Lines and Shadows by Joseph Wambaugh

Lines and Shadows by Joseph Wambaugh

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Lines and Shadows by Joseph Wambaugh


Lines and Shadows, by Joseph Wambaugh, tells the story of a group of regular San Diego street cops assigned to a task force designated to stop the victimization of illegal aliens by bandits in a hellish no-man's land near the Mexico-United States border. The officers soon realize the issue may be too big for regular street cops such as themselves, and many must deal with the psychological, emotional, and social conflicts caused and manifested by the events that occur during their mission.

Lines and Shadows, by Joseph Wambaugh, tells two stories simultaneously. One takes place at an imaginary line between two very different economies. The other takes place at the imaginary line between sanity and madness. Both of these imaginary lines are crossed as a result of the San Diego Police Department sending a task force of young officers, most of whom are Mexican-American, into a no-man's land south of San Diego known as "Deadman's Canyon", located near the Mexican border. Their function and purpose, they are told, is to arrest bandits that are victimizing illegal Mexican immigrants crossing the border into America.
The main theme of the book can be realized in the epilogue when is states "they did it the only way they knew-not ingeniously, merely instinctively-by trying to resurrect in the late twentieth century a mythic hero who never was…the Gunslinger." (Wambaugh, 1984, p. 382)" The message the author attempted to convey is, simply put, police were never meant to be action heroes. In my opinion, he is telling a story of what happens when law enforcement gets too caught up in the "crime fighting role" of policing. Wambaugh conveys this by revealing to us what happens to each of the members of the task force the more they go out into those canyons.

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The mission of the unit was to arrest bandits who were victimizing illegal Mexican immigrants crossing the American border into the canyons nearby. At first they attempted to do this as commandos would. They armed themselves with shotguns and handguns and went out into the canyons with a strategy that consisted of ambushing the bandits while attempting to rob pollos. After this strategy failed miserably, the developed a new one. The unit decided to have a walking team consisting of the Mexican-American officers posing as pollos so they could attract the bandits to them. Once the bandits attempted to rob them, a severe beating and then an arrest would take place. They would have a support team waiting nearby to come in and help when things escalated. The support team consisted of Robbie Hurt and Dick Snider in the beginning, and Ken Kelly later on. They even carried the same cigarettes and matches that real pollos would, since bandits often demanded a smoke before victimizing the pollos. The unit consisted of approximately ten men, most of whom were Mexican-American. The man responsible for the idea of creating the task force, eventually known as B.A.R.F. (Border Alien Robbery Force) was Lieutenant Dick Snider. However as the experiment continued, he was pushed further and further out of the picture, until he was out of it completely, and Manny Lopez eventually not only became the leader but the sole symbolic figure of the force itself. The unit was deemed an "experiment" by the San Diego Police Department since nothing like this was ever done by police officers before.
There were several pros and cons regarding the mission of the unit. In my opinion, there were more cons. Some good came out of their mission, especially one event in particular. One night, while they came across a tunnel that crossed the border, they stumbled upon a group of young thugs terrorizing a number of pollos. One thug was about to rape a young Mexican girl, around age 12, while her mother watched hopelessly. Hence the team prevented the rape before it happened. The unit prevented another rape as well, that of a female pollo around age 24 by a bandit. They curtailed alien robberies for a short while, but in the end the robberies continued as before. As word of the task force spread due to much media attention, it did at least give the pollos a sense of hope. It also gave the San Diego Police Department good P.R.
There were many cons of the unit's mission. Lawmen from both countries were shot by other lawmen. The presence of the task force eventually caused bandits to start robbing pollos south of the border before the pollos even crossed. This of course caused the task force, comprised of American police officers, to cross into Mexican territory to continue their mission. Eventually tensions rose between the Tijuana police and the San Diego task force. Since the waking team had to pose as pollos every night they went out there, it became increasingly hard for the officers to jump in and out of role. They eventually started running from Border Patrol just as real pollos would. Since the violence escalated and the unit started to become involved in firefights with bandits and Mexican lawmen, the Sand Diego Police Department had to use time and manpower to send homicide detectives into the canyons to investigate. The presence of the unit caused the bandits to become more violent. They started skipping the foreplay they usually conducted before robbing pollos and cut straight to the chase, often revealing weapons at the time of encounter. Overall, I don't think the mission was worth the time and casualties in police personnel. I support my opinion using the incident where the unit was confronted by two bandits, one of which had a starter gun. The tension rose and the unit started shooting only to result in two B.A.R.F. members to be shot by their own guy.
Many conflicts started to arise within the members of B.A.R.F., both personally and with each other. Their jobs were starting to heavily affect their marriages. Many of them also started drinking very heavily. After going out into the canyons at night to carry out their mission the team would go to the bars until they shut down and would not return home to their wives until late at night. A good example would be B.A.R.F. member Robbie Hurt, who felt it was necessary to drink heavily since he never got to release all the adrenaline build up like the officers on the walking team did. Eventually Robbie and his wife got divorced. Many of the officers started to question the purpose of their mission and their own individual role in it. Many thought about quitting but hesitated because they all feared scrutiny from their leader Manny Lopez. The team members started to lose hope in what they were doing, fearing they would die for nothing. They were often criticized by San Diego police officers outside of the team, sometimes for how they beat down the bandits before arresting them.
Everyone on the unit suffered psychological effects as well. It is important to mention that many of the officers on the squad came from broken homes and rough childhoods. As the mission continued, they each started to develop their own motives for being out in the canyons. It seemed like a unified mission turned into personal vendettas. Hence their purpose of helping the plight of the pollos was clouded. Some of them continued because they felt as if they had to prove something to their lost fathers. Manny Lopez himself did it because he felt he could do anything he wanted in the canyons, a no mans-land with no laws to abide by. After experiencing intense firefights and witnessing their teammates get shot, the psychological effects started to manifest in each of them. Some of them began to realize that this was not a job for street cops. They seemed to grow increasingly distant from each other. Many of them felt a sense of betrayal, but none of them could indicate whom their betrayer was. In the end three members had to undergo psychological counseling.
I believe that the officers, after serving on B.A.R.F., would be prone to violent tendencies when returning to perform regular police work. For many months they performed a job in which they reacted violently toward suspects. They became accustomed to administering beatings and sometimes shootings suspects they encountered. A good example would be Ken Kelly. After returning to patrol, he shot a fleeing van full of teenagers steeling some beer, injuring an unarmed kid. Afterwards he couldn't even explain why he shot, it just seemed that was his natural way of reacting to the situation.
Lines and Shadows gives insight to what happens when cops play gunslingers. It emphasizes the emotional trauma and the resulting inner and outer conflicts when police officers are asked to step outside the lines and react in situations they are not accustomed to. These situations can result in severe psychological effects and problems in all aspects of their lives.
Wambaugh, J. (1984) Lines and shadows. New York: Perigord Press
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