Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bad Cop, Worse Cop

Sarah sent me this article about how reality-TV police shows fuel the militarization of our society. While I think the article is well-written, I can't help but think that the author is just wrong. The show COPS is a reflection of trends in society that have been building for decades, not the cause of them. It is certainly possible that there is a synergy where COPS celebrates the militarization of law enforcement and thereby encourages it, but I believe the militarization of the police has more to do with the military-industrial complex than with television.

Today, across America, there is a growing schism between police and the communities they are sworn to serve. Nor is the lot of today's sworn officer a happy one. Police today are caught in a dangerous socio-political riptide: If they exercise too blunt a force, they may end up getting themselves and others unnecessarily injured or killed. If they are too soft, their departments risk landing in the crosshairs of get-tougher-on-crime victim's rights organizations, stirred up by daily doses of reality crime shows such as "COPS."

"COPS" has wormed its way into the marrow of American cultural life since it first aired in March 1989, with more than 600 shows featuring nearly 150 different police and sheriff departments. The program has grossed more than $200 million in syndication and, along with its fugitive-tracking sibling, "America's Most Wanted," made Saturday evening crime and punishment night on the Fox Network.

"COPS" has succeeded spectacularly because it takes us on a titillating ride through trash-heap America. In those blighted, benighted streets, the poor, emotionally maimed, drug-addicted and merely addled, are pulled over, spreadeagled, cuffed, bullied, then made to jump through the hoops of criminal-law enforcement for our viewing pleasure.

As "COPS' " Langley explained to an interviewer, the popularity of the show derives from "the adrenaline rush of not knowing what would happen at any time." So culturally hungry have we become for the kick of televised police chases, dramatic arrests and victim-ventilating psychodrama, that even the miscreants themselves seem untroubled at signing the releases allowing their generally imbecilic actions and law-enforcement reactions to be broadcast on national television. |CommonDreams| (emphasis mine)

I fail to see why the author singles reality TV out after decades of cop flicks and war movies. Does Hollywood produce anything that isn't toxic to society in one way or another?

I'm also suspicious of the author's love for cops who bend the rules. Sure, cops used to bend the rules for kids from the suburbs or "taxpayers" driving drunk...just good harmless fun, no?

Is it so crazy to think that all of this accountability helps keep cops in line? I think videotape makes the police more accountable for the bad they do and it also helps insulate them from vindictive complaints. I think we ought to have more cameras in cop cars, not fewer...

A more sophisticated discussion of this topic can be found in
The Militarization of Policing in the Information Age by Kevin D. Haggerty and Richard V. Ericson, published in the Journal of Political and Military Sociology (Winter, 1999) which I blogged about back in September of 2004. The article also indicates that the militarization of the police is happening in Canada and the UK as well, is that also due to reality TV?

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