So I watched Serpico for the first time the other night and I have a new hero. For those of you not familiar, Al Pacino plays Frank Serpico, the only clean cop in a city full of police corruption. When he’s not tackling runaway perps or standing up to dirty cops, he’s bringing home hot women even though he has the social skills somewhere between Temperance “Bones” Brennan and an autistic robot. In a cultural climate where NYC cops make news daily for being terrible at their jobs, then getting upset that the mayor called them out on their terrible work, and then doing a worse job in response, it’s easy to rally around a film critical of that same police force.
I call Serpico a hero, not because I think he was the only good cop then or that there aren’t any good cops in New York (or Missouri, or Florida, or Ohio, or…) now, but because I’m pretty sure I would have been a dirty cop too. Or at least one that doesn’t deserve your respect. Why are cops so fucking special? Why should they be free from judgment of the individual instead of just the group as a whole? There is some patriotism-like movement that tries to convince people that all cops are heroes, and for people like me this has always backfired, because that is obviously a load of crap. There is no way everyone with a badge and a gun is worthy of your respect. Is a cop that risks his life to actually protect and serve the community a hero? Sure, I can buy that, no question. But I’ve lived in a city where there is real danger all around; where guns and drugs, violent break-ins and armed muggings, are unattended by cops because they are too busy breaking up college house parties. I get the desire to stay safe and I know personally I wouldn’t want to put my life at risk for strangers. But that’s why I’m not a cop. I’m not a hero. But neither is the officer (or Sgt. that set the police agenda) who prioritizes taking away keystone lights from a 19-year old when someone is shooting up the neighborhood two blocks away.
Being a cop is probably just like any other profession where you may find those that go above and beyond and you may find people who are only there to collect a paycheck and benefits. Whether you’re at the police station or the cubicle graveyard, you’ll find people who are lazy, or checked out, and/or only there because of patronage. Our national workforce is full of people who are there for all the wrong reasons; however, in the case of a cop these reasons can be far more disastrous, you know, like the ability to assault minorities and get away with it. If Tina doesn’t file her sales paperwork because she’s too busy seeing who her ex-boyfriend is now dating on Facebook, yeah it sucks, but she’s the boss’s niece, and in the grand scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter. But if Tina is police, her paperwork may literally be a matter of life and death. If someone who is unqualified at your office can’t handle the technology properly then regrettably people may not get their faxes in time, or god forbid their sales bonus. If a cop can’t handle the equipment he’s supposed to be trained on at work, the wrong people can get SHOT. It should be obvious as hell why hiring the right police officers is more important than nearly every other profession.
But what if we don’t have enough people in our society that possess the capabilities that police need? When I think of someone in an ideal world that would make a good police officer, the kind that a 4-year old would draw with crayons when asked what they want to be when they grow up, I would look for the following qualities: honesty, dependability, compassion, physically and mentally strong, technologically and mechanically savvy, ethical, intelligent, racially unbiased (as much as possible), in great physical shape, emotionally stable, and calm under pressure. How many people that you know honestly possess all those qualities, let alone cops? I wouldn’t trust half the people I work with to use PowerPoint correctly let alone firearms. I would expect mild plagiarism, shoddy work completed the night before, and technical difficulties that would send half of them into an anxiety riddled breakdown. There are lower expectations in the civilian world. Still, I’m typically critical of police because I know that many of them are nowhere near meeting the criteria above. I know that I don’t meet the criteria above either, but like I said I know I couldn’t be a good cop. I can tell myself that I’m better than the cops in the news because I’m not going to aggressively over pursue young black men, but can I say for certain that I have the integrity to not take a little money off the top like Serpico refused to do? Can I say that I wouldn’t bust up a frat party instead of a stash house if it meant knowing I could go home to my family safely at the end of the night?
I know that I wouldn’t be able to be the kind of person that I want our police to be. Most of the people that I know and love wouldn’t be able to hit that standard either. But does that mean we should lower our expectations for cops? I guess that depends on what we are looking for. If you really want these men and women to be considered heroes, those that fight for justice, that do risk their lives, and those that should be celebrated by the Mayor and not criticized, then I would have a hard time agreeing. There are over 1 million law enforcement officers working full time in the US and we are to believe that all of them are fucking Batman?
On the other hand we should probably acknowledge that many cops have extremely difficult jobs and admit that it’s okay that there will be unqualified cops. If only those coming even close to our perceived standards applied for the police force every city would be drastically understaffed. It’s regrettable that we need so many cops, because our society in general is understaffed with the kind of people we want to represent us both in life and and our law enforcement. Sure, it would be nice if as a society we could work on improving our overall value kept on integrity, hard work, and honesty, both in theory and in practice. But until that day that will likely never come happens, can we stop pretending that are all of cops are automatically heroic (or criminals)? Heroes are stand-out individuals that are courageous, that sacrifice themselves for the greater good, and that have the qualities we can look up to. We can’t all be heroes. In this case, “we” includes cops too.