Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Good cop, bad cop

I often watch some of the British TV cop shows, the ones with Inspector Lynley, or Inspector Morse, or Inspector Tennison. The ones where the detectives root around and solve a murder, which word they pronounce so British-ly. And there’s something I think I’ve noted before, but maybe I’m just thinking about it now because of the recent Supreme Court Decision declaring the District of Columbia’s handgun restrictions unconstitutional, and thereby making our cities more deadly with a stroke of “Justice” Scalia’s pen.

You see, I’ve watched American detective shows too, such as NYPD Blue and the Law and Order series, and there’s something very different between the US and UK versions. In the US shows, as the detectives sift their way through the facts and the evidence and the leads and the suspicions, they do it in a very physically aggressive, in-your-face kind of way. They’re rough with the suspects and the interrogations. They smack people around, they threaten them, they shout a lot. They go places with guns drawn, and you never know when some skel will take a shot at them. There’s the threat of a bullet around every corner.

The British detectives, in contrast, work more subtly. They’re generally rather polite, if insistent (the American version might be Columbo, or the guys in Dragnet, decades ago), and they crack the case through dogged determination and by getting into the minds of the suspects and puzzling out the inconsistencies. They don’t even carry guns — in the British police force, only special units are armed — and there’s rarely concern that they’ll walk through a door and take a bullet, or even a club to the head. They’ll speak sternly during interviews, but they don’t often shout, and I can’t recall them applying fists to the situation.

It doesn’t matter, for this discussion, whether either of these depict police work accurately. What’s interesting is what it shows about how our two cultures look at police work, what image we have of how they operate. The American culture is steeped in aggression, violence, and guns. We have the Old West image of the lawman with his six-shooter, and a cop without a sidearm is a completely foreign image to us. And, obviously, the creeps they’re dealing with are no good, so if we can slap some sense into them or get them to “cooperate” by banging their heads into the wall, where’s the problem in that?

The Brits, on the other hand, would find it odd to see their Detective Inspectors running around with guns or using their suspects as punching bags. In fact, there was a plot thread in one season of Inspector Lynley, where a threat to push a suspect off a balcony nearly cost DI Lynley his job. That’d be a normal day for Andy Sipowicz.

It’s fiction, yes. But our fiction says a lot about our reality. In the 1950s, Joe Friday never drew his gun. 40 years later, we didn’t even notice the guns because we were so used to them.

We’ve come a long way.


Thomas J. Brown said...

An interesting comparison that I hadn't thought about until you brought it up. I remember watching Dragnet on Nick at Night as a kid. It really is amazing how far we've come since then.

While we're on the topic, of the different Detective Inspectors, Dalgleish is my favorite.

Lisa Simeone said...

I, too, love those British detective series (thank you, PBS!). And don't forget FOYLE'S WAR. Have you seen the latest? It's so good!

Even on THE WIRE, which I realize was overall a violent show at times, the cops got their jobs done mostly by dogged police work. In fact, that was the point Bunk kept making, over and over, especially to the wayward McNulty: police work, police work, police work. Old-fashioned police work. That's what solves crimes. Bunk was a great moral force in that series.

Dr. Momentum said...

In fact, in The Wire, the distinction is made very starkly between the "rough 'em up" police tactics which are cheap, require little training, and are ultimately futile vs. the very long and hard police work of the detectives who are trying to make an actual case.

This is also why I liked the original CSI; turning crime into a puzzle instead of an action movie.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I remember a Midsomer Murders episode where Barnaby really gave Scott a dressing down for threatening to punch someone ...

You're right: the images are very different.