During the last several decades, Hollywood and the mainstream media have created a national police “narrative” which has led to a generally negative stereotype of law enforcement officers. Groups and individuals have fabricated this “narrative” depending on a particular political, cultural, or social agenda or bias.
Despite these falsifications and distortions, the law enforcement profession has successfully maintained the trust of the population it is sworn to defend.
Numerous studies show that a citizen’s view of policing is based on personal characteristics (race, socio-economic status, age, and whatnot) and his or her last contact with police. However, it would be a mistake to ignore the larger popular context in which the general public forms these views (see footnote below).
Though the citizens’ collective view of law enforcement is mercurial (and shaped, in part, by the abovementioned “national narrative”) it does not follow that individuals believe these negative stereotypes are true among particular officers working in local departments. In fact, they may believe their “own” police are exceptions to the rule, no matter how inaccurate the “rule” may be.
Hollywood’s Worst Offenders
Motion pictures often portray police as corrupt, incompetent, or uncontrolled. These stereotypes reflect Hollywood writers’ and directors’ half-baked efforts to foist their distorted reality on what they believe to be a gullible audience. Movies such as “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “Leon,” “Training Day,” “The Departed,” “Internal Affairs,” and “The Bad Lieutenant” are a few examples of this genre.
Many of the officers depicted in these movies act as vigilantes and, even when effective, break the rules and laws that, in the real world, would get them fired, imprisoned, or at the very least on the losing end of a lawsuit. Though occasionally entertaining, these movies do not reflect the realities of police work no matter how “gritty” and “realistic” they appear on the big screen.
Television has done a slightly better job at depicting a positive police image. “Dragnet” was one show that focused on police procedure and highlighted ethical officers in the process. Other shows, such as “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” did a workman’s job in keeping police, for the most part, looking honest and civil. “Southland” appears to be the most recent television studio effort to portray a realistic and positive view of police.
TV News = Short Attention Span Theatre
The news media doesn’t help matters either. One would think that the recent spike in officer deaths would at least change the media’s narrative tone, but that has not been the case. These tragedies quickly took a back seat to Brittany Spears, the Super Bowl, and the SAG Awards.
Content to broadcast only the most sensational stories and portrayed often in a manner meant to entertain rather than enlighten, the press either maliciously or ignorantly misrepresent the role of the police officer.
Officers only take center stage when they have used deadly force, acted indiscreetly, or have violated a citizen’s rights. While the internal affairs investigation plods along, the press find that the relatives and friends of the criminal to be great news, and any good-news story about a great officer soon gets lost in the sensational coverage of a cop killer.
One Wonders About DoJ’s Motives
The Department of Justice appears to have jumped on the police-bashing bandwagon. As if the tragic increase of officer deaths wasn’t enough, the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing director, Barnard Melekian, announced that his office would review the recent rash of police murders. Mr. Melekian’s office will see if the deaths were the result of training deficits, a lack of resources, or officer behavior. Though possibly meant to help, Mr. Melekian’s announcement makes it look like the DoJ is more interested in laying blame with the officers and not the responsible murderous thugs.
What’s just as telling was the DoJ’s homepage in late January 2011. Of the five lead news articles, two covered the Department’s successful efforts in convicting local police officers for civil rights violations. A third article disclosed that the DoJ was unable to prove, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” that U.S. Park Police detectives violated the rights of Trey Joyner when they shot and killed him in self-defense. From the articles it appears as if the two police officers deserved what they got, but it doesn’t bode well when these cases lead DoJ’s public relations campaign.
Despite the negative fictional stereotypes and critical press, it appears as if neither Hollywood nor the news media have so thoroughly smeared law enforcement that communities have lost faith in their officers. The national surveys footnoted above consistently show that officers and deputies retain the faith of somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of the population they are sworn to protect. Their critics, along with the President, Congress, Michael Vic and Tiger Woods should do so well.
It appears that right-thinking citizens ignore the negative “narrative.” Instead, they depend more on their own experiences and that of friends and family when it comes to forming an opinion about officers and deputies. The fact that many citizens support law enforcement is often lost on serving officers, who are bombarded with negative stereotypes and busy dealing with those that would rather offend and complain when caught than be a good citizen.
Good policing requires great officers, who do their job, one contact at a time. That’s why the loss of even one is a national tragedy.
See Catherine Gallagher, et al, “The Public Image of Police,” a 2001 study completed for the International Association of Chiefs of Police at http://www.theiacp.org/PoliceServices/ExecutiveServices/ProfessionalAssistance/ThePublicImageofthePolice/tabid/198/Default.aspx as well as Cheryl Maxon et al, “Factors that Influence the Public Opinion of the Police,” a 2003 National Institute of Justice study at http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/197925.pdf and Colonel Michael Tooley et al, “The Media, the Public, and the Law Enforcement Community: Correcting Misperceptions,” The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 6, June 2009 at http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=1828&issue_id=62009