Why Do We Glorify Bad Cops in Pop Culture?

I keep coming back to this theme of late because it’s bothering me more and more: why do we glorify bad cops in pop culture? What is it specifically about corrupt, brutal, power-hungry police officers that we find so narratively compelling, that makes us want to tell the same stories again and again? So many police dramas, procedurals, and related shows present bad police officers in a light that can charitably be described as positive, despite the fact that they cause tremendous harm to their communities and to law enforcement agencies, so why are we glorifying them, and consuming such presentations with such delight?

Audiences are observant and sharp enough to distinguish between two very different depictions of a bad cop. One shows such officers in a very negative way, depicting what they are doing as wrong and showing the viewer the consequences of allowing police forces to rampage unrestrained. Such depictions can be very subtle, they can be complex, they can walk delicate lines, but ultimately, they come down on the side of showing such officers in a way that leads us to conclude they are behaving in a negative way. The takeaway from such presentations is that law enforcement officers who are corrupt, consumed by power, brutal to people, or cruel should not be part of the law enforcement community.

The other shows bad cops in a good way, presenting them as heroes we should look up to, be proud of, and emulate. These are the police who engage in illegal or dodgy tactics when questioning subjects, who beat or otherwise abuse people of interest and suspects, who ignore people attempting to file police reports (especially if said reports involve members of the force). They falsify evidence and police records to get convictions, conceal data that might make them look bad, and work within their law enforcement agencies as a force that seems to drag them backwards, not forwards, in time.

Public attitudes on the police are highly mixed, and no wonder. I don’t regard police as a unilateral good, and the militarisation of US police is of particular concern to me, because I do not think police should act as a paramilitary force. That said, I do believe that there is a place in society for a public agency that works to protect the public good, and specifically to address crimes against persons that might be challenging to, er, police in other ways. I want a government agency that tracks down people like rapists and murderers so they can move through the justice system, just as I want a justice system that is not corrupt and broken and ugly and wrong to ensure that people brought in by police receive fair, balanced, reasonable trials.

I do not think police should be acting in a military role, I strongly believe police should not be armed unless they’re part of special response teams with particular training, and I believe community policing should play a larger social role than other forms of police work. Police should not be figures of awe and fear but rather active members of their community who participate in initiatives and measures intended to improve well-being and quality of life. Some of the shifts in the way policing should be performed need to come through the justice system and the legislature, changing the way we view crimes and the people who commit them, but others need to come from within law enforcement agencies themselves.

It doesn’t help when pop culture insists on glorifying police officers who are effectively exactly the sort of people we do not want in law enforcement settings. I don’t want police officers and their supervisors abusing suspects or looking the other way when a suspect is abusively interrogated. I don’t find this heroic, and it irks me to see it depicted in a positive way, especially on shows I otherwise rather like, such as Castle. I don’t like it when characters do things like this and instead of having these moments depicted as character flaws, complex soul-searching ethical questions, or major turning points, they’re just par for the course: get the information, who cares about whether the treatment is legal, reasonable, or fair.

This is not how we should be policing in the United States, and it’s not how we should be depicting law enforcement. This is not to say that I don’t think pop culture should depict dirty cops–on the contrary, dirty cops are an important part of law enforcement in pop culture, and I think they definitely should be depicted. But they should be shown in a way that makes it clear that everyone understands they are dirty, and that their actions are wrong. Within the context of a show a dirty cop might act as an antihero, but audiences need to comprehend that the police officer’s approach to the job is not ethical, and is not how law enforcement should be conducted.

We need to be honest about the fact that corruption, abuse, and other problems are rife in many US law enforcement agencies without taking them for granted, accepting them as par for the course, or depicting them in a celebratory, heroic way, as though such officers have something to be proud of and should be praised. Police officers should be praised for doing their jobs right, even in difficult situations, and for protecting the interests and welfare of the communities they work in. That work isn’t always glamorous, and it definitely doesn’t always pay well or provide decent benefits, but it’s the work police should be doing–no matter what pop culture seems to think about the subject.