One of the major themes portrayed in popular contemporary media is police deviance. These fictional representations of policing in current culture have gradually become a form of entertainment in today’s society. As a result, they exert great impacts on people’s understanding of the nature of police deviance. On the one hand, media representations can function as people’s source of knowledge on what police deviance is about, such as the different forms that can take place. On the other hand, such representations can also distort factual understanding of police deviance as media often resorts to exaggeration and select emphasis. In this blog, a descriptive summary of police deviance depicted in the film 16 Blocks is first provided and then followed by a commentary on the meanings of the representation of police deviance examined.
Firstly, the major theme of police deviance is depicted in the 2006 American film 16 Blocks directed by Richard Donner. The storyline starts out with the main character Jack Mosley, who is a very burnt out New York policeman with alcohol problems (Lerner and Donner, 2006). He has to escort Eddie Bunker, who is the witness to testify on police corruption case the next morning, from the police custody to the courthouse that is only 16 blocks away (Lerner and Donner, 2006). However, on the way, they are attacked by a “gunman” (Lerner and Donner, 2006). Mosley quickly calls for backup, which involves his former partner Nugent. Yet, Mosley finds out that they are not there to help him. Nugent tells Mosley that Bunker has to die or they would all be prosecuted for the corruption (Lerner and Donner, 2006). Thus, Mosley proceeds to protect Bunker throughout the rest of the movie to ensure his safety to the courthouse.
From the start of the film, the prevalence of police deviance is clearly portrayed. The selection of the New York Police Department is purposeful to communicate to the audience about its history of corruption. In particular, “ten percent of cops in New York City are absolutely corrupt, 10 percent are absolutely honest, and other 80 percent – they wish they were honest” (Larsen, 2015). In the film, the extent of police deviance is emphasized as the police not only participated in corruption, but also try to cover it up by killing off the witness. In other words, police are willing to commit crime to get away with their previous crime. Clearly, the prevalence of police deviance is severe in the New York Police Department.
More specific, the prevalence of corruption is extensively depicted in the film. As defined by Punch, corruption “relates centrally to abuse of office, of power, and of trust” (Punch, 2009, p. 31). As a civilian, Bunker trusts that the police will protect and take care of him as it is the police’s professional duty and responsibility to do so. However, Bunker does not receive this care because he is attacked by the corrupted officers he is going to testify against (Lerner and Donner, 2006). This reveals that these police officers have abused the trust civilians have in them.
Furthermore, corruptions can also “manifests itself in many ways but most frequently in consensual and exploitive relations with criminals” (Punch, 2009, p. 31). This can be seen in the film when it can be inferred that the “gunman” is actually sent by the corrupted officers to kill off Bunker (Lerner and Donner, 2006). This inference is logical because when they find Bunker is not dead, they take it into their own hands. From this, it reveals that police officers can become corrupted through the means of making deals with criminals. In this case, Nugent and the other corrupted officers have exploited their relationship with the “gunman” and sent him to accomplish their goal of eliminating the witness (Lerner and Donner, 2006).
In addition, the system of corruptions in New York Police Department is characterized as “organized, regulated and bureaucratic” with an “informal benefits system based on graft” (Larsen, 2015). In the film, the “corruption scheme” that Nugent and the other police officers, including Mosley, are involved with is highly organized (Lerner and Donner, 2006). There is a loyalty system in place, where they all have to stick together and not betray the mutual trust. In exchange, they are rewarded with “graft”, also known as “pad” (Larsen, 2015). In the film, the “pad” came from “dirty money” because it “involved drugs” that they allow criminals to traffick (Larsen, 2015). Using the “Knapp Commission Typology”, these officers are categorized as “meat-eaters” who are “proactive carnivores in search of graft” (Larsen, 2015). This is because they actively seek out using their authority to gain benefit (Larsen, 2015).
Also, the forms of police deviance portrayed in the film can be analyzed by using Dean et.al.’s “two-dimensional conceptualization of police deviance” (Dean et.al., 2010, p. 204). Base on the “matrix framework of police deviance”, it is found that the behaviours of the police officers in the film are categorized as “police corruption” (Dean et.al., 2010, p. 205). This is because they have misused their “police authority for gain”, which is a “key element” of police corruption (Larsen, 2015). For example, they have tried to frame the Bunker for shooting at an officer, so that they can justify killing him off in self-defence (Lerner and Donner, 2006). Clearly, this is abuse of their authority to defend themselves when they encounter life-threatening situations. They also violate the trust people have in police to exercise their power ethically.
Next, a commentary can be provided on the meanings of the representation of police deviance base on the above examination of police deviance depicted in the film. From the images of police deviance shown by the film, it shows that our general understanding of the role of police in modern society. More specific, we understand that the main role of the police is to use their power and authority to protect civilians and uphold the laws. When the police’s attitudes and behaviours act against this role, we view it as corruption. However, society is not educated on the different kinds of police deviance, which are categorized as “police misconduct”, “police corruption” and “predatory policing” (Dean et.al., 2010, p. 204). As a result, the subject of police deviance is not clearly understood and assumed most often as police corruption by the general public. A major reason for such assumption is because popular films such as 16 Block usually select and depict police corruption cases.
Another important consideration of the representation of police deviance in the film is the message that is conveyed about police wrongdoing. The film portrays that the extent of police wrongdoing can be extensive, involving various parties to accomplish the “corruption scheme” and to cover it up (Lerner and Donner, 2006). This may be reflective of the real life situations with police wrongdoing, which are found to be “widespread” and “organized”, and thus led to the creation of the “Knapp Commission” to address it (Larsen, 2015). However, it must be noted that the wide portrayal of the wrongdoing of the New York Police Department by popular media such as this film can result in a false sense of bias from society in thinking only this department has serious issues. In fact, all police departments should strictly enforce both internal and external controls and policies to consistently assess and uphold the quality of policing.
Finally, the relationship between fiction and reality as it pertains to the topic of police deviance must also be carefully considered. The film has certain exaggerated portrayal of the main character Mosley, who goes against his former partner and other police officers just to protect the witness. Moreover, Mosley is also involved in the corruption that the witness will testify against him. Yet, he still protects the witness. Clearly, the probability of this happening in reality is relatively low since the officer is corrupted. It is highly unlikely that he will immediately realize his wrongdoing and correct it, given such a short time frame. Therefore, it is important for the audience to realize that police deviance is often dramatized in media and balanced off with heroic behaviours. Therefore, although popular media can be a useful source to get general understanding about police deviance, it is recommended that such learning is supported by studying from a criminology perspective using academic sources.
Dean, G. Bell, P., & Lauchs, M. (2010). Conceptual framework for managing knowledge of
police deviance. Policing and Society, 20(2), 204-222.
Larsen, M. (2015). Four typologies of police deviance and corruption [Handout].
Larsen, M. (2015). Police deviance and accountability [Powerpoint].
Lerner, A. (Producer), & Donner, R. (Director). (2006). 16 Blocks [Motion picture]. United
States: Warner Bros.
Punch, M. (2009). What is corruption? In Police corruption: Deviance, accountability and
reform in policing (pp.18-52). Portland, OR: Willan Pub.