Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Good Cop Bad Cop

Politics, again, for those that want fair warning. It’s what happens when you write a weekly thing, you use the stuff that’s on your mind. Well, this is what’s on my mind, I’m afraid. Buckle up.

I missed last week because trying to write anything coherent was beyond me. The news was too awful and hitting too close to home. Friends and former students out in the streets, angry and afraid.

Afraid of the police.

This week isn’t any better, really. The cascade of police brutality reports from all over the country shows no sign of subsiding. The ugliness of the thin blue line, and of the rancid ideology behind it, has been aired in all its bloody foulness.

I have no authority to speak about what all this means for people of color. I’m a middle-aged WASP who grew up in Lake Oswego, Oregon, one of the whitest towns in a state that was originally founded as a white paradise. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t even know about Oregon’s Black Exclusion laws (details here) until I was researching my novel a few years ago. It’s like fish who can’t see water; growing up, white privilege was so baked into my status quo that the only time I ever saw a black or brown person was on television. Never in person, not to talk to, not until I was in high school. They were just nowhere around.

So I am utterly unqualified to talk about what recent events mean for race and black culture. I will leave that to the people who have actual knowledge and experience to share about it.

What I want to talk about instead is how unnerving it has been to realize a childhood myth was a lie, it was always a lie, and I have been blind to the evidence of that lie even when it was right in front of me. Ever since…. well, at least since 1981 when the Burger Barn incident in north Portland erupted into a scandal.

Longer than that, if I’m honest. When I was a kid I saw the television news about Kent State, Daley and the Chicago riots, all of that stuff. The Portland one was just the first one that made my radar at home, it happened where I lived. That was when it got real.

Except it didn’t. Not for me.

No, I have remained embarrassingly, blissfully ignorant of the pervasiveness of police misconduct despite a staggering amount of evidence right in plain sight. I’ve seen cops macing unarmed protestors at WTO. I’ve seen black citizens–some children– killed by mistake. I’ve seen a credentialed reporter–AFTER she identified herself–blinded by a ‘non-lethal’ rubber bullet, and a minor child gassed in the face, both within the last week. That’s just what I noticed, the things that made the news.

All of this comes without any kind of real consequences to either the individuals or the institution. In the infrequent cases after the cops that committed such acts are suspended or disciplined (but almost never fired or charged with a crime) I’ve seen cops protesting even those minor disciplinary actions. Even though it’s already weaksauce punishment for clearly out-of-control brutality against unarmed citizens, acts of malice that should be treated as felonies– and would be, if the perpetrators weren’t in uniform. Here’s an unconscious senior citizen lying on the ground bleeding out his ear after cops shoved him to the pavement. Look at all the concern he’s being shown from those who protect and serve.

And yet, despite all of this, this last week watching the news, my primary reaction is still, when you scrape the paint off, one of baffled disbelief. All I can think is But…they can’t be doing this. They’re cops.

That thought, the paralyzing it-can’t-be-real bafflement, keeps repeating on a loop. I’m still trying to get my mind around the basic fact that’s right in front of me and all the rest of us living here in the bubble, the one black and brown kids know from kindergarten: this is how police act.

Those of you reading this who did not grow up in the white bubble of privilege that I did are probably already shaking their heads and chuckling, oh you poor naive fool. I know. It’s been right in front of me my whole life. I admit it. But hear me out.

See, I’m not talking about the idea that bad cops exist. Of course they do. We all knew that. No, the wake-up call that white America is getting now is that bad cops are the majority. And for those of us that bought into the myth of the Good Cop That Is Holding The Line Against CRIME, it’s disturbing in a really fundamental way.

Because in my heart, I always believed the police were the good guys. That’s the default. Period.

Corruption here and there, sure, but always in the past tense. It’s not the sixties any more, or even Portland in the 1980s. Whenever the media got hold of a story about bad cops, it was always about them getting caught. I figured those guys are gone, they got suspended or fired or whatever. Good riddance. Moving on. But my interior default position, one I wasn’t even really aware I had until the riots erupted nationwide this last week, was that most policemen are good people working at a thankless job.

Here’s the thing. I didn’t get that from experience with real police. I don’t have any of that to speak of. My experience talking to real policemen, all told, probably adds up to less than two hours total over the course of the fifty-nine years I’ve been on the planet. A couple of traffic tickets, a burglary report, a school visit or two.

No, my internal conception of “policeman” comes from a totally different place. I got it from movies and comics and books and, especially, TV. From Dick Tracy to The Rookies to the men of the 87th Precinct, I internalized that concept to a degree I wasn’t even consciously aware of.

And honestly? This is primarily how most middle-class white folks like me have experienced cops. That power of that myth is what progressive reform activists are up against. When we are accused of wilful blindness to the issues of racism and police corruption, living inside a bubble of white privilege, and so on and so on, that is what they are trying to explain to us. Because we really think it’s like what Joe Friday says here….

Watching that clip again while writing this, I can feel my brain saying, well, he’s not wrong, he’s not GLAMORIZING it. And he’s not.

Except for the part where he kind of is. At no point ever is Friday’s description not heroic. It’s just a heroism that will never be celebrated or rewarded. And also at no point, ever, does he mention the personal power that comes with being a policeman as anything other than a burden. When the ugly truth is that there is an enormous amount of power that goes with being a cop and it’s largely unchecked. Remember this one? Unlawful Entry.

For those that don’t, it’s a nice little horror movie about a cop turned stalker. The horror is derived from how utterly helpless and without recourse Kurt Russell is to do anything about it…because the stalker is a cop.

The uncomfortable truth is that Ray Liotta in Unlawful Entry is a lot more plausible than Joe Friday.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Dragnet, and it annoys me no end that so many right-wingers have made Friday a mascot for their ideals. One of these days I’m going to get around to the column about how Captain James Kirk is really a fascist and Joe Friday’s really a more of a thoughtful liberal, and how weird it is that those characterizations got reversed in the public mind. Here is possibly my favorite Joe Friday moment.

If Joe Friday were the actual current pop culture ideal of a policeman, I’d be totally okay with that. He’s absolutely a policeman I’d be okay with stopping me or anyone I know, white or black. But he’s not. Weary, plodding Joe Friday is not the ideal.

No, when devotees of crime fiction talk about cool cops, the ones they like seeing stories about, they are FAR more likely to be talking about someone like Dirty Harry Callahan or Martin Riggs. A guy who’s not afraid to go rogue and get shit done, someone who doesn’t have time for red tape. Someone badass.

I’m certainly not immune to this. I grew up on Starsky and Hutch and The Mod Squad, both shows about police officers who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and lie to their superiors in order to serve the greater good. Over the last month or so Julie and I have been watching reruns of CSI: Miami and we love it when Horatio Caine “goes full Batman” on bad guys, as Julie puts it.

Miranda? Are you kidding? Due process is for sissies. It’s not cool.

Most of the time, accepted procedure is something to get around. Like, say, here in 48 Hrs. Note that Nolte’s superior in this scene, who is right about everything he said here by the way, is meant to be seen as an obstacle to the real work of catching a criminal, and prejudiced besides.

It’s a very short walk from Nick Nolte’s character in 48 Hrs. to this officer beating the shit out of an unarmed man until his partner finally pulls him off. From Baltimore in 2018.

Joe Friday would NOT approve. But I suspect Dirty Harry and Martin Riggs and even Harry Bosch would excuse it. Heat of the moment. It happens. Whatever.

Look, I love all these badass fictional cops. I am not trying to make the case that popular culture CAUSES police violence, any more than I think violent video games cause kids to become murderers.

But I do think that popular culture frames our narrative. I think that, right or wrong, the fact is that our conception of people in professions we know nothing about –whether it’s cops or firemen or doctors or whoever– doesn’t come from real life. It comes from fiction. Popular fiction.

Even the good ones– efforts like Blue Bloods or Cop Land or any of another dozen examples I could name that have their hearts in the right place– are still taking the same position that I’ve blindly held all my life. That the cops are the good guys by default, and the few bad ones are an occasional aberration that has to be rooted out. Period.

That’s just not so. There’s overwhelming evidence that the bad ones are not some aberration. We keep getting told it’s systemic, it’s the culture that has to change.

That’s all true. But in the end, it comes down to this: Bad cops act brutally because we enable them. We enable them because we assume Right Is On Their Side. We assume that because we’ve been told that since we were old enough to consume entertainment.

But how do we decide what’s right? Who gets to decide? Even Dirty Harry has qualms about it.

I don’t have any answers either. But I think it has to start by letting go of the cherished fiction and accept the reality that’s bleeding all over the pavement in front of us. Then, at least, we’re not complicit in passively enabling a system that’s been empowering bad actors for over a century.

Back next week with something cool. And, one hopes, a little more optimistic, because I’m sure not feeling it right now.


  1. Alaric

    I grew up in New York City, so I can’t really wrap my brain around what it’s like to grow up without at least some racial diversity. I think there’s something else going on, in addition to what you’re talking about, though. I think there are cops who are what you might call good cops under certain circumstances, genuinely friendly and helpful to many people, diligent about fighting crime, etc., who are also bad cops under other circumstances- targeting minorities and using excessive force when dealing with certain people. I think people have trouble understanding that kind of thing. I once saw an online argument about Lovecraft, where one person was saying he was a generous person who went out of his way to help others, and therefor he couldn’t have been a racist, and the other was saying he was a racist, and therefor couldn’t have been a generous person who went out of his way to help others. The fact is, he was both, and the fact that he was genuinely supportive of aspiring writers, for example, doesn’t in any way take away from his horrible racism. They were separate traits of his. Similarly, I suspect that there are people (mostly white) in this country who have had nothing but good interactions with cops, and therefor can’t accept that those same cops could possibly beat up or even murder black people without good reason. Of course, the pop culture influence you’re talking about probably just adds to that feeling.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    I think there are two elements at play here: cops as individuals and the police as an institution. I have some experience with the dynamic, in the military. The military’s reputation has risen and fallen, based on their use. It usually fell due to behavior like we have seen here, with things like My Lai and the Abu Graib photos. Those things have happened in just about every conflict the military has been in. High stress and poor leadership are a bad mix. Good people are capable of doing bad things in the right situation. However, not all of them. A helicopter pilot put his aircraft between the village and marauding soldiers, at My Lai. A Navy dog handler refused a CIA officer’s order to use his dog to intimidate a prisoner under interrogation (torture). The captain of the USS Nicholas, in the first Gulf War, ignored an Iraqi surrender and ordered his ship’s guns to keep firing until a group occupying a floating platform (with nothing but small arms) was dead. He put himself up for, and received the Silver Star, a medal for valor. His own crew reported what really happened to the chain of command and an investigation followed. He was not court martialed; but, was publicly shamed, as it was stated he “exercised poor judgement.” That meant he was never going to be promoted and was going to be retired out. The institution didn’t condone his actions; but, also wouldn’t let anything spoil their “victory.”

    Poor leadership in police departments is systemic. Sheriffs and police chiefs are usually political appointments and there is often a disconnect between their office and the rank and file officers. Police unions, in efforts to protect their members become like the NRA; any reform is an attack on “their rights” or power. Rank and file want to protect their image and their “brothers.” The problem is, not enough do it by using peer pressure to drive out the bad ones. There are good officers and service members who will not stand against the brotherhood, lest it be a chink in their armor. Again, it’s back top leadership; because leadership is about accepting the responsibility for your world and making the necessary decisions, even the hard ones.

    There is another factor, that I think is a major issue within US police forces: the militarization of the police. The traditional image of the police was the beat cop, walking through neighborhoods, calling people by their names because they were part of the neighborhood. As generations evolved, the police became more remote, operating from patrol cars, rather than on foot. Also, their uniforms changed to more military utilitarian. They became armed with automatic weapons, ballistic vests, riot gear, tactical equipment. They have armored vehicles, drive around in large SUVs. They are armed with tasers, tear gas, rubber bullets, mace & pepper spray and similar. In some cases, this equipment was even forced on them from outside, like during the Bush Jr Administration, as Federal police grants came with accepting armored vehicles and equipment that hadn’t been requested, but had been contracted with military contractors, via the “pork” pipelines.

    Police aren’t meant to be soldiers. their missions are different. Soldiers are meant to fight invaders who threaten the community from outside. Police are meant to enforce the law within the community. Soldiers use force to stop the enemy and either defeat them or drive them away. Police are still within the community, even after the criminal is caught. Someone trying to invade is rather clear, someone breaking the law is not always. Police are expected to exercise more judgement. During the early occupation of Iraq, soldiers proved to have mixed results policing the population. When military police were brought in, things vastly improved. They were trained in policing, not infantry tactics.

    It takes leadership to enact change and enforce standards. That’s leadership at the top and within the rank and file and the union. High standards and good leadership give you good policing. Standards must be very high for the police, just as they should be for the military. As an officer, I was held to a high standard, because lives had been entrusted to me, not to mention the safety and security of the nation. It’s no different from the police. We were responsible for everything that happened, whether we were involved or not, because we set and enforced the standard. We were accountable, at the end of the day.

    I saw plenty of good and bad in the military and I have seen it in interactions with police. I’ve seen police officers use their own money to buy food and necessities for people that they encountered because of responding to reports. The problem is getting the institutions to provide the leadership and set the standards that recruit and reinforce the good and root out the bad. It isn’t an easy fix.

    1. Peter

      I think your point of the evolution from the “beat cop” to militarized police is one that scares me; I know several police officers socially because we went to school together or have a mutual friend or something, but I feel like when there’s not that kind of preexisting relationship, cops and citizens now see each other by default as belonging to different classes or communities (civilian vs. non-civilian) when we really should be seeing each other as members of the same community with different jobs.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    ps The military have no place in the current situations across the country. All servicemembers take an oath to “..Protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic..” The Constitution. We vow to protect the highest law of the land. The Constitution protects the right of free speech and peaceful assembly. It does not protect the ego of a narcissistic, repressed adolescent “leader, with a fascist ideology from looking weak in his own eyes. It does not protect the “domination” of the citizens of the country. That oath means that servicemembers are duty bound to refuse to obey an unlawful order, including applying military force to the civilian population, for exercising their constitutional rights. No matter how much he quotes Mussolini and admires foreign dictators, this is not Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. We veterans will not stand for the military to be used as stormtroopers for a bloated, impotent man-child. Already, the Sec of Defense and two former generals (including the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) have condemned the proposition of using military force against protesters and looters. Fascism creeps in through moments like these; but, I truly believe that the active duty military will not stand for the idea, nor will the veterans of military service.

  4. conrad1970

    Thankfully I live in the UK and we rarely see racism and brutality on the scale we are seeing now in the US.
    My wife is black and we have mixed race children, about the worst that happens on a regular basis is Stop and Search procedures that seem to be aimed at black teenagers, the police get some stick for it from the media though.
    I think it does say a lot for the mind set of American police officers who think it’s ok to wear ‘Punisher’ skull emblems on their uniforms WTF!
    It also doesn’t help when your President is an obnoxious asshole

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      I’m glad that seems to be the case there and you have not experienced that. The 80s, in the UK were definitely a different story, between the Brixton Riots, in 1981, plus other events under the Thatcher government and prior to that. I know the Metropolitan Police underwent a huge upheaval in the later 70s, after corruption scandals, including racist treatment of minorites, which included Afro-Caribbean, East Asian, and Far East minorities.

      This country has had peaks and valleys and every time we seem to make progress, something throws a wrench into things and we slide back. I think the militarization of the police has badly hurt attempts at reform that grew out of the 60s and 70s, plus the War on Drugs, which disproportionately affected African-Americans and other minorities.

      Leadership at all levels are a big factor in all of this, from the police, to the government, to some of the protest groups who are reacting with violence, rather than directing their outrage into peaceful protest. I suppose like many things, the thoughtful response isn’t the first to emerge. However, I think we have lost some of the community activist leadership that was a hallmark of minority neighborhoods in the Civil Rights era, as well as other protest movements of the period.

  5. You’re spot on about the way society has been taught to view cops. Even in very skeevy circumstances (according to a lot of nonfiction I’ve read about the justice system), the assumption is that the cop who gets on the witness stand is telling the truth.
    Cops are largely convinced of their own virtue, which is why “Handcuffing the police” is so bad: if they have to go through all the formality of finding probable cause before searching, somebody’s going to get away with something! Ergo, it’s bad. Vagrancy laws were used for years as a “he needed locking up” tool by cops (even when arresting people in their own home, so obviously not vagrants).
    And they do their own mythologizing too. They simultaneously claim they’re out there putting their lives on the line, so they’re entitled to respect and deference. At the same time, the standard defense for shooting civilians is that you can’t ask them to put their lives on the line — if they have to risk shooting an innocent person to save themselves, they’re within their rights.
    “Sundown Towns’ by James Loewen (I think) is a very good book on racial exclusion rules in cities and counties around America.
    I’ve often thought that superheroes who prioritize protecting innocents from the government would be an interesting concept to develop. If Superman spent part of his day blocking drone strikes on innocent people, Batman gave the media proof that prosecutors and cops were framing an innocent man, etc.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Interesting that you mention Loewen’s Sundown Towns – as Greg noted, Oregon (where I also grew up) was basically a sundown state. That’s something I only learned long after I had moved away, but it made a lot of sense in retrospect.

  6. Edo Bosnar

    Hope this isn’t too much of a tangent, but man that link you provided for the Burger Barn incident really brought back a flush of memories. I only vaguely remember that whole ugly matter (I was only 12 at the time), but I well remember Mayor Frank Ivancie, one of those pro-Reagan Democrats – my dad and some of my relatives really liked him for that, and also because they thought he was a fellow Croat (he was actually Slovenian on his dad’s side). I remember being very amused when he lost his re-election bid to Bud Clark, a sort of lefty populist political outsider.

  7. jccalhoun

    I haven’t seen much talk about it but Far Sector picked the right time to come out with an issue that talks about police violence and suppression of protests. I wasn’t originally sold on yet another human Green Lantern but I’m really liking it so far.

  8. Slightly OT — rereading Frank Miller’s DKR a few years ago, I was struck by how much it took the Dirty Harry worldview: psychiatry’s useless, reform is impossible, reporters are parasites, cops are tied up by red tape, craven politicians tie the protagonist’s hands (a really odd idea for the middle-1980s, when political cowardice meant demanding the death penalty for jaywalking so your opponent couldn’t call you “soft on crime”).

    1. Edo Bosnar

      I think DKR is rather on-topic, because in it Batman seems to be the ideal of the take-no-prisoners agent of law and order.
      I have to say, even when I first read it back in the late ’80s, I was never the biggest fan of DKR (while it seemed to me like every other comics fan I knew went ape-shit over it). I thought it was an interesting take on the Bat mythos, a very dark Elseworlds story, and that’s about it. When I re-read it about five years ago, I liked it even less, precisely because of everything you mentioned.

      1. Surprisingly I still like it. Even though “Gotham is in flames, the city is destroyed!” is pretty much “Tuesday” these days, Miller’s apocalypse packed a punch for me. But it shows his later right-wingness hardly came out of the blue.

        1. The thing about Miller and Batman is his basic premise that police are ineffective and it’s necessary for a vigilante to step in. There’s a huge right wing fantasy there and I’ve written about the huge cognitive dissonance involved in cops adopting the Punisher as a mascot. But I don’t think hero vigilante types feed the public image of cops.

  9. John King

    I’ll just mention that Judge Dredd is a mixture of tough lawman fighting bad guys and brutal, fascist enforcer harassing citizens and arresting them for being mugged.
    He made his debut in issue 2 of 2000 AD because the strip planned for issue 1 made him too brutal, murderous and unpleasant a character – if they had published that in issue 1 the character would have ended with a very short publication history.
    He has grown as a character, becoming less hostile to democrats and mutants though the story when he released someone guilty of felony muder without a charge was the result of a fill-in writer who didn’t understand the character properly.

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