhood and see these lines that you are not alone or without “back-up”. We do not need the media to make our voices of support for our police and emergency services heard (though it would be nice). Lastly, if you are in my neighborhood and mean to harm a member of law enforcement, know that decision may be hazardous to you health as someone has that officers back!

Please share.

Origins:   The period 2014-15 saw an ongoing public debate in the United States about police and policing: one faction held that corruption among law enforcement was rife and the cause of unnecessary civilian deaths at the hands of police, while another held that Americans were increasingly at war with cops and unappreciative of their difficult jobs and their sacrifices. (Social media rumors about rudeness to police often seem to quickly follow high profile controversies involving police and race, such as the death of Eric Garner or the McKinney pool party incident.)

One thread of that debate suggested that the focus of reactive movements such as “Black Lives Matter” was essentially attacking police. In response, on 9 September 2015 Facebook user Anthony Welichko posted the example shown above, proposing an idea to support police that he dubbed the “Safe Harbor Initiative.” (The idea later carried over to a number of September 2015 blog posts titled “Have You Seen Blue Strip on Curb? Here’s The INCREDIBLE Reason Behind It.”)

The “Safe Harbor” proposal is clearly well-intentioned, and the person who asked social media users to share it meant only to encourage a broadly adoptable method of showing support for police officers. However, its functional application is somewhat unsound and ill-suited for the purpose it’s supposed to serve.

One issue with this proposal is that curb markers are often used by agencies such as public works departments to indicate locations work sites or important structural information. One example comes from Bozeman, Montana, where the very same signal illustrated in the “Safe Harbor” proposal was already in use:

Water operators are locating, operating, adjusting grade if needed and updating location maps. They will paint the top of the box blue and put a blue strip on the curb adjacent to the street so that it is easier to find for any future work such as getting a Global Positioning System point for it.

Bozeman is presumably not the only location wherein public works officials utilize painted strips of blue on curbs as internal signals. Adopting that system to show moral support for police would create confusion over whether such markings were related to law enforcement protection or infrastructural projects.

Additionally, blue strips painted on curbs are not particularly visible during non-daylight hours. It’s not reasonable to expect that police responding to evening or nighttime calls will first examine neighborhood curbsides with their flashlights to determine whether they have any community support in the area.

Another matter is whether or not the proposal is (or ever will be) known outside of a few thousand shares on Facebook. Unless and until it is a widely used (or at least widely recognized) system, it will not be recognizable or useful to police.

Finally, any form of reliance on such an informal and unofficial system is fraught with peril. Would a person who was hostile to police likely have any compunctions about painting a marking on his curb in order to mislead cops into a false (and potentially tragic) sense of security? If not, it’s unlikely that police would ever gain much benefit or place any reliance on the use of such symbols.

Aside from all of those issues, just how are civilians supposed to provide “back-up” or “have [an officer’s back]” during a hypothetical adversarial event or crime in progress? Police everywhere (while typically grateful for public support) are pretty firm about urging well-meaning civilians not to interfere with law enforcement activities. Routinely, cops emphatically request that civilians present at crime scenes assist merely by staying out of the way and closely following their instructions, not by leaping in to serve as untrained “back-up.”

Police departments across the United States (examples here, here, here, here, here, and here [PDF, PDF]) are consistent and firm in their guidance on this matter: civilians should not intervene with crimes in progress, especially when police are already on the scene. Those who do may end up injured (potentially fatally), and untrained intervention poses severe risk to both other civilians and responding officers. This reason alone is enough to be extremely cautious about spreading the “blue strip” rumor, as the police require cooperation with the commands they’ve issued to bystanders more than they need encouragement for the public to act as crime scene cheerleaders.

While the “Safe Harbor Initiative”/blue strip curb paint idea was one borne of a desire to show support for police, for many reasons the proposed practice is likely to be of negligible benefit to any officers. Most important, the message encourages a practice police departments universally disdain: civilian intervention in crimes in progress. Well-meaning, untrained civilians who’ve taken it upon themselves to “help” the police are generally more of a burden and hindrance than anything else, so if you think police might need your help during an event, it’s best to wait for them to ask you for assistance.

It’s understandable that folks are moved to give back to hard-working police officers across the country, and one Quora user (who is also a retired cop) offered a list of safe ways for civilians to do so without interfering with police activity:

1) Obey the law. Don’t be someone the cops have to be concerned about.

2) Avoid being a victim. Lock your car, lock your house, don’t take needless risks or act recklessly.

3) Be vigilant. Get to know your neighbors, and become aware of what is normal and typical, and what isn’t. When you see something that “Just Don’t Look Right” and may be indicative of a crime, inquire if you can do so safely and without undue risk, and/or call the police.

4) See if your local law enforcement agency has any volunteer programs you can participate in. These vary from being a reserve police officer (requires considerable commitment) to helping with clerical duties at the police station. There may not be anything available that appeals to you, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. If nothing else, ask, “How can I help you do your jobs?” Every community has its special needs.

5) If you become aware of information that could help to solve a crime, pick up the phone. Sometimes tips like these provide valuable investigative leads, sometimes not. 100% of the information the police don’t hear about is useless.

6) If you’re a parent, be a good one. Teach your children that life is full of choices and choices have consequences. Know where your kids are and have some idea of what they are up to.

“Slacktivist” initiatives such as painting blue strips on curbs may give a temporary feeling of accomplishment, but those truly concerned with the plight of police officers would do better to donate to law enforcement charities or volunteer in an official capacity where civilian hands are needed (and wanted). Last updated:    15 September 2015

First published:    15 September 2015