The Lopsided Arm of the Law

A sub-trope of the Police Are Useless trope; Related to Arrested for Heroism.

The city is in chaos. Crime is rampant, surging, and shows no signs of diminishing. Bad guys walk the streets openly, assuming they don't masquerade as upstanding pillars of the community to get away with bigger crimes. The police are outnumbered, out-gunned, and completely powerless to even begin to address the city's crime problem.

That is, until the hero shows up. No, they're not going to help him. They're going to chase him down as either a traitor, a vigilante, or a loose cannon.

In the process they're going to display such a show of force and numbers that it becomes truly baffling that the crime problem has reached these levels.

Somewhat related is Arbitrary Skepticism; despite seeing the dead walk, or dragons fly out of holes in the sky, or even just a gunfight with Frickin' Laser Beams, cops can be trusted to always call the hero a lunatic and attempt to arrest him rather than admit that maybe something weird is in the neighborhood. In many cases, the hero can end up having to fight cops because the villain called them, because Villains Blend in Better.

Also related is I Fight for the Strongest Side; cops with any sense of self-preservation can tell that the better-connected or even just better-ARMED villain is a dangerous enemy to provoke, while heroes will either run, defend themselves non-lethally, or even meekly submit, not realizing that the cops are fully willing to throw the hero to the wolves to save themselves. Most of the time it can be easily justified by having the cops be on a criminal's payroll, but there are a few cases where this behaviour is purely a consequence of very, very Skewed Priorities.

Contrast Crooks Are Better Armed, when the police may display all the firepower they have, yet still they are under gunned by the criminals, as well as I Fought the Law and the Law Won, which is the police in a video game enforcing this trope for the sake of Video Game Cruelty Punishment or Railroading. A possible sign that the work is occurring on an Urban Hellscape.


    open/close all folders 

     Comic Books  

  • Justified in several Garth Ennis stories about The Punisher, where gangsters pay off the police or blackmail politicians to ignore them and focus on catching the Anti-Hero Frank Castle. Also subverted in that most of the police actually side with the vigilante and don't exactly work overtime trying to catch him.
  • Zig-zagged during the Marvel Civil War Crisis Crossover: some comics had the "Cape Killers" ignoring actual villains to go after heroes violating the Super Registration Act, while the main series and some other comics claimed that the heightened presence of both registered and unregistered heroes was causing a record roundup of supervillains. The fact that villains joined both sides probably confused matters even further.
  • In The Dark Knight Returns the Mutant Gang practially controls the entire city, killing whoever they want whenever they want. The Mayor goes to the leader to negotiate, and the leader kills the Mayor by ripping his throat out with his teeth. The new Mayor still is open to negotiating. Meanwhile Batman, the one person standing up to the crimewave, is wanted by the police for his vigilante activities, and after he is mistakenly thought to have killed the Joker a full scale SWAT Team manhunt is on for his arrest. And then there's the government sending out Superman (and some hefty National Guard support) to take him out because Gotham was the only city that (mostly thanks to him) didn't devolve into lawlessness when the Coldbringer nuke exploded...
  • In addition to the above, All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder (which supposedly is a prequel to it) has the Gotham police (except for Gordon) as so absurdly crooked that they are willing and able to see the other way on any crime if paid well enough (even as far as threatening a child with a brutal beatdown and probably even worse to keep him from testifying on the death of his own parents) and sending kill-squads after Batman because he is willing to try and do something about crime-and because they are crooked and are being paid to take him out (handing out Uzis to highway patrolmen, for example). The only reason Batman is still at large is because he is even better armed than the cops and because he is, well, crazier.
  • In Ultimate Spider-Man, one of Parker's first big wins as a superhero is releasing - on nationwide television - a video of Kingpin crushing a man's head between his palms. Between his connections and a really good lawyer, the video is ruled inadmissible. Parker tries to bring it up during class, and the teacher gives him detention. The implication is that everybody knows he bought the cops off, and is therefore the de facto master of the city - and their lives are at risk if they bring it up.


  • The Death Wish series of movies depict the police as having given up on controlling gang crime, yet hounding citizens who actually defend themselves (even across jurisdictions). On the first film the justification is given that 1) the cops need to show that nobody is above the law, 2) they fear that the vigilante will escalate and 3) they fear that the crooks will become more brutal in retaliation, but on the following films the cops are either dirty and looking to eliminate a threat or are taking it personally (either because they think that Kersey is showing them up or in one case are avenging cops that Kersey killed (which, ironically, were dirty)).
    • Demonstrated with great drama in a single scene on the third film of the series: when gang members barge into the apartment of an old man and his wife, the man fears enough for his life that he draws a gun and intimidates the criminals into running away. Alas, an "anonymous call" informs the police that the man owns the gun (it was unlicensed) and a cop comes to take it away, disregarding the old man's flat-out tear-filled pleading for help (the neighborhood is so crime-ridden that "Crapsack World" is just not a strong enough term to describe it) and only telling the old man in response (and with a bored tone, at that) that he's lucky he (the cop) is letting him off with a warning. The same gang members come back that very night to take everything that is not nailed down in the apartment.
      Gang Member (to the witnessing old folks): We'll come here whenever we want, and do whatever we want!
      • It is also implied early on in the movie that weapons are confiscated by the police if they catch wind that you own them, registered or not.
  • The Joker in Batman is able to murder a man in broad daylight and walk away with minimal henchman intervention. But when the Batmobile guns through the streets, the Gotham City Police Department remembers how to make roadblocks.
  • In The Crow, Detroit has a one-night surge of arson the cops can't do a thing about. A double-murder of a public advocate and her boyfriend rates a couple of squad cars that only show up long after the violence. Start killing off criminals, though, and we have multiple squad cars, a large armed response, a _helicopter_...
  • The Dark Knight Rises had a particularly bad example. Batman is chasing Bane's men and the police go after him instead. John Blake actually calls out his superior on it.
  • Justified in The Film of the Book Kiss Me Deadly, where the police go after Mike Hammer and ignore the true villains because Hammer is unwittingly complicating matters related to a miniature A-bomb...and because the police hate him with good reason.
  • In Last Action Hero the villain realizes he is in "the real world" because this suddenly applies. He can shoot someone and then yell that he has shot someone with no consequences.
  • RoboCop (1987): The second-worst beating poor officer Murphy gets during the course of the movie is from the armory's-worth of guns of his own fellow officers when the Big Bad declares him a rogue. The same officers who are mysteriously absent during the crime wave in Old Detroit.
  • The police in Sin City are incredibly corrupt and as such, pretty useless. However, they sure shouldn't be able to send off 20-30-plus-men kill squads in full SWAT gear so freely...
  • Terminator Salvation: Though not technically cops, the human resistance has a similar problem, barely able to summon a poorly-armed token force to deal with the machine incursion but sending out a battalion to deal with the mistakenly-villified hero.
  • In Banlieue 13, the hero Leito and his sister Lola flee a heavily-armed gang to a police station. The gang intimidates the police into not only imprisoning Leito, but surrendering Lola to them. The police captain pleads with Leito that he and his men are going to be withdrawn from the district later that day, and are afraid to die. Leito yanks the captain's head between the bars of his cell and crushes it under his knee.
  • Played for laughs in the 1985 New Zealand film Came a Hot Friday. An old lady, disgusted with the partying going on at an illegal casino, knocks on the local policeman's door late at night to report it. When he tries to go back to sleep, she angrily throws a rock through the policeman's window to grab his attention. She gets on her motorbike, with the policeman pursuing her all the way to the casino.

     Live Action TV  


  • In the magazine Cracked, a bunch of baddies are about to rob a bank. A Clark Kent lookalike thinks it's a job for "Cracked Man" (non-recurring character). "Clark" enters a phone booth to change costumes. But when an older lady sees Clark in his boxers and screams, two cops immediately appear on scene and arrest him.

     Video Games  

  • In Earthbound, the Onett Police do nothing about the Sharks - a gang that not only acts as the Random Encounters in town, but has a combat robot the size of a tank (badly) hidden behind their hangout - but they zealously oppose Ness after he defeats the Sharks by arresting him under false pretenses and forcing him into a Mook Chivalry battle.
  • In Heavy Rain, the cops are literally more dangerous than the serial killer everyone is hunting. On one occasion, Norman Jayden is ordered by the Origami Killer to Race Against the Clock to a certain location - specifically, five miles along a freeway against traffic - and the police response time is measured in seconds. And if Norman arrives at the final confrontation alone, the cops kill him as he leaves after rescuing the victim. However, a secondary protagonist actually kills over two dozen other people - eighteen in a single massive shootout - and never sees a scrap of blue uniform. He's actually the Origami Killer.
  • Watch_Dogs seems to have this in effect. A big part of the game is using the city's own crime-prediction system to find and stop crimes in progress (assuming you don't do a few crimes of your own). You also use the system to hunt down and expose other criminal masterminds. Yet the cops don't seem to have the ability to make use of this at all; they're more interested in making life difficult for you.
    • Justified because both the villains and main character are using something called the ctOS to aid them. The cops are going after you because you're a vigilante going after the people controlling the ctOS.

     Web Comics  

     Western Animation  

  • Inspector Gadget: The rest of the Metro City police only turn up at the end of the episode, except for the two or three shows where Inspector Gadget is framed; then the entire department turns up to arrest Gadget himself.
  • The Simpsons: This changes from episode to episode, but while in a lot of them the police is flat-out useless (a quote by Wiggum is even the page quote for that trope), on other episodes (ex. "Simple Simpson"), the moment someone else takes the law into his own hands (or the episode calls for extreme Police Brutality or Corrupt Cop show-offing), suddenly the Springfield Police Department has some degree of competency, fully-equipped SWAT Teams (and/or more men than Wiggum and Those Two Guys, period), automatic weapons (and automated batons), chopper support, tanks...
    • To compound matters Homer isn't even really fighting crime. He's just humiliating jerks who deserve it. Lou points this out to Wiggum but he doesn't want to hear it. The armed response was their to stop Homer from pieing Quimby after he unapologetically bulldozed an orphanage to build a plastic surgery clinic.
    • Also showcased on "The Monkey Suit" (the episode where Lisa rebels against Springfield Elementary stopping teaching the theory of evolution). She starts an underground reading circle of the Theory that is barged in by a SWAT Team, and when she asks why so much overkill as she's being arrested, Wiggum plainly tells her (and is embarressed to admit) that the Springfield Police only has enough budget to enforce the latest law passed... and to make things more blatantly unfair, he tries to ignore Snake going on a killing spree right outside the room.