September 30, 2014

Police procedurals and (non-existent) civil liberties

I've commented before on this habit I have of finding material in unusual places.  I think this is due in part to how my mind works, but also it demonstrates how pervasive television is in our culture.  It's used constantly as a reference point and frequently demonstrates, better than many other media, some truths about ourselves, both as individuals and as a society.

My latest example is this article by Gregg Easterbrook at ESPN.com last week.  The main thrust of the story concerns the unprecedented backlash experienced in the last few weeks by the NFL, which is not the point of this post but is interesting in and of itself.*  Not quite halfway through the article, however, Easterbrook takes a right turn into discussing television, and points out something I've been constantly harping on regarding police procedurals.  I bring this up only to mention how nice it is to find someone else whose mind works the same way as mine, at least part of the time.

*In particular, I appreciate the point he makes about how the NFL "holds up a mirror to American society."  I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, but it's the same point I make constantly about television, and TV Guide - it's like holding up a mirror to a given point in American cultural history.

Easterbrook's writing about Chicago P.D., the latest cop show by schlockmeister Dick Wolf, who's responsible for the Law & Order franchise.  This connection doesn't surprise me a bit, for reasons I'll explain shortly.  In discussing how unrealistic the show is, he makes points that could, in fairness, be made about most police shows throughout the years (excessive numbers of murders, exaggerated shoot-outs, the idea of extreme crime as an everyday occurrence, convicted killers being released "by order of the police chief"), and adds something that any watcher of a Dick Wolf show should know upfront: "This really is not how the justice system works." Easterbrook then makes a point that I've made time after time:

But what's disturbing about Chicago P.D. is audiences are manipulated to think torture is a regrettable necessity for protecting the public. Three times in the first season, the antihero tortures suspects -- a severe beating and threats to cut off an ear and shove a hand down a running garbage disposal. Each time, torture immediately results in information that saves innocent lives. Each time, viewers know, from prior scenes, the antihero caught the right man. That manipulates the viewer into thinking, "He deserves whatever he gets."

In the real world, law enforcement officers rarely are sure whether they caught the right person or what a prisoner might know. Some ethicists say there could be a ticking-bomb exception -- if the prisoner could reveal where a ticking bomb is, then torture becomes permissible. But how could a law enforcement officer be sure what a captive knows? And if by this logic torture is permissible, wouldn't that justify torture by, say, the Taliban if they captured a U.S. airman who could know the location of a planned drone strike?

NBC executives don't want to live in a country where police have the green light to torture suspects. So why do they extol on primetime the notion that torture by the police saves lives? Don't say to make the show realistic. Nothing about Chicago P.D. is realistic -- except the scenery.

To this, I can only say, "Yes!"  My very point, in pieces such as this one, is that the American public is slowly being conditioned into accepting certain kinds of authority - abuses, really - as necessary to today's world.  After all, what have we got to fear from the government if we're innocent?  We shouldn't have to worry about having our phones tapped, or our mail read, or the possibility of being tortured - right?

Now, I know what some of you are thinking - hey, these are just television shows.  Why get so uptight about them, seeing conspiracies lurking behind every badge?  True - and the next time you try that line, ask yourselves why television has commercials.  Because they're trying to influence the way people think, that's why!

I took a shot at Dick Wolf earlier, and I don't want you to think that it was just a gratuitous shot.  In fact, I find his programs to be the absolute worst when it comes to trampling on civil liberties.  The police and prosecutors both show a breathtaking arrogance when it comes to the rights of individuals, and their supreme conviction that they know best is matched only by their willingness to do whatever it takes, including intimidation, to secure the result they want.  Particularly in the odious SVU, viewers are witnesses to an amazing contempt that authority holds for citizens*, which extends to every kind of bullying they can think of, including statements that I'd read as being clearly unconstitutional.  (My favorite is when they tell a suspect that if they don't talk now, any chance of a deal is gone.  Try telling that to some overworked assistant DA who'll cut any kind of a deal to decrease his workload.)  These people aren't interested in justice - they just want to win.  I don't want to get too graphic, but shows like this, and the characters in then, make me sick.

*Contrast this to a recent episode of Naked City, in which Detective Lieutenant Mike Parker tells an aggrieved New Yorker that, as a citizen, he has every right to bring his problem to the police and expect some kind of resolution.  What Parker realized, and today's cops don't, is that the police are the servants of the public, not the other way around.

I'll have more to write about this in the next few weeks - I've been working on a piece that is much too long and complicated right now to make any sense, but it has to do with the cynicism that pervades so much of television drama today, and how detrimental this has been to the culture at large.  Keep this in mind, though, the next time you watch a procedural where the police are scanning through someone's bank account, going through their cell phone, or threatening them in the interrogation room.  Ask yourself what kind of message this sends, and whether or not it describes a country you want to live in.

1 comment:

  1. The real Chicago PD has had a lot of problems with torture-happy police in recent years. The city is still paying claims because of one guy, commander Jon Burge, who coincidentally gets out of a federal prison in North Carolina on Thu 10/2. He'll be in a halfway house until early next year.

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