The folks from the “After Hours” series at Cracked.com held a discussion in the video below about why police officers in movies are so horrible. They examine police departments across genres, from noir to comedies. The more it was discussed, the more I began to think about it. On television, you have police procedural dramas like “Miami Vice”; “The Wire”; “True Detective”; and the “Law & Order” series, and the police shows that are played up comedically, like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”. While the “L&O” series is the most formulaic, the one thing that all of these shows have in common is portraying the police department as a politically-controlled bureaucracy. Politicians manipulate the higher-ups in the department with fragmented policy directives, resulting in little to no effective police work. Often, the dysfunction of the department is seen through the eyes of a protagonist who’s frustrated by all of it and aims to do the right thing, even as the institution that employs said protagonist basically tells him, “just sit down and shut up!”.
The movies with buddy cops like the “Lethal Weapon” series are among the most entertaining, but I wouldn’t want Martin Riggs or Roger Murtaugh investigating my case either. The characters were never portrayed as bad detectives, nor was the majority of the film’s LAPD. It’s just that their investigations result in massive property damage and over a dozen deaths. “Die Hard” is about just one single police officer who foils the bad guys by blowing up skyscraper roofs and airplanes. Are these characters forces of good? Yes. But if they were real, the odds of you surviving will drop considerably. 1997’s “Cop Land” was like a western with a half-deaf nebbish sheriff of a small New Jersey hamlet taking on the crooked NYPD cops who occupy his towns territory. Funny thing is, in this film, the sheriff repeatedly applied to the NYPD police academy, but was turned away because he’s deaf in one ear. So crooked cops? Sure, will take your applications! But deaf good cops? Hmm….yeah. I don’t think so.
One thing the people in this video point out is how it’s a trope that police in super-hero movies are useless. They’re either portrayed as props to be killed by the heroes or the villains, or just inept, lazy and incompetent (like the NYPD in 1990’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”). The “Police Academy” series is also worth mentioning. Like the aforementioned TV shows, politics holds sway over this fictional police department as well. In this case, the police are ordered to except any and all applicants, regardless of qualifications. The cops in all seven films are bumbling misfits, but police work gets done without any deaths.
The conclusion I came to is that an ensemble cast of police characters are ineffective as cops. It’s the individual Dirty Harry-esque cowboy cop who’s usually the real hero. Basically, movies encourage viewers to distrust cops and revere the renegade rebel cop.
Sy L. Shackleford is a jack-of-all-trades columnist for Action A Go Go. A University of Connecticut graduate with a degree in both psychology and communication sciences, he is a walking encyclopedic repository for all things Marvel Comics, movies, hip-hop, et. al. You can follow him on Twitter @shack_house83.
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