It’s a common scene in a cop show.
The cops arrest someone and maybe it’s during the arrest, maybe during the interrogation, one of our guys loses his cool and gets a little rough with the suspect. And, you know what? We’re fine with that! Punk had it coming.
It’s yet another way that copaganda inures us to questionable police conduct.
We are firmly on our good guys’ side. We understand their frustration when a suspect won’t give up information or if they run and have to be chased down. These are bad guys after all. We’d lose our cool, too. Especially when some punk won’t talk and there’s a bomb about to go off or some kidnapped person’s minutes are ticking away. If our guys get a little aggressive in the pursuit of justice, it’s all good. After all…they’re the good guys. Sometimes a choke hold is necessary.
The shows are great at normalizing this. It makes sense that our cops would get a little rough while arresting a suspect, especially if they ran or were resisting. It makes sense that our cops might need to utilize a little physical persuasion during an interrogation. Lives are on the line. And besides, these are the BAD guys. Who cares if they get a little roughed up?
Except how often do we watch those arrests and those interrogations and the suspect in question turns out to NOT be the bad guy of the episode? Pretty often considering the first person arrested is seldom the culprit in an hour long police procedural. You can argue that it’s all in the pursuit of justice, but that argument doesn’t hold up against a person’s rights.
Ah, yes, those pesky rights that apply to everyone, not just the good guys. How our cops often lament how they’re forced to observe a suspect’s rights when they’d really rather smack them around.
And how often they ignore those rights and go right ahead.
We all know how much I love Horatio Caine, but the man crosses lines like he’s running a touchdown. Given that his line-crossing increases as the seasons progress, I could argue that his increasing disregard to the rights of suspects is a response to traumas he suffers over the years, but that’s a post for another day. The point is that Horatio has no problem threatening physical violence or getting outright physical with a suspect. In one episode, it’s insinuated that he beats the shit out of a pedophile for “resisting arrest”. Another insinuates he does the same to a guy who abused his girlfriend, but at that point, he was no longer even a suspect in her death. And in yet another episode, Horatio and Boa Vista get a guy in the backseat of one of the Hummers and it’s implied that they inflict some pain in order to extract information.
These three incidents are presented without any question to Horatio’s actions. Because we sympathize with him and in fact, identify with him. We’d beat the shit out of a grown man preying on teenage girls. We’d beat the shit out of a guy who was fond of DV. We’d do a little painful persuasion to get crucial information from someone already in custody.
However, we are not law enforcement. And there are very good reasons why law enforcement is not allowed to do such things.
But this is the standard for these shows. There’s no real attention brought to this sort of police violence other than mild warnings as a means of twisting the tension and providing a barrier to our good guys saving the day.
Unless they happen to be falsely accused of police brutality.
In a third season episode of CSI: Miami, Horatio is accused of police brutality and Calleigh has to clear him, which she does, of course, because in this instance Horatio hasn’t done the violence that he’s accused of.
It seems like every cop gets falsely accused at least once. Ponch and Jon. Starsky and Hutch. Reed and Malloy. It’s a rite of passage for a TV cop, like a police involved shooting. The focus of these episodes is always the same: the injustice and unfairness of our heroes being accused of brutality and how easy it is for people to make those claims. These people are only saying these things because they have an agenda. They hate the police. They’re petty. They’re either seeking retribution for getting caught committing their own illegal transgressions or trying to detract from them. Because only bad cops engage in brutality and our heroes are never bad cops.
Inevitably, like Horatio Caine, they’re cleared of any wrongdoing.
And then right back at manhandling the next week.
One cop show that didn’t really normalize police violence was Barney Miller. First of all, we didn’t see any of the arrests. We were told that the suspect had to be chased or that the suspect resisted, but it was understood that no violence ensued during these apprehensions. At least there was no apparent evidence or mention. Second of all, a preponderance of the criminals the 12th precinct dealt with where, well, harmless. There were some armed robbers and assaulters and the like, but this is a comedy. Most of the perps that the detectives arrested were of the nature of blind shoplifters and women throwing toilet seats out of the window because their husbands locked them in the bathroom and sugar addicts who fall off the wagon in hilarious fashion.
When the subject of police brutality came up in conversation, Wojo was usually the detective mentioned, particularly in the early seasons. He had a tendency to be aggressive in his arrests and it got him into trouble more than once. Inspector Luger was a great champion of police violence as that’s how things were done back in his heyday. He was painted as out of touch and his methods antiquated. The policing techniques of the 12th didn’t require rubber hoses or anyone “falling down” the stairs. Policing had evolved beyond that.
Which wasn’t an accurate reflection of reality, but it was a decent attempt at providing a counter thought to plant into people’s heads.
Police violence isn’t normal and we shouldn’t accept it as such.
Not even from our law enforcement faves.