From Fife and fiction to Ferguson and fact

What’s been happening in Ferguson, Mo., made the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg think of, of all places, Mayberry, N.C.:

Even when it began, executives acknowledged that “The Andy Griffith Show” was a nostalgic portrait of small-town life. But it expressed an ideal that has leached out of American pop culture and public policy, to dangerous effect: that the police were part of the communities that they served and shared their fellow citizens’ interests. They were of their towns and cities, not at war with them.

Much of the crime-related tension in “The Andy Griffith Show” comes from the contrast between what people think real police work is and what the Sheriff knows it to be. In the pilot episode of the sitcom, the only crime is a case of jaywalking by an elderly woman, brought in by Taylor’s overzealous deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts).

In another episode, a manhunt for an escaped criminal brings higher authorities to town. Barney frets: “What are the state police going to think when they come here and find we got an empty jail? They’re gonna we’re just a hick town where nothing ever happens!” For Barney, the welfare of the community is an abstraction compared with his idealized sense of what it means to be a cop.

Sheriff Taylor ultimately outsmarts the overreaching state cops to catch the fugitive. He knows his town well enough to guess which back road the fugitive might use, to read the concern in an elderly woman’s voice and to direct the wanted man to a leaky row boat as an escape vessel, enabling the state police to pick him up without firing a shot.

Not only is this sort of work absent from contemporary pop culture about policing, the idea that such service to the community is not quite real police work lingers under two of the funnier and more thoughtful recent movies to engage with the idea of the idea of an escalated war on crime.

Both “Hot Fuzz,” a 2007 comedy from British director Edgar Wright, and “21 Jump Street,” the 2012 reimagining by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord of the 1987-1991 television series, feature bumbling officers who dream of action-movie heroics rather than their mundane duties. Instead of disabusing their notions, both films indulge these characters by providing threats that demand a military-style response.

In “Hot Fuzz,” rural cop Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) is bitterly disappointed when Sgt. Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg), a newcomer to the small town where Butterman grew up, fails to confirm the idea of urban police work that Butterman has gleaned from American movies like “Point Break” and “Bad Boys II.”

The joke of “Hot Fuzz” is that the over-the-top tactics and weapons Danny dreams of employing turn out to be necessary. A sinister cabal is murdering anyone who mars the small-town charm. Butterman, Angel and their fellow cops dust off their moldering riot gear, take a weapons cache out of evidence and lay waste to the criminals.

In “21 Jump Street,” rookie cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are bitterly disappointed when they are assigned to patrol a local park. When action arrives, they lack the basic competence to respond. After they arrest a drug dealer, he has to be released because Schmidt and Jenko forget to read the man his Miranda rights. But their dream of action heroism redeems them. The drug dealers reappear, and Schmidt and Jenko are the only people who are strapped up with enough weaponry to defeat them.

These are the movies that are actually engaging with the idea of police escalation rather than simply adopting such tactics in the name of exciting action sequences.

“The Fast and the Furious” franchise started out with cops investigating street-racing teams who stole electronic equipment. Six movies later, the cops and robbers are using tanks and planes to fight each other over a super-weapon. As Vox culture editor Todd VanDerWerff pointed out, Fox’s recent drama “Gang Related” is premised on the idea that police departments are only responding to criminals’ acquisition of sophisticated technology. “The Heat,” a Paul Feig comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, suggests that all Bullock’s uptight FBI agent needs to do to get better at her job is spend a night out drinking and learn Boston-style police aggression. McCarthy’s character is grounded in her Southie neighborhood, but mayhem takes the day.

In “The Dark Knight Rises,” the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the Gotham cops get extraordinary and coercive powers, but even those do not prove to be enough for the police to defend themselves against uber-criminal and terrorist Bane. That is actually rather generous: most superhero movies involve threats so large that the police are irrelevant in the response, showing up mostly in crowd sequences to promise their support on the ground to costumed avengers who are fighting in the air.

The legacy of Mayberry stays alive in the world of television showrunner Michael Schur, the co-creator of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” In that show, like ABC’s short-lived drama “The Unusuals,” the police deal with a range of misdemeanors and violent crimes rather than going to war with high-tech criminal syndicates or fiendishly clever serial killers.

The cops are defined by their relationship to their neighborhood and the department. One officer, Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) grew up in Brooklyn, as did the precinct secretary (Chelsea Peretti), while their colleague Charles is a relative newcomer to the neighborhood and a devotee of the borough’s foodie culture. Their captain, Ray Holt (Andre Braugher) was one of the first New York City cops to come out on the job, but he is ambivalent about the department where he has had to fight to succeed.

But even in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” cops train to raid buildings. And the first season ended with Jake getting his dream assignment: a chance to go up against some real criminals as part of a task force targeting the mafia.

“We need more TV shows and movies that reflect the world we’re seeing in news reports from Ferguson, and we need ones that do so directly,” Vox’s VanDerWerff wrote. “Fiction helps us process and make sense of the world, and there’s room in the images out of Ferguson (and so many other cities) for an earnest and nuanced consideration of what happens when police officers are given military-grade weaponry.”

It would be nice if culture were honest about the consequences of scenarios that make for high-stakes police chases and artfully choreographed action sequences. But that is still only a partial solution to a culture that is deeply invested in the idea that being a cop means going to war against criminals rather than being a part of a community. I don’t know that we can go back to Mayberry, if it ever existed. But American fiction and American towns could use more cops like Sheriff Andy Taylor and fewer warriors like the ones in Ferguson.

It would be nice if a reporter/columnist/blogger were able to come up with a better comparison than fiction of 50 years ago to real life of today. A more apt comparison for starters can be found as close as Rosenberg’s own newspaper’s archives — coverage of the mid- to late-’60s inner-city riots in such places as Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit, or the upward spiral of crime throughout the country in the ’60s and 1970s.

That’s only the first problem with this analysis. Perhaps I give too much credit to the intelligence or sense of the average person, but I think it is unlikely that many people believe “Hot Fuzz,” “21 Jump Street” (either version), or even “Miami Vice” (original or unwanted ripoff movie) or any other cop drama where an entire National Guard armory’s worth of weaponry is used actually reflects reality. That’s why they call it “fiction.” (And I say that as a fan of many of those shows, including “Hot Fuzz,” which was hilarious.) The existence of the acting career of Vin Diesel (assuming you can call what he does “acting”) proves that the entertainment industry’s first 10 priorities are all about making money. Shoot-em-ups with cartoonish levels of violence and other action make money; slow-paced nostalgia usually doesn’t.

You know what opinions are like, but hers might be more informed if she had actually covered police and courts at any point in her career instead of “culture.” Has she ever sat in a courtroom — not to cover a trial, but for, say, intake court? Has she ever done a ridealong with a police officer? Has she ever covered a police officer’s funeral?

Had Rosenberg ever covered the police beat, she would find out that, while God may not make junk, a lot of people turn themselves into junk. (That may or may not include the Ferguson victim, Michael Brown, who, it turns out, had no adult criminal record, but was a suspect in a strongarm robbery. Brown reportedly was 6-foot-4 and weighed upwards of 300 pounds. There is also a photo, and I don’t know if it’s him, of someone who looks like Brown with bottles of Hawaiian Punch and some sort of liquor, and a gun.)

There are people who literally cannot stay out of trouble, and it’s not trouble of the harmless boys-will-be-boys variety. (Unless you think someone’s making methamphetamine across the street from you is fine by you.) Victims of crime are usually not sympathetic to the excuses of the liberal commentariat for crime. There are bad people, and some of them live closer to you than you’d prefer. Nor are people who end up being indirect victims of crime — people who don’t feel safe outside their homes because of what could be called the pre-arrested.

A police officer’s job can be impossible. There are few lines of work where you can go to work with the chance you won’t ever return home. Police officers get to be street-based lawyers and social workers. Officers get blamed for enforcing laws they had no role in creating. Police work is one of those public lines of work where you’re always questioned and no one’s ever satisfied with the answers. (That can apply to working in the media too.)

Officers often aren’t helped by the people who are supposed to lead them, either. Sheriffs are elected officials, which means they are politicians. Police chiefs are politicians too, because they are appointed by mayors or city councils, which means they have to convince them they’re the right person for the job. Milwaukee is stuck with Ed Flynn, who, apparently acting on the orders of his mayor, Tom Barrett, spends time ripping Republicans and gun owners instead of improving public safety through more effective use of the resources he has.

None of this excuses the actions of bad cops, or the bad actions of cops. Police officers are not above the law because police officers are entrusted with enforcing the law. They have, or should have, sworn an oath to uphold and defend the U.S. and state constitutions, from which come the basis of our laws. For that matter, they’re upholding society’s norms, which date back to the Ten Commandments — you know, don’t kill and don’t steal.

One wonders in cases of police overreaction if that is not a sign of the risk-averse times we live in. Police work has always been potentially dangerous, even in small towns and rural areas. I’m old enough to remember when police officers didn’t wear bulletproof vests. All the uniformed cops do now. There is a phrase attributed to police officers — “better to be judged by 12 than carried by six” — that refers to, respectively, a trial for an illegitimate police shooting, or a funeral. It’s grim and cynical, but it’s reality in our lesser civilized urban areas.

Police concern about being outgunned isn’t without validity. The most famous example may be the 1997 North Hollywood Shootout:

The increasing militarization of police is not just a concern of the loony left. (It’s rather remarkable that no one seems to be complaining about the Madison Police Department’s new MRAP.) Nick Sorrentino quotes National Review

The behavior of the Ferguson and St. Louis County police in this matter is illuminating. They are ridiculously militarized suburban police dressed up like characters from Starship Troopers and pointing rifles at people from atop armored vehicles, i.e. the worst sort of mall ninjas. They are arresting people for making videos of them at work in public places, which people are legally entitled to do, a habit they share with many other police departments. Protecting life, liberty, and property — which is the job of the police — does not require scooping people up for making phone videos; in fact, it requires not scooping people up for making phone videos.

These confrontations are a reminder of the eternal question: Who? Whom? Who is to protect and serve whom here? Is government our servant or our master?

A police department habitually conducting its business in secrecy and arresting people for documenting its public actions is more of a threat to liberty and property than those nine looters are.

… and adds:

Many conservatives realize now that perhaps arming police forces to the teeth wasn’t such a good idea after all. Too bad they didn’t listen to their libertarian brethren back at the dawn of the Homeland Security era. Hopefully it’s not too late to do something about the armies of supercops.

Conservatives and libertarians that are expressing similar concerns may be doing so because they don’t trust the Obama administration (and for obvious good reason), but distrust of government goes all the way back to the Founding Fathers. There are a lot of police officers who went into law enforcement from the military, and not necessarily from stateside service. The North Hollywood shootout may have been the first instance, but you can certainly put a date on when the police got sucked into the military/homeland security apparatus: Sept. 11, 2001.

Want to know, though, how to meet cops who are part of a community? Live in one. That is, a small town, where the police are your neighbors and go to your church. Small towns are not perfect (nothing where humans can be found is), small towns are not without crime (even horrific crimes), and small towns lack the economic opportunity of big cities and the cultural sophistication of, say, Washington, D.C. But there remain places in this country (usually places some distance from metropolitan areas) where people don’t always lock their houses and cars, people go for a walk on a nice night instead of holing up in their house, and people know the police because their church held an Easter dinner and invited the officers who had to work that day.

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