Monday, December 15, 2014

Police, torture, and crime fiction

(I really didn't know what to call this post)

A couple of days ago our very own Jay Stringer asked where now for procedural writers in the wake of Fergsuon?

My response, in short, is: nothing. What happened in Ferguson will have no meaningful impact on the police procedural genre. If only because this kind of thing happens all the time.

For years I've argued that the police procedural genre is primarily a fantastical one because it is so divorced from reality. On TV we regularly see things that don't or can't happen in real life like: a suspect breaking in 30 seconds; using a missing persons cell phone data to determine a location without having to get a warrant; taking a door; rarely showing the process of obtaining a warrant to take said door; suspects, specifically affluent ones never lawyering up; making The Promise and then delivering on it in 42 mins.

These examples arguably are more benign (and focus heavily on TV shows since it is mostly taken from the linked post). There are other, far more serious, realities of policing that aren't presented.

Are cops aware of the immense power they have? The power to arrest someone is awesome; any cop, at any moment, can take temporarily take your freedom. Yes, there are courts to protect the rights of the innocent, but in the meantime, a police officer can still put handcuffs on you, shove you in the back of his vehicle, fingerprint you and lock you up for at least a couple of hours; and lock you up with some pretty mangy people if he so desires. That is real power, traumatizing power. Society grants police officers that power, but in exchange, we must expect certain things — that the police officer granted this responsibility show more patience, more kindness, and better judgment than the average citizen.

C'mon dude, stop being so melodramatic.

In January of 2013 a man named David Eckert didn't come to a complete stop leaving a store parking lot. He was asked to exit his vehicle. The officer believed that Eckert was clenching his butt cheeks because he was hiding drugs. They obtained a warrant and proceeded to give him multiple enemas and a colonoscopy against his will. They found nothing. And they billed him for all of the procedures.

These horrific things weren't/aren't done by renegade, lone wolf cops. They are done by every day cops that are part of a system that is interested in protecting its own interests and actually benefits from keeping it's lower ranked members (ie: the police that citizens deal with) uninformed.

You see, police officers are protected by a doctrine called qualified immunity. Police officers can also be shielded by something called the Good Faith Exception at trial.

In other words, the banality of evil at work.

I think this is why the David Simon penned cop shows come the closest to a realistic interpretation of the job. Because he understands the systemic forces at work. Or at least recognizes that they exist.

Another facet of this is that the historical role of police officers, has morphed into a much more militarized beast that isn't fully represented in cop fiction.

I actually don't mean this as a hit piece on cops. I just wanted to illustrated some of the ways that fiction differs from reality, and how significant some of those differences are.

Recent current events shine a light on another way that fiction differs from reality. This time I'm speaking of the torture report.

How many times have we cheered on a character who explicitly or implicitly tortures another character to extract information because in the fictional situation that has been set up and presented to us it's deemed not only appropriate but worthy when we may be against the practice in real life?   Most of us would be appalled if a police officer violated our rights but happily cheer on a fictional cop/spy/solider/etc when it's done. 

If a person, who otherwise believes themselves to hold a different opinion, roots for a character who tortures another character does that mask a latent belief that the person holds or just someone getting pulled into the narrative structure and arc of the story? I don't know but I think it's an interesting question.
Then there is the question of the fiction affecting the reality. In other words can exposure to something affect your belief in it? A few years ago the term Jack Bauer Effect (aka The 24 Effect) was getting some play. Specifically, that effective torture scenes in a post-9/11 world was making torture more palatable to people. Is this effect real? One thing we know is that it reinforced your opinion of torture if you already believed in using it. Hence the rise in so called Right Wing Thrillers. Glen Beck for example is constantly recommending certain fiction books to his audience. As for the rest of us? Maybe.

But there is also something called The CSI Effect that has been around for years. It states simply that juries expect a lot of forensic evidence in trials, which raises the  standard of proof for prosecutors.  Sounds silly right, that a show could have so much influence on public perception. But it is nothing new. In 1986 there was a paper written on Lawyer portrayals in mass media. You start looking at the way governments have used propaganda films to effectively sway people one way or another and...

I admit to finding the questions that all of this raises fascinating. Is there a morality gap in fiction? Specifically in how often consumers of fiction (movies, TV, books, etc.) will happily cheer on characters who represent something they disagree with. Can an author be unaware of thematic subtext when constructing a story? What is the author's responsibility in how they portray their fictional worlds?



Thomas Pluck said...

I think we should definitely think about these things if we are to write about them. As I've been saying, "if stories matter, we should take care in writing them." The Jack Bauer effect is real, as is the CSI effect. We want to believe that all crimes can be solved, that there is a definite way to prove guilt. Most forensic "science" isn't based in science. I read recently that the FBI claimed that everyone's Levi's faded in a pattern that was as close as a fingerprint. They convicted a bank robber using that. It sounds plausible, but it also sounds like a load of horseshit. DNA is as close as we get, and even that has issues- how was it processed, stored, matched? The FBI only accepts DNA evidence processed by certain labs. Who certifies the labs?
It's not so simple. I've never been a huge fan of police procedurals but they can be fun and also excellent books. Lush Life by Richard Price (who also wrote for The Wire) was excellent in showing all the ugly behind the scenes actions.
I respect the job of police and those who do the job well deserve great honor. But we don't say "doctors have a tough job, it's okay if they mess up, give them a break." It's unfortunately sometimes as difficult a job as a doctor.
It's not as dangerous as we like to think- 27 police were killed on the job last year by suspects. Any is too many, but this isn't Fort Apache the Bronx in the '70s.
And fiction that demonizes people, or teaches us that the end always justifies the means, and authority should not be questioned... is propaganda. And it matters. The fear it evokes in us has consequences.

Dana King said...

Excellent post, and I second Thomas's comments. This is why I so rarely read best sellers, as they are more likely than what I read to fall into these traps.

I think there are two reason so many writers do this:
1. "The audience demands it."
2. Lazy writing.

More to the point, it;s a cross between the two. The audience may, or may not, "demand it," but they're not going to question it. Many--possibly--most people consider entertainment and thought as mutually exclusive activities. They just want to see some action and the case solved. If what Brian describes is what it takes to tie things up into a neat bundle in 42 minutes, they're good with that.

John McFetridge said...

As the opening to "Law and Order" said, "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups." And yet we don't seem to treat the two groups equally.

Are we as critical of the cops as we are the lawyers and judges? Do we ever say about lawyers or judges that it's just, "one bad apple?" It seems like we usually say the whole system is the problem and needs to be overhauled.

Why is that?

Kit Power said...

Thanks for the really thought-provoking piece, one that chimes with some of my own disquiet and I suspect will roll around in my head for a while. One immediate comment: I will never for the life of me understand why, in fiction, torture has never resulted in what it almost always does result in in 'real life' - i.e. the victim giving false information because it's what the torturer wants to hear.

It strikes me that the potential for dram in such a circumstance is huge, and would also have the added bonus of ringing truer to life than the current bunch of 24/Homeland/The Shield/Zero Dark 30's would have us believe...