A January Reuters poll showed that nearly a third of Americans agree with the statement “Police routinely lie to serve their own interests,” with another quarter stating they were “unsure.” It also reported that nearly 40% believe they unfairly target minorities. So why is it that when we depict them on TV we can’t help but identify with their need to violate civil rights?
If one were to judge by Facebook or Twitter posts, or if one were to turn on cable news on any channel except FOX, they might be fooled into believing we take the routine violation of our civil rights by police officers as not just a serious problem, but among the most serious we face as a nation. This week’s revelations of two horrific killings of unarmed suspects by police have prompted a new wave of hashtags seeking justice.
But then turn on the TV for scripted programming and what do you find?
Show after show, from the comedic police drama (Battle Creek) to the hardened cop genre (Chicago PD) is basically built around the concept that cops who cut corners end up getting the job done for the better of society at large. Or worse, that when society will do nothing, we need incredibly violent vigilante defenders, sometimes in uniform and sometimes with their complicity, to come in and quite literally bust heads (Daredevil, Gotham).
Ironically it’s Hollywood’s ultra-liberal defenders of every cause that they hear about, regardless of whether they understand its complexities at all, who perpetrate this obscene hypocrisy.
You know me, at least if you’ve ever read this column before; I’m no scold. I’m not advocating for boring TV and movies that don’t show any of the complexities and gray areas of life. That doesn’t help anything, least of all the arts. But do you think we’ll ever see a piece of scripted drama that highlights the problems we really face as a culture?
A person is far more likely to have their property or currency unlawfully seized (and never returned) by police over suspicion of a crime then they are to be victimized by some mastermind that requires extralegal handling from a crusading cop or superhero. Wouldn’t that make for exciting TV?
Or maybe for once we could just get a movie where an Internal Affairs officer is actually the protagonist?
Brilliant writers like the great John Milius gave us cops like Dirty Harry, and as far as authoritarian goons go (and I mean that with only love and respect) both Milius and Harry Calahan are admirable heroes. But their ultimate conceit, that it’s foolish to believe you can get justice by following the rules, is the ultimate irony. What’s really foolish is to believe that most of the guys breaking the rules are doing so with pure intent and successful results.
The truth of it is that while occasionally justice might require a police officer to bend the rules, and while it is certainly true that not all or even most police do bend the rules, in aggregate we’d be much better served by police who follow the letter of the law in spirit and in word.
And ultimately it’s (for once) not a partisan issue. Liberals have long been on the side of the accused, but conservatives and libertarians interested in limited government and maximum personal freedom are also largely on the same page about this. Certainly it would be unfair to take a handful of extremely ugly events, such as the recent spate of police shootings of minorities, as the measure of the policing done by all of our officers across the country. But it’s also willfully ignorant to sit back and pretend that small abuses aren’t widespread, and that they hurt this country no matter what the color of your skin is.
Perhaps the first step is to stop fetishizing bad behavior on Sunday night and decrying it on Monday morning.