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  • Saturday, December 10, 2005


    Law and Order, American Style

    I watch TV. Sometimes I watch a fair amount of it. I'm rarely completely up to speed on currently popular series. Around the time a series goes into syndication, that's about when I find it.

    That's not what I want to talk about though. I've recently been watching "Spike TV", a cable network supposedly specifically geared to a male audience. Why watch it? Well, they show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation every evening. I've only recently discovered CSI and I'm enjoying catching up on the series. It's a little addictive.

    Another show I've been watching is World's Wildest Police Videos, a kind of law enforcement verite of chases, videos of convenience store robberies, riots, etc. This is what I want to talk about.

    The narration of this show is most interesting. It is, of course, very pro-police. The essential paradigm of Good and Evil is explicit. The new centurions of law and order versus the anarchic criminals. A narrative is woven around each video, stressing the dangerousness of police work. But they are proud to protect the community, putting their lives on the line because they are honorable men and women. And it should be obvious that those they pursue are the scum of the earth: vicious, stupid and reckless.

    This is the point. Anyone the police pursue is, ipso facto, guilty. In another long running series called Cops, the producers make of point of saying at the beginning of the show that all suspects are considered "innocent until proven guilty in a court of law." Police Videos doesn't bother with such niceties. The suspect is fleeing so obviously they are guilty, right?

    There's no denying the power and adrenalin rush of the clips themselves. Many of these clips are from the police cruiser cameras mounted on the front dashboard that are becoming more standard all the time. The chases have an immediacy through editing and the fact these are real situations being played out. It's easy to go with the story being laid out in front of you.

    The message of "the cops are just doing their job" is pervasive as is "the police are your friends as long as you are a law abiding citizen." However, the police are enforcers of laws. And the police are not able to make judgments on the justice of laws. In this sense, they are directly guarding the established structure and status quo.

    Do I value the police? Sure. Do I trust them? No. Their sense of honor and values are difficult to assess. Their loyalty seems rooted more in their peers and top down hierarchy than with their constituent population. I'm not saying that they are dishonorable as a group but I am saying that they pledge their honor to each other and superiors. That is different than honor dedicated to the people they guard and watch over.

    [Later update: Upon reflection, I think I'm being too hard on all police. Particularly in smaller communities, the police often have casual and strong connections to many people. Yet I still maintain that even so, the police will apply the law unevenly depending on their perceptions of the people involved. It's probably impossible and/or unwise to disengage the officer's judgement and assessment from their actions. This is the point: If the police are suspicious of someone, they will look closer to find violations, related or not to the particular situation.]

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