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Heroes Or Tyrants? When Good Cops Do Bad Things

Heroes Or Tyrants? When Good Cops Do Bad Things

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Law enforcement officers have an uneasy relationship with the rest of society. The police subculture, dominated by social solidarity and isolation, serves not only as a protective shell against the harsh elements of our dangerous society, but it can breed deviant conformity if not checked by good recruitment, training, management, and early warning systems. With mass cop-killings and deadly assaults on peacemakers today, tensions are running high and good cops can quickly turn to justice-through-vengeance.

In our books and movies, the term ‘anti-hero’ has come to mean a fictional character with characteristics that are antithetical to those of the traditional hero. They perform acts that are heroic but only do so through methods or manners not appearing heroic at all. Scholarly definitions of the anti-hero are few and far between.

By 1992, the American Heritage Dictionary defined anti-hero only as “a character in a narrative work without heroic qualities.” The 11th Edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defined anti-hero as “a protagonist lacking in heroic qualities.” In each account, not much attention was given to the actual performance of heroic acts; anti-heroes were only portrayed as villainous.

Superhero scholar Richard Reynolds offered, “The negotiation of a character’s heroism (or villainy) is fleshed out, as in all narratives, by the examination of moral choices made under pressure.” The first pop-culture look at the anti-hero for law enforcement came in 1971, with the film Dirty Harry.

Published in the 1985 edited work, Moral Issues in Police Work, University of Delaware professor Carl Klockars explained the character of Dirty Harry as a representation of noble cause corruption. “The Dirty Harry problem asks when and to what extent the morally good end warrants or justifies an ethically, politically, or legally dangerous means to its achievement.”

In one scene from the film, a psychopathic killer kidnaps a young girl, buries her alive, then fails to provide information as to her location after demanding and receiving a ransom. Clint Eastwood’s character, Inspector Harry Callahan, illegally searches the suspect’s room, identifies him as the abductor, and then proceeds to track him down. Upon locating the suspect, Callahan shoots him in the leg and stands on it—as if putting out a cigarette—until the man discloses the girl’s whereabouts.

In this situation, Klockars explained the problem was not what Dirty Harry should have done. Audiences polled following the release of the film actually wanted Harry to do something “dirty.” They approved of his tactics, despite the fact that the killer was released due to an illegal search and seizure. To what extent, then, does noble cause and sensitivity by law enforcement officers cross the line?

Theoretically, Callahan was justified in his actions by the goodness of purpose. A possibility that the victim was still alive in conjunction with the failure to provide information supported his actions. Criminal investigators typically use the sliding scale of criminal culpability to gain a suspect’s confidence in eliciting a confession; however, Callahan went from asking a question at gunpoint to torture. This behavior questioned the foundation of moral integrity and necessity found most commonly in the “slippery slope” argument.

Klockars further explained, “The troublesome issue in the Dirty Harry problem is not whether a right choice can be made, but that the choice must always be between two wrongs. In choosing to do either wrong, the police officer inevitably taints or tarnishes himself.” Criminologist Edward Delattre argued, however, that the incompatibility of one moral theory over another taints no one. In fact, an officer may act in accordance with two theories, both of which are seen with a measure of rightness and thus forces a decision between them.

This phenomenon is a complicated experiment in temptation, morality, and justice. A moral objective such as sacrifice or saving lives is the morality of something. While we might judge, condemn, or criticize the nature of the deed, can we destroy the heroism of what was done?

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