"I was guilty as sin, but Valentine couldn't prove it. And he was the rarest breed of law enforcement officer: the type who knew I was breaking the law, but wouldn't break it himself to bust me."
The By-the-Book Cop is a stock character in police shows
and crime fiction in general. They're the older (and usually whiter) cop, who believes in following the law as it is written, playing by the rules even when the criminal scum they're after does not. A stickler for procedure, the By-the-Book-Cop is quick to chide their rookie partner for playing fast and loose out in the streets, and when they're Da Chief
, you'll see them constantly threaten to suspend
the loose cannon for their impulsive heat-of-the-moment shoot-first-ask-questions-later behavior. If they deem that the situation warrants it, they may bend
the rules slightly, but they'll never go so far as to break them; they are, after all, honest and incorruptible.
Appears less regularly as a main character, in which case they're likely to be presented with a To Be Lawful or Good
Often the complete opposite of a Cowboy Cop
, with whom they are often paired to form an Odd Couple
. If a Good Cop/Bad Cop
dynamic forms, they tend to be the good one. Police officers who appear in the Police Procedural
tend to be uniformly this type of cop, due to the relative paucity of cowboy cops
in Real Life
. Depending on the themes of whatever piece of fiction they are in, the By-the-Book-Cop can be either a protagonist who represents the epitome of honesty, or an antagonistic Obstructive Bureaucrat
who gets in the Cowboy Cop's way.
Can sometimes overlap with Lawful Stupid
if certain laws are downright ridiculous.
Contrast with Cowboy Cop
(unethical, but good); Corrupt Cop
(unethical, self-serving); and Rabid Cop
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Anime & Manga
- Togusa in Ghost in the Shell used to be a regular cop and sticks very close to the rules to separate himself from the masses of corrupt cops. In the counter-terror unit Section 9, he is the rookie and painfully out of place, as they usually deal with people who have the courts at their call. To his superiors, the laws are merely a "suggestion" for how to achieve justice and safety.
- Inspector Zenigata, of Lupin The 3rd, is quite possibly the world's most honest cop. During the Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine anime, he bent the rules a lot, but his memory of a young Oscar was what kept him from becoming a Corrupt Cop.
- Kuroko Shirai from A Certain Magical Index franchise.
- Bleach: Soi Fon is the head of the Keigun (lit. "punishment force"), which enforces the laws of Soul Society and detains or assassinates violators. She's a stickler for proper procedure and follows the law to the letter, no exceptions.
- One Piece has Captain Hina, who serves as the Foil to Cowboy Cop Smoker. It is heavily implied that she is the main reason why he gets away with so much.
- Lyrical Nanoha has Enforcer Chrono Harlaown, and later, Enforcer Fate Testarossa-Harlaown. The former even arrests his mentors and chides them for breaking the law and being willing to sacrifice an innocent life after he figures out that they're the ones interfering with the current investigation in their plan to seal the Artifact of Doom that killed his father.
- City Hunter has the one-shot character Hirotaka Kitao, out to arrest Ryo due his hate for professional killers but unwilling to actually break the law to do so... And engaged to Saeko, the Cowboy Cop who uses Ryo to take down some of the worst criminals around. Hilarity Ensues before he understands Ryo's true character and decides to leave the city.
- Transformers: Robots in Disguise has Prowl, a relatively benign example (mostly he yells at his younger brother for speeding), and Tow-Line, who reaches Lawful Stupid levels of Single-Issue Wonk about illegal parking. He tows everything from children's bikes to bullet trains and mailmen.
- Commissioner James Gordon from Batman, if it was not for his frequently calling upon the services of an unofficial masked vigilante to help police his city. Batman: Year One, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory track his growing relationship with Batman and rising position in the Gotham City Police Department, and they all reiterate his commitment to Law & Order and refusal to compromise his integrity and the rules, even to convict criminals he knows are guilty.
- He slips once when The Joker was on death row for a crime he might not have committed and didn't. He suggested to Batman that they let Joker fry despite the possibility that he's innocent of this particular crime. Batman tells Gordon that he's going to pretend he didn't say that, and the matter is dropped.
- Gotham Central is a Police Procedural focusing on the Major Crimes Unit of the Gotham City Police Department. Each member of the MCU is hand-picked by the Commissioner of Police in order to insure their integrity and commitment to honest police work, and the series follows them as they try to act honorably in a police department filled with corruption and graft.
- The title character of Judge Dredd is about as extreme as this trope can get. However the the character does grow to question the law every once in a little while, notably just before the "Necropolis" arc and the ongoing issue concerning mutant rights.
- There are also numerous minor aversions to this trope where Dredd himself brings up that part of being a Judge is using ones own discretion, meaning he occasionally ignores minor crimes or makes allowances for mitigating circumstances. Just like a real cop, only less often.
- Inspector Ginko from Diabolik plays with this: most of the times he's this trope, but only because otherwise the criminals will be able to loophole their way out of prison, and, when the book has failed, shows his true temper as a Cowboy Cop.
- Prowl, as shown in Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers and Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, knows the Autobot Code inside and out, and privately holds a grudge against every maverick troop out there, especially the Wreckers. Naturally, he isn't popular, having driven away anyone who could possibly have a reason to like him, much less tolerate him, and has long become incredibly bitter and angry at everyone. Of course, that's the least of his problems.
- Judgemaster Cid in The Tainted Grimoire is this through and through. Even if he feels following the letter of the law is morally wrong, he'll still do it, albeit reluctantly.
Films — Animation
Films — Live-Action
- Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, at first. But he's quickly taught the folly of this when faced with the likes of Capone. He then goes full Cowboy Cop, raids places without a warrant, and, in one case, outright murders a guy whom he just arrested.
- Sergeant Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon, at least initially.
- All of the Beverly Hills cops in Beverly Hills Cop, except Axel.
- Lieutenant Bogomil actually invokes the trope name when he explains to Axel why he won't let him investigate a customs bonded area without a warrant after discovering coffee grounds in the building.
- Bogomil then outright lies to his superior when questioned about the events of the raid on the Big Bad's mansion, earning him Axel's respect.
- In Beverly Hills Cop II, Bogomil conducts his own investigation without telling anyone.
- Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson in Die Hard.
- Nick Angel in Hot Fuzz. Even after defeating the villains Cowboy Cop style he still does paperwork.
- The Ontarian Martin Ward is the By-the-Book Cop in Bon Cop, Bad Cop. You have one guess as to what his (Québecois) partner is.
- Jack Valentine in Lord of War follows by the book and is the only reason Yuri Orlov was able to get away for as long as he did.
- Lt. Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential. at least at first.
- Inspector David Tosci in Zodiac is very by the book both in life and in the film. The film shows all the steps he goes through while pursuing a key suspect in a pretty fair aversion of Hollywood Law, and even in the end he knows there's no smoking gun to prove the killer's identity.
- Joe Friday in the 1987 Dragnet Affectionate Parody movie.
- Detective Mitch Preston (Robert De Niro) in Showtime is a typical example. His first scene has him explaining his job to a class of little kids, dispensing with all the Cowboy Cop tropes they might know from Hollywood. However, he fairly quickly breaks rules when necessary (or if he's pissed). For example, the act that results in him being forced to participate in a reality TV show involves shooting a video camera mere inches from the cameraman's head (to be fair, his justification that he's a good enough shot to hit exactly what he wants is later proven true). Officer Trey Sellars wants to be a Cowboy Cop, or at least play one on TV.
- Sarah Ashburn from The Heat.
- Detective Carlson in Blue Streak is fairly new as a detective and is paired up with the "more experienced" Lead Detective Malone. Carlson tries his best to follow the letter of the law. He is very confused about Malone skirting the law and police procedure. There's a good reason for Malone's behavior, though. He's actually a jewel thief who's posing as a cop trying to retrieve the stolen diamond he has hidden in the police station two years before. By the end, though, Carlson has learned enough to understand how it all really works (he deliberately lets "Malone" cross the Mexican border before revealing that he knows who he is and then pointing out that "Malone" is out of his jurisdiction).
- In Split Second, Dick Durkin is much more mindful of proper police procedure and much calmer than his new partner Stone due to his past education on killers and psychopaths. Subverted towards the end when he realizes that they're up against a supernatural monstrosity and he becomes just as gun-happy as Stone.
- Alien Nation: George Francisco.
- The X-Files: Not quite a cop, but a similar example: Director Walter Skinner of the FBI likes things clean and easy, with Mulder and Scully turning in matching reports, preferably with no mention of aliens, mad science, or miscellaneous monstrosities. In a way Scully herself plays stern By-the-Book Cop to Mulder's enthusiastic cowboyesque shenanigans.
- Skinner is no stranger to cowboyish attitude but he is also perfectly aware how dangerous is the environment he is moving in.
- The real by-the-book-cop here is Doggett, who actually got his start as a cop. Once you get over the fact that he replaced one of the most beloved characters in the series, the poor fellow's attempts to adapt from his world of by-the-numbers L&O to the weird and wacky world of the X-Files can be somewhat charming.
- Peter tries to be this on White Collar, but Neal's brilliant-but-not-quite-legal schemes make it hard for him. More often than not he ends up looking the other way, or even helping Neal, if he knows it means catching the criminal.
- The Dakotas: Ragan is the perfect example of this. The show is set in the Old West, and Ragan believes that deviating from the law in any way devalues it.
- Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is from a species that has by the book as its hat. As the head of law enforcement on the station, he does have mercy with people who meant no harm or acted out of desperation, but that does not stop him from taking loitering children to his office and calling their parents to get them.
- Odo is unique in that he was a by the book cop for both the Cardassians during the Occupation and the Federation/Bajorans afterwards, despite them having very different concepts of what law and order are supposed to be. He himself lampshades this by saying no matter whose rules he's enforcing, he holds to a personal belief of what justice is.
- Due South: Mountie Benton Fraser. Not just that, he goes by a completely different book than people might expect.
- P.C George Dixon of Dixon Of Dock Green is a British example.
- The police officers on shows like Law & Order and Homicide Life On The Street, at least in their earlier seasons, generally tended to be this sort of cop; they might not have been quite the 'friendly police officer' of earlier tropes, but they generally tended to do their jobs following procedure.
- With a rather lax interpretation of the Bill of Rights, however.
- Just about every police officer in a Jack Webb production. When an exception shows up, it's usually the main characters who have to catch or stop him.
- The The Good Guys has Jack Bailey who is extremely by the book but pisses off his superiors so much that the only way he can solve the case is to follow the lead of his Cowboy Cop partner.
- Sam Tyler in Life On Mars and Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes are the by-the-book-cops to Gene Hunt's Old-Fashioned Copper. DCI Jim Keats in Ashes To Ashes is a villainous example.
- In Freddy's Nightmares, the cop who arrested Freddy Krueger but forgot to sign a warrant was actually one of these, and frowned upon the idea of the parents of Springwood getting together and administering justice on Freddy themselves when the case against him was dismissed.
- Rob Hollins in Doctors.
- FBI example: Agent Hotchner in Criminal Minds, although he did have a bit of a breakdown at one point that led to him walking into a house to confront an armed killer by himself and even beating a killer to death with his bare hands (but in a situation in which it's pretty easy to argue that he had no choice).
- The Shadow Line:
- Jonah Gabriel gives the impression of one at first, though he has cowboyish traits like his refusal to obey his superiors' wish that he stop investigating Harvey Wratten's death and he's hinted for a while to have been an actual Dirty Cop before he lost his memory.
- Robert Beatty, though he's a customs officer rather than a cop.
- A minor example appears in the first scene of the series, with the rookie that points out all the procedures Sergeant Foley violates at the scene of Harvey Wratten's murder.
- Community parodies this in "The Science of Illusion" when Annie and Shirley become temporary campus security guards. They end up getting into an argument about which one of them should be the By-the-Book Cop and which one should be the Cowboy Cop despite the fact that both of them are equally suited to both roles, and Genre Savvy Abed, who is following them around, ends up invoking a whole load of tropes based on this.
- Detective Abby Kowalski from Against The Wall.
- Rookie Blue has Chris Diaz as the most By-the-Book Cop amongst rookies. Actually detrimental to his performance as he does not take initiative which is noted by his superiors.
- Signalman from Gekisou Sentai Carranger, oh so very much. Played to the hilt for laughs, of course.
- Sky from Power Rangers S.P.D.. Constant head-butting with the much more laid-back Jack, naturally.
- The CSI franchise can both play this straight and subvert it. Brass in the original series and Mac in CSI NY are usually very by-the-book. But, lately, Mac in particular, and Brass to a smaller extent will break rules if it comes to it.
- Wes in Common Law, lawyer-turned-homicide detective. His Cowboy Cop partner Travis jokes that he's a robot incapable of emotion. His expertise is analyzing the facts of the case, often tediously reading reports and looking at photographs for hours on end.
- In Golden Boy detective Don Owen is very by-the-book which often frustrates Walter Clark, his ambitious Cowboy Cop partner. However, Owen has a tendency to turn into a Cowboy Cop himself when the case becomes too personal. This is seen as a major flaw of his because it tends to mess up the case and almost gets Owen killed.
- Murder, She Wrote had two of them. Cabot Cove's first sheriff was Amos Tupper, an honest cop and a close friend of Jessica. After he retired after the fourth season, he was replaced by Sheriff Mort Metzger, a former NYPD detective who took the job after mistakenly believing that the town was a peaceful place. Still, he did his job well, considering.
- Sgt. Bernie Terwilliger in Hunter lives for the Book, loathes Hunter for his disregard for the rules, and never fails to point it out. He later gets transferred to Internal Affairs, a job which suits him to a T. Contrary to the trope description, he is not older than the other detectives (he seems to be in his late thirties in the first season).
- Most, if not all parking enforcers in Parking Wars are just doing their jobs and issuing tickets to illegally parked cars.
- In Feng Shui, the By-the-Book Cop is usually a Karate Cop. He may bend the law to serve higher justice, but only if he has no other choice.
- In Warhammer 40,000, the Ultramarines take this approach to warfare. Their founder wrote the Codex Astartes which laid out both the organization and tactics of the Space Marines, and it is no exaggeration to say they try and follow his tenets religiously. A recurring theme of the book series is the difficulty in balancing the Ultramarines' dedication to the Codex with the realities of the present - their founder never wrote any tactics for dealing with Tyranids or Necrons, after all.
- The Arbitrators generally fall here as well. The book they follow is very draconian but Dark Heresy mentions that committing vigilante justice is among the worst heresies an Arbitrator can commit.
- Puritan Inquisitors, while still very likely to ignore actual laws when it suits them (the Inquisition being above such restrictions), tend to follow accepted philosophies rather than attempting unsanctioned solutions (such as using Chaos against itself or trying to restructure the Imperium) the way Radicals do.
- Katsuya from Persona 2 is by-the-book to a ridiculous degree, even in supernatural situations where the law shouldn't really apply. (In a reversal of the usual way of this trope, he's quite young; his rule-breaking, dubious-method-using foil, Baofu, is much older.)
- Citadel Security (C-Sec for short) in Mass Effect is apparently made up of nothing but By-the-Book Cops, if the player is to believe their leader. The outwardly-reserved Cowboy Cop on your crew split with the force over increasing frustration with C-Sec's regulations; Commander Shepard has the option to either encourage him in his Cowboy Cop behavior or convince him of the value of doing things by the book.
- Made far more meaningful considering that as a Spectre, Paragon Shepard actually does have total authority in Citadel Space to act as Judge, Jury, and Executioner if they want to. It's implied that Shepard's actions teach Garrus that just because someone can use force to take down criminals, doesn't mean they should.
- Of course, in the second game a C-Sec officer admits during Thane's loyalty mission that he's been looking the other way of a certain criminal as long as he "buys tickets to the C-Sec charity ball." The same cop will later skirt rules to let Thane's son off the hook for attempted murder (and, if you choose the Renegade option, the murder you finished), although that's shown as an act of compassion. Overall, not exactly a Cowboy Cop, but he's certainly breaking a few rules at this point.
- Norman Jayden from Heavy Rain, whose by the book-ness naturally puts him at odds with Cowboy Cop Lieutenant Blake.
- Your squad in SWAT 4, the best score will be awarded to players who follow this trope—handcuff and report all suspects and civilians, subdue suspects with non-lethal methods and bring them in alive unless they're openly hostile, and confiscate all firearms and other evidence.
- Caitlyn in League of Legends, being the sheriff of Piltover, is this, especially when compared to her Cowboy Cop partner, Vi.
- Detective Cole from L.A. Noire, full stop. While his partners are obviously eager to skirt the law to get the bad guys, Cole himself sticks to standard investigation and interrogation technique (for the time) and still gets his man. When he does deviate from the book, it's either because he's being ordered to do so by Da Chief, or because the corruption in the upper ranks of the police department forces him to pursue justice through alternate avenues.
- Ace Attorney:
- Edgeworth is a by-the-book prosecutor (which is almost the same thing as a cop in this universe) in Ace Attorney Investigations. He goes by the rule of evidence, even when someone's guilt is blindingly obvious. In the first game, pre-Heel-Face Turn, he is a little less ethical.
- One might file the judge under this trope. He responds only to presented evidence and testimony, despite his senile appearance.
- The playable characters also fall under this, since gameplay forces them to adhere to the rules of the court system, which insist on providing evidence to back up everything. This is lampshaded to hell and back in Apollo Justice, when several cases are specifically designed for it to be obvious who the real murderer is, only for the Judge to have to keep turning down Apollo's claims on the grounds of lack of decisive evidence. This is the main reason Phoenix goes about setting up the Jurist System, to try to get around those sorts of issues.
- Detective Gurski from the Murder Mystery Visual Novel Jisei spends most of his time guarding the crime scene and making calls to get a background on the victim. He will not hesitate to arrest you if he manages to see you trying to get another look at the body. However, he does defy this trope by encouraging the protagonist to do most of the questioning on his own.
- Kittan of DOUBLE K is presented as this. The by the book, insanely rewarded and loved transfer from another department. Until it's revealed to be a cover story by his former chief, and that he's just as much a Cowboy Cop as Kamina.
- The Happy Jar strip The Scotsdale Case features Good Cop, who respects Da Chief's judgement.
- Used as a positive in Cracked's list of Movie Characters that didn't make horrible decisions
After Danny Rizzo loses yet another wisecracking maverick partner to an explosion, he dreads being paired up with still another loose cannon who gets things done. Instead, he gets James Flynn, a cop who likes to do everything the same way he does. When they find themselves reading suspects their Miranda rights in unison, they know this partnership was meant to be.
Together, they hit the streets and play it safe, steering responsibly away from things outside their jurisdiction and always calling for backup.
The film follows their careers together, traffic stop after traffic stop after noise complaint, until the last day before retirement.
They arrive to find a suspiciously empty office. Sensing something is wrong, they hurry to the chief's office, where the whole department surprises them with a party, and the chief winkingly tells them they can head home a day early and count it as a free "sick day" on him. After retiring, they move to Florida with their wives.
- Judge Dead from Noob is initially presented as a Judge, Jury, and Executioner version of this. The "following rules to the letter" part is best seen in the webseries version where he doesn't do anything about a player insulting another because "rasberry [candy brand]" isn't actually an insult according to the rulebook he follows. This is utimately subverted as The Reveal from the franchise-wide Wham Episode requires him to have kept the secret on something illegal.
- Chilean cops are generally this, especially the young ones fresh out school. Don't ever, EVER, try to bribe one to get out of a ticket. Lie, cry, say your mother is dying, but do not try to bribe the cop. This is even mentioned in tourism information about the country.
- Most Italian law enforcement officers, especially those from the Carabinieri (technically military, but working as part of the law enforcement).