What is so pernicious about "Armed & Famous," "COPS," "America's Most Wanted," "To Catch a Predator," "S.W.A.T." and other of this criminal-vérité programming? It is that they have helped set a national tone in which both the police and the policed have been convinced that appropriate law-enforcement correlates with high-speed chases, blocking and tackling, drawn weapons, and a shoot-first, think-later mindset. What connects November's "bust-in" killing of 88-year-old Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta with the slaying of bridegroom Sean Bell in Queens, N.Y. that same month, is that both fell from fusillades fired by undercover police squads clearly doing more shooting than thinking.
That both Johnson and Bell were African-Americans illuminates again the "separate but unequal" law-enforcement system under which America still labors. In recent years, however, law enforcement has evolved into more of an equal opportunity destroyer, with high-impact policing increasingly intruding into the lives of Americans, black, white and otherwise. Black and white substantiation of this trend came last month in a truly chilling report by the Justice Department disclosing that the United States now has both the largest prison population and highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 1 in every 32 American adults enmeshed in the criminal-justice system.
Particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a by-the-book, nothing-but-the-book regime of law enforcement is supplanting gentler, more discretionary varieties of civil dispute resolution. Not so long ago, local cops had the authority to simply grab the car keys from a tipsy, mortgage-paying citizen and drive him or her home. A deputy sheriff might confiscate a couple of joints from a high-school student and send her off with a warning. Confronting a marital dispute, community-savvy beat cops could decide to walk angry mates to different corners of the house and allow things to cool down. Police stops then did not seem, as they do now, to be confrontations chilled by the potential for misunderstanding and even bloodshed.
Today, across America, there is a growing schism between police and the communities they are sworn to serve. Nor is the lot of today's cop a happy one. Police today are caught in a dangerous socio-political riptide: If they exercise too blunt a force, they may end up getting themselves and others unnecessarily injured or killed. If they are too "soft," their departments risk the crosshairs of get-tougher-on-crime victim's rights organizations, stirred up by daily doses of reality crime shows like "COPS."
"COPS" wormed its way into the marrow of American cultural life since it first aired in March 1989, with more than 600 shows featuring nearly 150 different police and sheriffs departments. The program has grossed more than $200 million in syndication and, along with its fugitive-tracking sibling, "America's Most Wanted,"
made Saturday evening "Crime and Punishment" night on the Fox Network.
"COPS" has succeeded spectacularly because it takes us on a titillating ride through trash-heap America. In those blighted, benighted streets, the poor, emotionally maimed, drug-addicted and merely addled, are pulled over, spreadeagled, cuffed, bullied, and then made to jump through the hoops of criminal-law enforcement for our viewing pleasure. As "COPS'." John Langley explained to an interviewer, the popularity of the show derives from "the adrenaline rush of not knowing what would happen at any time." So culturally hungry have we become for the kick of televised police chases, dramatic arrests and victim-ventilating psychodrama, that even the miscreants themselves seem untroubled at signing the releases allowing their generally imbecilic actions and law-enforcement reactions to be broadcast on national television.
What is so harmful about this mixture of real-life street-tragedy and low-rent entertainment is that "COPS" and its brethren reduce our resistance to the kind of dehumanized "ultra-violence" Anthony Burgess hypothesized in his then-seemingly satiric 1962 novel "A Clockwork Orange."
MSNBC's "To Catch a Predator" has a more focused, and perhaps an even more insidious intent than "COPS." It aims, in tandem with the scarily named organization "Perverted Justice," at the cyberspace enticement of the low-lifes today referred to as "sexual predators." These online Lotharios may think they are in for a little under-age nooky, but when they show up at the anonymous suburban split-level, the sting is sprung. Instead of 14-year-old Tiffany, it is Chris Hansen appearing in the name of us all to extract a humiliating confession from slobbos, he quickly makes clear, are not fit to delint his crisp duds. In his role as video Grand Inquisitor, Hansen also acts as agent for the swarm of cops lurking just outside waiting to take down the now-unmasked perv and haul him off to jail.
It is about as easy to defend the scummy subjects of "To Catch a Predator" as it is to try to justify drunken driving. Yet, isn't the chiseled, commanding Hansen acting an equally scummy role, engaging in the kind of fishing expedition that should be repugnant to those who recognize moral and constitutional danger in the dirty art of entrapment? This is especially so when that entrapment is designed first of all as popular entertainment.
The last word, however, on "To Catch a Predator," that "the show has done more than any law we can create" came, unsurprisingly, from a former Florida member of Congress named Mark Foley, a man who apparently knows more than a little about perverted justice, not to mention online predation.
A similarly chilling illustration of the growing acceptance of - or at least acquiescence to - escalating police violence, are the cop shows lionizing America's special weapons & tactics (SWAT) squads. Together, the Arts & Entertainment Network's Kansas City "S.W.A.T.," Dallas "S.W.A.T.," and Detroit "S.W.A.T.," culturally consecrates activities that have historically been the province of the military in far-away places where the Bill of Rights do not apply. Deconstruct the following bit of copy on the A&E Web site: "Do you have what it takes to talk the talk with the toughest officers in law enforcement? Before suiting up, take a look at this list of lingo designed to help civilians hang tight with members of SWAT."
This vicious puffery, like the shows themselves, invites us to celebrate the Heckler & Koch machine pistols, Parker Hale Model 85 sniper rifles, flash-bang grenades, armored personnel carriers and other paraphernalia of what is essentially infantry war-fighting transferred to American streets. What makes the phenomenon especially scary is that the SWAT mentality bases itself on that fundamental soldierly paradigm that divides the world into friend and foe. For today's bands of SWAT brothers, the enemy is often us, and the kind of 50-round barrage that killed Sean Bell or the fatal "kick-in-the-door" assault by police into the home of Kathryn Johnston, becomes numbingly normal.
What do we do, short of throwing up our arms and surrendering to the inevitability of militarized domestic police forces? First, a de-escalation of the ongoing domestic law-enforcement arms race might be a good place to begin.
A 1999 Cato Institute study found that between 1995 and 1997 alone, the Defense Department passed along 1.2 million items of military equipment to domestic police forces. Fueled by this largesse, thousands of American towns and cities such as Fresno, Germantown, Tenn., and Sunrise, Fla., now support SWAT teams.
There is a self-propagating aspect to the spread of SWAT. To justify the added expense of a paramilitary force, there is a continual push to expand its role into the realm of daily policing. Thus is laid the institutional groundwork for Johnston and Bell-style confrontations in which overwhelming force and military rules of engagement are the catalyst for unnecessary tragedy.
Tactics similarly need to de-emphasize automatic weapons, snipers and carved-in-stone procedures in favor of policies that are friendlier and less likely to get our fellow citizens, either police or civilians, killed. It might not be a bad idea, as well, to enter into disarmament talks with the television executives, producers and reporters, who have worked so cannily to inculcate the "COPS," "America's Most Wanted," "To Catch a Predator," "S.W.A.T." - and now, "Armed & Famous" - mentality that is contributing to making America a deadlier, if marginally more entertaining, place.
This piece ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, January 7 2007.