I have been careful in my portrayal of police officers when I write. While I have personally witnessed the inadequacy of our justice system from arrest to verdict, I’ve kept my cynicism in check. I’m convinced that most law enforcement officers are decent people, which means they’ve met the challenges of their often, dangerous, depressing, thankless job with a strong sense of duty. Like firefighters and the folks in hospital emergency rooms police face humanity when it is at its worst which makes it difficult to hold onto their own.
In my books, most of them, the police are portrayed as people trying to do the job they were hired to do. And in my fiction, if a cop crosses the line, I give that decision a lot of thought. I have a responsibility to play fair, not to add to stereotypes or encourage discrimination. Whether I have succeeded or not is for others to decide.
So, now to the heart of the matter: Perhaps because everyone has a camera (smartphone) and instant distribution (the Internet) the news is instantaneous and there is a tendency to record the most dramatic or ironic or sensational happening and send it to everyone on the planet. Even so, what I’m seeing is an amazing amount of police misconduct. I don’t search for it. It’s on news sites and on my Face Book pages. A young man carrying garden shears, obviously crazed, is walking toward a busy street. Police order him to stop. He doesn’t. Police shoot him dead. A woman, most likely drunk, drugged, or off her meds, is walking in a busy area of an interstate. A policeman tells her to stop. She doesn’t. She falls. The policeman climbs on top of her and gives her a series of very deliberate and forceful punches to the head. Eight of them. She was subdued before she hit the concrete. Why did he hit her at all? A man in a wheelchair threatening the air with a screwdriver is shot. No other way to deal with this? And barking dogs? Most dogs, I suspect, don’t understand the meaning of a badge. They bark. They might take a little calming. Surely they can be subdued or controlled non-lethally. Police shoot them, unnecessarily, it seems, in far too many cases.
However wrong it is to stereotype police officers as heartless bullies, that image will surface in our culture by their actions in real life — if they act that way in real life. I am fearful that operations like “stop and frisk” and the kind of videos that show stupid and unnecessary brutality will, in the end, influence television, film and books in a self-perpetuating, endless cycle. That image furthers the marginalization of law enforcement, which, in turn will fuel more anti-social behavior in the “us and them” view of and by the thin blue line. Even the most cynical expect a higher caliber of law enforcement than cops beating a grandmother senseless because the officer is stressed. The officer, in that case, claimed he was trying to protect her from the traffic. So he punched her eight times? I’ll take hit and run for $200, Alex. The officer needed to think through the problem. And even if the man in the wheel chair wielding a screwdriver is crazy as a loon, surely there was another way. He was in a wheel chair. If dangerous situations make an officer extremely nervous and frightened, then they should find another line of work or get more training. Not everyone is cut out for that kind of work. I’m not tough enough to be a cop. My hands aren’t steady enough to be a surgeon or a diamond cutter. I’m not the patient, nurturing soul who could work in a day care center. I’m not coordinated enough to be an athlete. I wouldn’t apply for any of these jobs, nor would I qualify. But if your job is so stressful that you can’t help but beat up the defenseless, surely you’re not cut out for street duty.
Worse, novelists and screenwriters will find it more and more difficult to portray “the law” and it keepers as forces of good if reality demands we see them in this dismal light? How can society expect its citizens to trust and respect those whose duty is to protect us when they are the perpetrators of uncivil acts? When we are likely to be as afraid of them as we are of the criminals? In far too many neighborhoods that’s true now. And to the extent that our police treat others unfairly, often brutally, they help create criminals.
One final point: I recognize that a single incident, such as the recent beating of the grandmother, viewed a million times on YouTube, blows the incident out of proportion. But one is too many and there have been, unfortunately, many, many more, going all the way back to Rodney King. In a bit of “good for the goose, good for the gander” justice, private citizens recording inappropriate acts by those in authority mirror the government’s invasion of privacy against private citizens. It becomes part of our culture and will be mirrored in our film, video, music and books.