A HERO IS BORN

One of John Mulaney's best bits is about the New York Post, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of American journalism. In it he describes the paper's unique argot, with references to "tots" and "pervs" and "bozos" and other terminology befitting a low-brow rag best suited to lining cat litter boxes. He parodies their usage of "hero" to describe "any man who does his job."

It was hard not to think immediately of this description when I saw this video of a police officer (via body camera, by the way) with his gun drawn engaging a murder suspect dispatchers described as armed without resorting to deadly force. Google this incident and you'll find thousands of hits describing the video as "heroic" or even "inspirational", setting a "great example" of how encounters between police and suspects can end without one of the parties involved dying. Yes Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus. Even very liberal sites have covered the story using language like, "officer demonstrates how to avoid using deadly force" as though that is the natural and expected outcome, a force beyond his control against which he must do battle.

How bad have things gotten with law enforcement in this country? Bad enough that we're applauding a police officer for not killing a suspect. He saved this suspect's life! By not shooting him when the latter appeared dangerous. This is now a thing that stands out and needs to be praised so that others might follow this example. The shoot-first culture is now so thoroughly entrenched that nobody seems to remember that what you see in this video is, in the most literal sense, exactly what the police are paid to do. In most departments one might imagine that officers who aren't strictly limited to desk work end up feeling threatened or feeling like they are in danger somewhere between occasionally and constantly. The idea that "feeling threatened" is a carte blanche justification for using lethal force has become so popular that we hardly notice the body count it is racking up. It has become a classic Can vs. Should problem, the logical fallacy that the conceptual right to use lethal force somehow implies that it should or even must be used. Whenever the amateur Cop Apologists note that being a cop is a dangerous job – which it is, although nowhere near the most dangerous – I have to explain to another adult human being that part of what the police are paid to do is not take the bait from every person they encounter who acts suspiciously or aggressively toward them.

Paradoxically, the reaction to a situation that had (in the larger sense) a "happy" ending is more disturbing than watching people react to the now familiar "Cop guns down suspect" story. Cops killing people, and the social and legal framework in place to protect them when they do so, not only fails to surprise us anymore but is now the expected outcome. And we are just scratching the surface of the consequences of that change.

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20 Responses to “A HERO IS BORN”

  1. J. Dryden Says:

    There's a general sense, in the Sphere Of Openly Expressed Opinion, that the job of a police officer is to Get The Bad Guys. That policing is essentially war–every situation is a battle, with the cops on one side and the Bad Guys on the other, and only two ways for the battle to end–surrender or death.

    In other words, I'm pretty sure the Sphere is collectively stupid enough to think that the real world is just like the movies. Because that's how the movies, and television, and the visual, narratively driven media HAVE to portray cops–as figures in spectacular conflict, because THAT'S what narrative is.

    But not real life. See, it's not a battle. Like, ever. Truth. For most cops, you go your entire career without discharging–and in many casing, so much as drawing–your firearm.

    Cops, you see, are exactly like firemen or EMTs. (By cops I mean patrolmen–the so-called rank-and-file.) Their job is to make sure that everyone–EVERYONE–in a situation gets out alive. If you show up to a fire and you've got a drug dealer on one floor and an adorable toddler on another, you rescue them BOTH. If a wiseguy AND a nun are both having heart attacks, you save them BOTH. Because choosing just gets in the way of what you're there to do: get everyone out alive.

    And that's ALL you're supposed to do. Just as firemen and EMTs get people out alive and get them to the hospital (at which point they become the problem for the doctors), cops get people out alive and get them to holding (at which point they become the problem for the lawyers.)

    In real like, cops do not adjudicate. They do not "punish." They do not do anything other than show up and announce: No more violence from hereon in–the danger is over for everyone, and if we have to incapacitate you to keep you safe, we will. If, upon subsequent inquiry, we find that crime has been committed, well, that's up to people with law degrees. Us, we're just here to make sure everybody ends tonight in a bed and not in a hospital/morgue.

    Or at least, that's how it's SUPPOSED to be.

    Now, whether or not it IS that way, or has EVER been that way, or COULD ever be that way, is another matter, and I haven't even brought race and/or poverty into the equation. (Which, HOLY SHIT, kind of important, those.)

    But any portrait of cops that doesn't start with the EXACT SAME expectations we have of other life-saving professions, sets us up for the kind of world where some of us root for the death of young men at the hands of the police because, ipso facto, they must have been Bad.

  2. Xynzee Says:

    Thanks for putting words to my "second reaction" when I read about this.
    My first was the "all warm n fuzzy", "ain't that swell".

    Then I remembered, that's *SUPPOSED* to be the way these things end GOD DAMN IT!!

    The other ending is supposed to be the, "Oh shit! That didn't go well!" *exception* to the rule.

  3. Talisker Says:

    The last 30+ years of action movies have a lot to answer for.

    Take, for example, the end of Beverly Hills Cop. The antagonist is rich, powerful and well-connected. When his nefarious scheme is exposed, instead of denying everything and calling for his lawyers, he goes down with guns blazing.

    For a screenwriter, it has its attractions. You get a nice, neat dramatic ending instead of a messy, drawn-out, unsatisfactory (but realistic) process. The brave, manly hero punishes the villain himself instead of standing by as a judge hands down a prison sentence.

    Hey, Beverly Hills Cop, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and their many, many sequels and imitators are great fun. It's just that when almost everything ends that way, audiences begin to think of it as normal and natural.

    (On network TV, you aren't allowed to show people being brutally shot down just too often. So instead the villain tends to break down and confess everything before the final credits, as seen in pretty much every episode of Castle. This doesn't seem to have quite the same hold on the public imagination.)

  4. Anonymous Prof Says:

    My students tell me that I'm the most inspiring teacher they've ever had…

    …because I actually teach.

    Welcome to 21st century America.

  5. Emerson Dameron Says:

    Talisker is probably onto something, which is horrifying. Most cops are probably steeped in trash culture and have barely repressed respect for fictional vigilantes that can't help but color their work.

    https://youtube.com/watch?v=RhxLLjMA9AA

    I'm usually annoyed by the comments on stories about, say, homeless people or drug addicts who somehow cobbled their lives back together.

    "Hey! I make $45K a year, dress myself every morning, and support my family! I'm *scared* of heroin! Why does no one care about MEEE?"

    Because you're a boring drone, dude.

    In this case, the drones have an excellent point.

  6. Professor Coldheart Says:

    To Talisker's point re: action movies above, I'll add another:

    If you follow a blog or page that's critical of cops (CopBlock, CopWatch, etc), you'll see a lot of videos of police using excessive or questionable force to detain suspects. In the last 12 months, we've been lucky (?) enough to have some of these videos receive mainstream media coverage.

    Cops have their videos, too. These are videos of traffic stops that inexplicably turned violent, or a cop who got a little too close to a guy who suddenly whipped out a knife. Cops have their own websites or Facebook pages where they share these videos. Two officers from opposite ends of the country can meet for the first time in person and say, "Hey, did you see that video of that state trooper in Oklahoma who …" and the other will nod, tight-lipped.

    I say this not to contradict G&T's notion, but to add some context as to how cops can think they have the Most Dangerous Job in America (per BLS stats, they don't even make the top 10). Whenever something bad happens to a police officer, the Panopticon and social media allow that story to be shared broadly and rapidly. There's a professional subculture that reinforces the notion of Eternal Vigilance, Trigger Time, and Never Letting "Them" Get The Drop On You.

  7. S M McBean Says:

    My wife notes that PD's around the country are probably loaded with Bush war vets, pumped up on group hate for "others" and dosed with antidepressants or other happy drugs. When a "suspect" is caught or killed, they always do a drug test: He had traces of marijuana in his system! Why don't they test (and announce) the cops involved?
    I've said before that for cops (like presidents) anyone who wants the job should be eliminated. Why not a system that draws citizens into public service: a blend of a draft and AmeriCorps? You get community involvement, a chance for career advancement and/or a path to education.
    I know there are problems to address, but I think it's less likely that the local force will be taken over by the Cryps than the current system taken over by the KKK

  8. Skepticalist Says:

    In 2015, people act surprised when someone says they have a cop friend. It goes against the "it's them or us" culture. It's an oddity.

    People no longer step out of line, they are instant enemies to be brought down or taken out of the picture. No questions asked.

    I've said it before but there was a time when a drunk who wasn't violent was sometimes driven home rather than be run through the system. This wasn't as rare as one would think. It would be boring TV though.

  9. Alan C Says:

    It's worth remembering that even now most officers go their whole careers without ever shooting anyone. And obviously there are shootings that are justified because the suspect is an immediate threat to officer/public safety, but even then that doesn't mean killing the suspect is how things are supposed to turn out.

  10. Mo Says:

    I recollect, perhaps incorrectly, Daniel Kahneman mentioning how we love to punish those who have offended our sense of fairness.

    It's too easy to see humans as chickens in a pecking order or baboons in a troupe – it's all about power. And if we cannot actually be at the top of the order, we can get a vicarious thrill when someone else gets pounded for insurrection or weakness or sneakily getting something by the backdoor that we would have like to have gotten ourselves. Self-righteousness as a drug that balms social wounds.

    We like to see others punished, it's so-o-o-o validating.

    Smug, judgmental, self-serving righteousness – the flip side of hope, enthusiasm, and dedication? Or a choice?

  11. Chicagojon Says:

    I like how the backup that goes in to put cuffs on says "keep your hands out or you're going to get shot, you understand that?". Nice to know that shooting someone is still the #1 threat / recourse to non-compliance for some officers.

  12. Mo Says:

    Some shit frosting for the road apple cake:

    http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/news/a34464/the-fbi-misses-honesty-by-a-hair/

  13. Sam Says:

    What I'm seeing on the comments section (I know I know) on the local news outlet's Facebook post about this story is almost entirely a bunch of troglodyte scared-to-death Elks Lodge members CHASTISING the cop for risking his safety and not just """taking him out""".

    The problem is more than apologists defending murderous law enforcement – there's a huge segment of the population that advocates it.

  14. c u n d gulag Says:

    From "The Economist" – Criminals shot in America, vs. Britain:
    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2014/08/armed-police

    "In 2012, according to data compiled by the FBI, 410 Americans were “justifiably” killed by police—409 with guns. That figure may well be an underestimate. Not only is it limited to the number of people who were shot while committing a crime, but also, amazingly, reporting the data is voluntary.

    Last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times. The number of people fatally shot was zero."

    Yes, you read that correctly.

    I also remember a stat from a while ago, where in one year, American cops shot more people in a year, than the British cops have since 1900!

  15. Khaled Says:

    @gulag- the number of UK police that die in the line of duty is again, shockingly low compared to the US. Most of the deaths appear to be variations on car chases, with people crashing, etc. It's almost as if gun laws making it so that every confrontation doesn't become life-or-death works.

    Suburban people tend to think of the police as "heroes", and usually act accordingly As Dryden notes, the police often view the job in certain urban neighborhoods as "war" and the people they police as the "enemy". Cleveland is where one the neighborhood police station had the words "Forward Operating Base" written above the vehicle bay. The US DOJ report into Cleveland's policing was very similar to the one in Ferguson. To many people, police control the undesirable population and keep them away from the nice people. Suburbanites, in the words of Black Thought from the Roots, get the protection, not the police. A buddy of mine is friends with a Cleveland cop, and that guy bragged on Facebook about how he works in dangerous neighborhoods that would scare all of the (white) people protesting police brutality, and that since the neighborhood was full of bad people, it was people like him keeping them from running amok. That is the kind of thinking that has made it possible for the "well, he shouldn't have run" and "one less thug on the street" declarations to be seen as legitimate arguments.

  16. EJ Says:

    Re: Talisker's point – I've actually talked to a couple of cops of my acquaintance about the movie Hot Fuzz, and specifically Nick Frost's character, PC Danny Butterman. If you've not seen the movie (which you should because it's hilarious), Danny is a young cop in a quiet English village who's obsessed with 1980s and 90s American action movies, the type of movie that Hot Fuzz is parodying, and dreams of a job involving, as he puts it, "car chases, gun battles – proper action and shit."

    They both found the character funny because they both admitted that he's a great caricature of how a certain minority of cops think. They apparently try to train it out of you, but it doesn't always take. That said, in the UK it doesn't seem to actually translate into mass carnage at the hands of the police, so clearly there's more to it.

  17. Gino H Says:

    So a white cop did not shoot a white male suspect. Sure, let's line up everyone in the village and wax the cop's dolphin in the town square. In related news, dog bites man. The United States of Sadism is a goddamned sewer.

  18. Talisker Says:

    I second EJ's recommendation of Hot Fuzz. :-)

    I once knew a British cop who joined the force specifically because he liked getting into fights. He was a very scary man. The difference is, in Britain "fights" generally involve bare hands, blunt objects or knives rather than guns.

    ### PLOT SPOILER FOLLOWS ###

    At the end of Hot Fuzz, the antagonist is humiliated and injured, but expected to make a full recovery and serve a lengthy prison sentence. It's a nice contrast to all the other films where the bad guy is shot down in a hail of bullets.

  19. Xynzee Says:

    @Talisker: of course THE most dangerous place on Earth to live is?
    Small, quaint, quiet English villages!

    Who'd a-thunk, more people seem to die in those villages of yours than anywhere else.
    But watching English TV over the years, with all of those murder mysteries makes Croydon—back in the day—seem absolutely sterile by comparison. ;)

    A third for Hot Fuzz.

  20. Mayya Says:

    When Walter Scott was murdered, I made the mistake of reading the comments on the local TV station website. More than one person wrote, "well, what else can a cop do if a suspect runs away? Just let him go?"

    Well, yes. Call for backup, follow the suspect, approach him again when he may have calmed down

    Of the two people who committed a crime in that situation, one of them had a broken taillight and one of them murdered another human being. Seems like it shouldn't be so difficult to find a middle ground.