Whatever It Takes: Policing In Popular Culture

Posted: February 28, 2015 by mattwagner5 in Food for Thought, Robert Dziekanski, Rodney King, Uncategorized

Pop culture has long since glorified the deviant practice of the law enforcement officer who does whatever it takes to get the job done. This is predominant in many of our favorite movies and T.V. shows such as Bad Boys, The Fast and Furious, and even more so Walking Tall. All these of these movies are great examples of officers who put the rules aside for the “greater good”. Deviance is defined as the fact or state of departing from usual or accepted standards. To better understand the extent to which the media is able to normalize these practices, I will further explain using the film “Walking Tall”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X67H5J9ZMds

Walking Tall is the story of ex U.S. Army Special Forces sergeant named Chris Vaughn. After returning from duty to his small town in Washington, he finds that the local mill, once the town’s main source of economic sustainability, has been shut down. Looking for a chance to relax, his old friends take him to the casino which is run by former mill owner Jay Hamilton. After checking out the building Chris Vaughn plays craps and notices the dice are “loaded”. Making it publically known he causes an outcry in the casino with staff. This instigated a fight and after beating down several guards with a piece of lumber he is subdued by a tazer. Vaughn is then taken outside, beat down, and cut up on his stomach with a blade. He attempts to press charges with the local sheriff’s department, but they advise him it is not in his best interests because the casino is now sustaining the economy. A trial ensues and at the end of it Vaughn makes a statement about the town’s former self, and if he is cleared of his charges he will clean up the town and run for sheriff. Later in the movie we find out that Jay Hamilton has shutdown the mill to fund his drug dealing operation. He is moving large quantities of methamphetamine and cooking it in the mill. This is unknown to now sheriff Vaughn who knows the drugs are coming from somewhere and suspects Hamilton to be the number one suspect. While in charge as sheriff, he pesters Hamilton by pulling him over and has him watch as Vaughn strips every piece of metal off his truck. Although Vaughn had no right to search or stop him he did it anyway. After getting intel from a ex stripper at the casino Vaughn finds out that Hamilton is the source of drugs. Again Vaughn makes a road side stop and pulls over Hamilton in his new Porsche. Vaughn makes numerous threats about giving up the drugs and the manufacturing whereabouts, but Hamilton does not budge. On the way back to Vaughn’s vehicle he states that Hamilton should get his tail light fixed, then proceeds to club the tail light with the same lumber from the casino incident. Once the whereabouts of the manufacturing of the drugs is found Vaughn is set into action. In a sequence of events there is a barrage of bullets flying around where multiple of Hamilton’s henchmen die and ultimately Hamilton is arrested and jailed. In a later scene the mill is up and running again and the mill is shut down.

This film is an excellent representation of what (Punch, 2009) would call the “Dirty Harrys” of policing. These are the law enforcement officers who are committed to the cause of policing, but will implement any practices necessary, even if it means breaking the law. In Walking Tall Vaughn attempts to rid the town of drug use and drug trade. He does this my implementing practices that would question and break the laws of due process. Although he is aware of this practice his attitude is still that of “getting the job done”. A good representation of this is when Vaughn pulls over Hamilton in his Porsche, and proceeds to smash in his tail light, and then states that’s why he got pulled over. There is another scene in the movie where Vaughn, after finding out the sheriffs will not allow him to press charges , decides to take matters into his own hands. He charges into the casino and man handles many of Hamilton’s henchmen with his signature piece of lumber. This act certainly refers to what (Punch, 2009) would call a “Cowboy”. Cowboys are “highly aggressive officers committed to a macho police identity; undisciplined and action oriented” (Punch, 2009). Often times in the film Vaughn thinks with his muscles and not his head. This is the cause of many of his confrontations and fights that breakout. These definitions help us to understand further why some officers engage in what we know as deviant acts. Although in the end the officer may get the outcome desired, the route taken is not the correct in the eyes of the law and due process.

Hollywood loves to portray law enforcement officers as action packed hero’s who always save the day. Their daily events involve running around the city, shooting their guns, beating up bad guys, and making arrests. Films involving these scenes create an illusion for the public that this is very similar to that of real policing. Although these events do happen, the average officer rarely uses their firearm. (Crawford, 1999) Says, “Police in all cities kill rarely, but at widely varying rates. The average Jacksonville police officer would have to work 139 years before killing anyone. In New York City, the wait would be 694 years. It would be 1,299 years in Milwaukee and 7,692 years in Honolulu, all based on the 1980-84 rates of killing”. So therefore Hollywood isn’t 100% wrong in depicting these scenes, they are just wrong with how frequently they occur with individual officers. Another misleading fact popular culture provides to the public is that it is the often the regular beat officer who engages in many investigations and makes all the arrests. While this is true in some cases, most crime is solved by investigation teams, about 95% actually (Crawford, 1999). Misconceptions from popular culture have the ability to skew the minds of the consumer. Because of this many individuals have an unrealistic reality of actual police work. I myself have even been victim to this. Before starting to investigate on many of these topics covered I always assumed that police had the power to do almost whatever they wanted. After recently attending a few ride alongs with local RCMP I found out just how much procedure is involved with stopping, arresting, and detaining a person. I also realized how different a regular beat officers day to day is. It often involves driving around, checking license plates, and responding to calls with no real suspect. This shows just how far popular culture will go to create an audience.

Popular Culture depicting law enforcement has long since been on top of the film world. With the “Dirty Harry’s” leading the way, I can’t see this changing anytime soon. People love a hero who can get the job done no matter what it takes. So where we can go from here is to accept the fact media is one way and real life is another, and in time with any luck, the public will be able to separate fact from fiction.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography
Crawford, C. (1999). Law Enforcement and Popular Movies: Hollywood as a Teaching Tool in the Classroom. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture , 46-57.
Punch, M. (2009). What is Corruption? In Police Corruption: Deviance, Accountability and Reform in Policing. 18-52.

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Comments
  1. Mike Larsen says:

    The lead character in ‘Walking Tall’ certainly seems to be a good example of the ‘Dirty Harry’ trope. Criminologist Carl B. Klockars wrote the foundational article on this topic in 1980. Please see me if you would like a copy of the article. One of the themes that Klockars explores is the idea that the audience is able to identify with the means-ends calculations used by the protagonists in ‘Dirty Harry’ films because we know – with certainty – who the ‘bad guys’ are, by virtue of our omniscient viewer perspective. We can contrast this clear-cut fictional framing with the ambiguities and assumptions that shape real-world ‘noble cause corruption’.

    You have presented an effective analysis and interesting commentary here. I want to challenge the claim that you make in your conclusion, though: while it is tempting to insist on a clear separation between fiction and fact, this is simply not the way that culture works. Reality, its depiction through news media, and fiction often blur together or ‘loop’. See Brodeur’s (2010) The Policing Web for a discussion of this.