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by Peter Moskos

September 15, 2009

Good Cops, Bad Cops… and Bad Emmys

Randy Cohen writes in his New York Times blog:
The Emmys will be awarded this Sunday, Sept. 20. As ever, among the nominees are various police programs (“C.S.I.,” “Life on Mars,” “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “The Closer,” “Saving Grace”) built around the Hero Cop. It might be a Hero Cop with a flaw — a drinking problem, a disdain for the rules, an alarming tendency to travel through time — but the quintessence persists, one so fantastical as to constitute a fundamental falsehood. Does according special praise to these shows endorse and hence promulgate a lie?
Read the answer here (I'm quoted in it).


Stilgar said...

You and Cohen both make excellent points. To my mind, there are two large problems with the way the American media and public treats police officers.

The first is similar to what Cohen mentions in the opening paragraph. For lack of a better term, I call it "police exceptionalism". Cop shows and fawning newspaper profiles like to hit on the idea that there is something essentially righteous about police officers and that the badge is a mystical talisman that grants abilities beyond the reach of normal men.

I'm sorry, but this is hogwash. Law enforcement is a dangerous job, for both the police and the policed. It's carried out by human beings. All of these humans are ultimately responsible for their own actions. A culture that says that police are inherently different from non-police is a culture in which personal responsibility will disappear.

My other big problem is with the use of the word "hero". Our national use of the word (when we're not describing athletes or people who donate two cans to a soup kitchen- but that's a different issue) is basically stuck in a Homeric mindset. If somebody describes somebody else as a hero, it's a good bet that they're talking about someone brave, assertive, and ass-kicking. Because we associate these trends with police, all police become heroes.

Again, hogwash. Many police officers act heroically. Many act in cruel, even evil ways. And many just want to do their job and go home. Pretty much every human to ever live will act in all of those ways before they die.

As an example: is Radley Balko a hero? I'm sure some readers of this blog would say no, because they see some of his reporting on police action as irresponsible and insulting to their profession. It's possible that some of his writing is malicious or that he makes mountains out of molehills.

There is, however, no question that some of his actions- working to free innocent men from Death Row and expose a medical examiner who mutilated corpses for the prosecution's benefit- are heroic. These are acts of good the likes of which most people will never accomplish. And yet, he' still a normal guy. He likes to watch football and play with his dog. As far as I know, he does not rescue fair maidens or slay dragons. He's passionate about his cause, and does heroic work in support of it, but that does not make him Superman.

That's a roundabout way of saying that we need to tamp down the hero and villain rhetoric across the board. Very few people are all good or all evil. It's possible to praise somebody for acting heroically without turning that into a referendum on the person or his organization. Wearing a badge doesn't make someone a hero. Working hard, acting justly and using his power appropriately are far more accurate measures, and even those are insufficient to judge a person's whole life. Damn, after writing all that, I can see why people prefer the quick and easy perspectives. Thanks to anyone who slogged all the way through.

PCM said...

That's deep.

Let me sleep on that and get back to you.

quite annoyed said...

nay, I say that Radley Balko is a quite the piece of garbage, and for these very reasons:

THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of warrants are executed every year, for either arrest or search purposes. Executing a warrant is one of the most dangerous things a L/E Officer can do. Despite preparation and training, when you hit that door and enter, chaos usually ensues.

A mere handful of warrants every year are the result of mistaken information, improper behavior by the Police or deliberate improprieties. Yet the esteemed journalist like to draw attention to the very few where Police make mistakes or possibly act wrongly. Does it happen? Of course, to deny it would be ignorant of the truth. But the real truth is that more hard-working Cops are injured and killed during the execution of these warrants than Balko's downtrodden, abused citizens he so fervently defends.

It bothers me when someone emphasizes the statistically insignificant as if it where the norm or commonplace, while at the same time besmirching an honorable profession because he hates the Police, hates government, and hates the fact that the Courts are allowing Police to enter the homes of his criminal pets.

Having participated in the execution of hundreds of search warrants has made me incredibly biased in favor of the folks who are trying to do a job that no one appreciates, and one in which people like Balko wishes would stop so that they can continue to engage in whatever criminal enterprise they want in the privacy of their home.

One Time said...

Randy C. comes off like, to borrow a term from today's youth, a "player hater." I'm sure he wouldn't have an axe to grind if Hollywood helped get him laid through gassed up portrayals of geeky New York Times bloggers.

PCM said...

But writers always come off looking good in movies and TV because every script is written by... a writer!

Also, as my dad once pointed out to me, a disproportionate number of TV and movie plots have writer's block as part of the theme.

Stilgar said...


That reminds me of a great line by the science fiction writer Joe Haldeman: "Bad books on writing and thoughtless English professors solemnly tell beginners to 'Write What You Know', which explains why so many mediocre novels are about English professors contemplating adultery."