Police departments in America have been slow to respond both to incidents of excessive force and brutality by their officers and to broader calls for policing and criminal justice reform. It says something that it’s surprising when an officer is fired after shooting a man who was running away from him or slamming a student to the ground in her classroom. And a particularly unproductive example of police defensiveness is on display in an ongoing dispute between police unions and movie director Quentin Tarantino. The fight is evidence of just how much some police officials think they deserve from the public, and how unstrategic their responses to harsh or intemperate criticism can be.
The controversy kicked off when Tarantino said at an October rally that “When I see murders, I do not stand by. I have to call a murder a murder, and I have to call the murderers the murderers.” He later told MSNBC’s Chris Haynes that he felt that it was fair to describe police shootings that way in certain circumstances: “In those cases in particular that we’re talking about, I actually do believe that they were murdered. And they were deemed murder.”
New York and Los Angeles police unions called for a boycott of Tarantino’s movies, a move aimed at hurting the box office for his forthcoming Western “The Hateful Eight,” which arrives in a number of American theaters on Christmas Day.
If Tarantino had been in any other profession, and police unions had called for a boycott of his business and made vaguely threatening noises about a “surprise,” the reaction would have been merely histrionic and embarrassing. Fraternal Order of Police executive director Jim Pasco’s declarations that “We’ll be opportunistic” and “Our officers make a living trying to stop violence, but surprise is not out of the question” makes him sound like a wannabe-Batman.
Police officers, like everyone else, have the right to protest, and I’m all for them exercising their First Amendment prerogatives. But at a moment when police departments are facing criticism and reform efforts because of a widespread perception that some officers are all too willing to infringe on the rights of the people they’re pursuing, trying to lean on a critic of police shootings doesn’t do much to dispel that impression. Pasco’s rhetorical strategy is particularly heavy-handed.
And there’s something particularly striking and entitled about seeing the police unions throw a temper tantrum at an entertainment industry figure. Tarantino may not have ever shown any particular interest in lionizing police officers. But the entertainment industry as a whole has consistently provided a massive subsidy to police officers’ and police departments’ reputations. The only profession that has gotten more of a lift from the media business is the medical field.
Police procedural stories have been a staple of American fiction for more than half a century, reaching full bloom on television where episodes centered around a single crime and the dedicated, highly competent cops, or FBI agents, or even Naval Criminal Investigative Service officers, who solve it within an hour. In 1971, “Dirty Harry” provided a vigorous cinematic defense of police shootings of suspects. And more nuanced dramas in years since, from “Zodiac” to “Training Day” to “End of Watch,” have focused on the psychological struggles of police officers who want to do their jobs in a principled way and bow under the weight of difficult cases.
Even as the police procedural has matured, more critical shows about policing avoid radical calls for police abolition. “The Shield,” Shawn Ryan’s FX drama based on the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart scandal, suggested that dedicated cops would find ways to bring down even their most corrupt, protected brethren. “The Wire,” David Simon’s groundbreaking HBO series about Baltimore, showed great affection for individual cops and the cultural rituals of the Baltimore police department even as the show deplored policing doctrine and the actions of individual cops. Even Black Lives Matter-inspired episodes of police shows that have aired this fall have tended to fall in relatively moderate territory.
Police officers have benefited from Hollywood’s exercise of free speech for years, and they’ll probably continue to. The dramatic drive of a police investigation, and the high stakes of crime, are just too useful for the entertainment industry to give up. But police unions’ reactions to Tarantino’s remarks are at the very least ungrateful and shortsighted. Let’s hope that whatever “surprise” the Fraternal Order of Police has planned doesn’t make the conversation about criminal justice in America even less productive.