Don't you see how late theyre reactin'
They only come and they come when they wanna
So get the morgue truck and embalm the goner
They don't care 'cause they stay paid anyway
They treat you like an ace that can't beat a trey
A no-use number with no-use people
If your life is on the line then you're dead today
Whenever someone in film or on TV reports a murder, or a monster, or a stalker or whatever, the police come as close to ignoring them as procedure (and the local captain) will allow. And that's if the report is from a respected professional; if they're an Agent Mulder, or worse yet, a teenager, the cops might try to pin charges on them!
In addition to police, this trope also covers the security guards, watchmen, the coast guard (depending on whether they are given such powers under a civilian/military/paramilitary structure) and other people whose job is to protect others.note In children's shows, it is related to Adults Are Useless. They might not even make it to the police station, but just (correctly) assume that no one would believe them.
The usual reason for this trope is that the story would take a boring turn if the cops turned up within 10 minutes and solved the problem. Having an Amateur Sleuth story is only possible if the police can't quite get the job done. There wouldn't be anything left for the amateur to do if the police solved everything, otherwise. In such stories, the police the amateur has to deal with will be, at best, an Inspector Lestrade, and at worst an Obstructive Bureaucrat. Interestingly, the trope tends be averted in police comedies, because audiences may feel uncomfortable laughing at a police force that lets the bad guys get away. So police comedies may feature blundering cops, but they will still catch the bad guys in the end. Furthermore, a Cop Show or Police Procedural will avert this trope more often than not.
A common interpretation of this trope is merely people not knowing how law enforcement actually works — this was part of why Police Quest was considered one of the most realistic games at the time it was made; because you actually couldn't just take what you thought was the obvious solution because it was either illegal, incredibly dangerous, or both. (Even law enforcement has to follow the law, despite some exceptions and what those games of cops and robbers may tell you.) Many times, the most obvious solution is actually a pretty good way to get yourself or others hurt or killed.
The Awful Truth is this happens in real life. Police are more often than not just everyday people who want to get through their jobs, yet have to maintain very high standards when carrying out their work.
- Police going after the wrong guy: Everyone will find themselves wanting to take shortcuts at work. In policing, a 'shortcut' would mean pinning a crime on the guy right in front of you rather than to try and catch the real bad guy, who could be anywhere. Also, a lot of police departments measure officer performance by the number of arrests they have made and actions they have done. That can give incentives for officers to arrest the wrong guy or avoid doing things to prevent crime (which is generally agreed to be better than cleaning up after it). This can be portrayed sympathetically (protagonist is convincingly framed by the real villains) as well as negatively.
- Police being corrupt: If criminals like Al Capone can bribe their way out of arrest, chances are they're not much use.
- Police being prejudiced: If prejudice exists in a society, it probably exists in the police. This is a problem in many countries, with victims of Profiling and Police Brutality most often being those the cops are prejudiced against, such as black people in the United States. This may overlap with "lazy" in cases where the police simply blame "the usual suspects" from the disliked group rather than put any real effort into investigations.
- Police being lazy: This image is common in the United States, where every town has to employ its own officers and therefore have enough to respond on a busy day. Some things police do in Real Life understandably seem lazy or useless to outside observers, too, when they actually aren't — like sitting in their car eating donutsnote or a crowd of them arriving and standing around for a simple traffic stop — you can't (like a quiet day at your job) send police home just because no one is breaking the law — they still may be needed at a moment's notice!
- Police being underfunded or overworked: On the flip-side, another common image is that the police are so busy and understaffed that they can't effectively deal with crime. Some places have police forces that definitely suffer from chronic underfunding, and even well-funded ones are never really satisfied with the level of funding and resources they have. In the United States, cops can be portrayed as being both lazy or overworked. In sparsely populated small towns, chances are greater that the police aren't numerous/trained/equipped enough, but this is sometimes true of even big-city law enforcement who have to deal with a lot of stuff on a day-to-day basis.
- Police being hopelessly outmatched: The criminals are just too much for the police to handle. Perhaps organized crime is effectively in charge; perhaps society is breaking down and nobody is really in charge; perhaps the setting is one where some of the criminals are monsters, evil wizards, zombies, supervillains, etc. On a more normal level, it can be as simple as that the criminals are better equipped and armed than the police, which does sometimes occur in real life too.
- Police being generally incompetent: And, of course, finally, some are just standard-issue bumblers. Also, eating all those donuts could be making them braindead, sleepy, and too obese to actually be of any use. But that's America for you. In some cases, the police just don't bother intervening with crime because they find it boring.
- Police work for the criminals: Often the police are actually The Dragon to the villains of the story.
- Police are the villains: Here, you're really in trouble, as the police (or some of them at least) are themselves the bad guys. While honest cops in the story may exist as well, you'll probably have a difficult time convincing them of what has been going on or proving it legally (especially as the villains will doubtless use their own status and knowledge to get away with any crimes they've committed).
- There are no police: the bottom line. None think the police could help because either the police is REALLY not there, or the characters will assume it's normal for them to ignore the police and just carry on with the story. Sometimes one or some of the aforementioned reasons are vaguely or insufficently implied, and that's it.
See also The Only One and Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop, though they are not necessarily incompetent: it may just be that the "calls" are too nonsensical to be believed by someone who doesn't know they're in a show. You Have to Believe Me! occurs when the police don't believe the person because the person is presenting their case in a fashion where no reasonable person would believe them. Lawful Pushover and Lemming Cops are other related tropes. Contrast I Fought the Law and the Law Won, as well as The Men in Black, who do believe your reports of ghosts/monsters/whatever and probably know more about them than you do, but are still bad news, and Militaries Are Useless when the authorities (from the military side) do try to help, but fail for dramatic tension, and The Lopsided Arm of the Law, where the police withholds its competency and firepower with little (if any) explained reason until someone tries to take the law into their own hands, and then they unleash said resources to hunt them (and only them) down.
For the complete opposite, see Police Brutality, though they can easily be combined — Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop being one example, where some cops are brutal and some are useless and some are both, and cops who are brutal but also useless — as in the people they beat up and kill are innocent, while real criminals escape because they know how to play by the rules. When it's police driving ability that's in question, see Hollywood Police Driving Academy. Subtrope of Artistic License Law Enforcement.
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- Most of the time in Happy Heroes. The police genuinely do their best to protect the planet, but the enemy is usually too good for them and it's up to the heroes to save the day.
- Thompson and Thomson in The Adventures of Tintin (2011). One man they talk to gets nervous at mentions of the pickpocket they are looking for, evidently doesn't want police officers in his apartment, and when they are inside, they find dozens of wallets on the shelves. He claims he is a wallet collector and they believe him.
- In The Bad Guys, despite the large size of the police force, they had spent years trying and failing to capture the titular gang, easily falling for their traps and disguises. Only the police chief can manage to keep up with them, but she always falls short. They only succeed during the Golden Dolphin heist when the gang's escape fails, and even that's short-lived when Marmalade has them taken to his compound for rehabilitation. And when the gang is framed for stealing the meteorite, none of the police question it (with the chief talking over Mr. Wolf's pleas of innocence) and send them to an inescapable prison island, despite no direct evidence of them doing anything wrong — including not having the meteorite.
- Big Hero 6: After Hiro and Baymax escape from the abandoned warehouse, they go straight to the police station, where the policeman (understandably) reacts with disbelief at Hiro's claims.
- In Scooby-Doo Meets the Boo Brothers, Sheriff Rufus Buzby is utterly hapless and helpless to curtail any of the shenanigans happening at Beauregard Manor, whether it's Billy Bob Scroggins' Reckless Gun Usage or the escaped circus ape. As it turns out, the "Sheriff" we've been seeing isn't a real lawman at all, but the sheriff's Evil Twin, who posed as an officer (On top of pulling a "Scooby-Doo" Hoax) so he could search the mansion grounds for the Beauregard Bonanza.
- Zootopia manages to toy with this trope in a way that makes logical sense. At the start of the movie, there's a recent on-going case regarding fourteen missing mammals that Mayor Lionheart is riding Chief Bogo and the ZPD to solve, to no avail... at least, until Judy Hopps gets on the case taking on one of the low priority missing mammals, and ultimately cracks it open within forty-eight hours. This situation was being purposefully created on two fronts, neither of which was the police department's fault and is instead the fault of both of the elected officials. The first front is that Mayor Lionheart was aware that the missing mammals have gone savage and hired wolf mercenaries to capture and imprison them, but not as some nefarious plot, but to safely contain the mammals, prevent a public panic, and attempt to find a cure. The second front is the actual nefarious plot, involving a conspiracy being run by Assistant Mayor Dawn Bellwether which has been using a Psycho Serum to intentionally turn predators savage in order to inflame anti-predator sentiment causing prey animals to unite against them, and elevate Bellwether to power who we learn is also subtly assisting Judy's investigation. In essence, Lionheart and Bellwether are working behind the scenes against each other without the others knowledge and the ZPD is being kept out of the loop and caught in the middle.
- The Last Podcast on the Left:
- The hosts often note times when police ineffectiveness is a major factor in how long a serial killer goes without getting caught. For example, in the Dean Coril series, they note the Huston police were underfunded and understaffed so much that, as a result, they actively avoided investigating things like homicides and shut down a victim's family when they provided a letter written by their missing son that they suspect was faked, but which Missing Persons took as evidence he was no longer missing.
- They also note occasions when a killer was caught by dumb luck or mistakes rather than anything police did. Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, for instance, were only found out when Lake was held for questioning for an act of compulsive shoplifting by Ng. Lake was then linked to multiple missing persons, starting the chain of events that led to Lake committing suicide in custody and Ng being arrested and convicted.
- Another issue the hosts bring up frequently is the fact that police precincts never speak to one another regarding local crimes, which causes killers to go on longer than if they just pooled information. This is understandable in the case of drifter killers whose crimes take place entire states apart or in times when long-distance communication was not the norm. It's less so in the case of the Boston Strangler in the 1960s when police and district attorneys within the same city kept information to themselves in the hopes of being the ones who will crack the case.
- Marcus Parks gets especially worked up in the second Robert Pickton episode because of this trope. In the case of Pickton, not only did the Vancouver Police Department not investigate the disappearance of Pickton's sex worker victims and even ignore evidence of possibly up to four serial killers in the particular slum Pickton hunted in, they were plagued by petty infighting as they actively bullied and undermined the one cop who was trying to do something because his efforts and other successes made them look bad.
- Justified in Episode 4 of Mystery Show, when Starlee goes to a police station and meets a lieutenant who tells her that no, he's not allowed to run a stranger's license plate and give Starlee her personal information just because Starlee is curious. Then subverted when Starlee's friend Darren has a police contact who is willing to help.
- One of the major factors in Carly Parker starting the RABBITS podcast to document her investigation into the disappearance of her childhood friend, Yumiko, is that the police assumed her disappearance was her deliberately running away to escape the academic pressures of a Japanese immigrant household. Putting aside that this stereotypical view is not an accurate description of Yumiko's parents, it also means they have never taken the investigation seriously enough for Carly. She notes multiple times that her insistence that there is more to it only seems to annoy them.
- Sick Sad World
- In a few cases, the police brushed off missing people as runaways, even in places where active serials killers operated.
- In the "Missing And Murdered" episode, the coroner's report of Della Ootoova's body was put off for so long, her killer died before it was done. They also somehow missed that her body was covered in bruises and bite marks.
- The same episode mentions how police frequently brush off brown LGBT+ people going missing.
- In "Fathers In Crime", a teenage girl told her teacher that her father was planning to kill her and the rest of the family. When the teacher reported this to police, they looked at him as if he were an idiot.
- In "Missing And Murdered", two different drug users who went to the police to report a serial killer were dismissed because the cops thought junkies couldn't be trusted.
- The Sheriff's Secret Police from Welcome to Night Vale. In "Glow Cloud", when a giant glowing cloud starts raining dead animals on Night Vale, they suggest that citizens "run directly at the cloud, shrieking and waving your arms, just to see what it does". In the same episode, they dismiss complaints about illegal vehicle searches by pointing out that "our backwards court system will uphold any old authoritarian rule made up on the fly by unsupervised gun-carrying thugs of a shadow government".
- The Muppet Show: The "Bear on Patrol" sketch is all about this, where the two cops are Fozzie Bear and his captain, Link Hogthrob, who are both stupid and cowardly, rarely managing to arrest anyone, and often getting duped by the people Fozzie tries arresting.
- Generally averted in Adventures in Odyssey, where most of the police are played straight and do their jobs just fine — sometimes in detail. However, there was one notable exception early in the show: Officer David Harley, an absent-minded, bumbling police officer who was a recurring character and ready-to-go comic relief. However, he was pulled off of the show when parents complained that he was presenting the wrong image of police to kids.
- The radio play Sorry, Wrong Number is about a bedridden woman who overhears on the phone, in detail, a conspiracy to commit murder. When she calls the police, they aren't really interested in looking into it.
- In Call of Cthulhu, any Keeper worth their salt will invoke this trope. If the Investigators see something shady going down like a cult gathering, calling the police is the very worst thing they could possibly do. At best, the coppers will be merely in over their heads and unable to explain or combat the threat. At worst, the local police may already be cultists themselves.
- Depending on the GM, it can happen and be justified in the d20 Modern Urban Arcana setting, by the fact that the police/army are not being properly trained/equipped against supernatural threats. (Even highly trained Navy Seals will have a hard time bypassing a lycanthrope Damage Reduction 15/Silver without, well, Silver Bullet, which are not standard issued in any military force.)
- In Feng Shui, the Ascended are in control of the governments and other major agencies of the world, so if you're fighting them, don't expect help from the cops — the only cops that will help you are Maverick, Karate and other cops that are allied with the Dragons.
- Given how prevalent the military version is in Zombie Apocalypse fiction, it's worth noting that it's averted in Unhallowed Metropolis. The main deciding factor in whether a country or region still exists is whether or not there was a swift and effective military response, whether it consisted of actual military strikes to curtail the Animates, erecting fortifications, or simply fleeing to more defensible geography.
- Averted and played straight in Warhammer 40,000, on the ground level, most Imperial Nobles have all sorts of law enforcement; from Enforcers, to Guard, to Police, all of which are usually not much better than a gang of ugly thief-takers who simply enforce the will of the ruling Noble. The ubiquitous police force used by the Imperial Government proper, however, are the Arbites. These guys carry more guns and heavier armour than SWAT teams, tend to be fanatics who have borderline worship of the law and have a habit of beating most unimportant suspects to death. Might have something to do with the fact that the Adeptus Arbites is a giant Shout-Out to Judge Dredd (although some authors actually have them as Lawful Good types who wouldn't arrest or kill anyone without evidence).
- The World of Darkness has shades of this and sometimes jumps headlong into it. While it can be justified, there are other times that are extremely questionable. One flavour short story involved a pair of cops practically wetting themselves after firing at a man who was drinking blood from a corpse. Since — to the reader — it's obvious the man was a vampire, it appears justified, but the police officers — having fired only at his torso — had no reason to believe it wasn't a regular guy in a bulletproof vest (probably on drugs, too), it really makes these cops seem particularly incompetent.
- Played for Laughs in Arsenic and Old Lace, where the beat cops who visit the Brewster house to pay their respects to the protagonist Mortimer's sweet old aunts remain cheerfully oblivious to: (a) the mysterious disappearance over the past several years of a dozen old men who've entered the residence; (b) the sudden appearance of a highly wanted Serial Killer; (c) the fact that Mortimer is tied to a chair involuntarily and is about to be tortured to death by said serial killer; (d) the presence of said killer's equally wanted accomplice in the same room even after the killer himself has been recognized and captured. By contrast, the one time they do act rationally is the one time that Mortimer wishes that they wouldn't: when his sweet old aunts innocently confess to the murders they've committed right in front of the police captain.
- This trope is played with in Great Britain. The Played for Laughs Commissioner Kassam is hilariously incompetent, trying to cover up an Accidental Murder, failing badly, admitting that he doesn't have a clue and eventually committing career suicide by racially abusing an officer that tasers him on his orders (to try and demonstrate that tasers are okay); while all this goes along, he becomes an In-Universe meme. Some of the support staff are involved in the cover-up and not good at it either. More seriously, Assistant Commissioner Davidson's efforts to solve a crime through a corrupt alliance with Free Press go horribly wrong.
- Played rather strangely in Much Ado About Nothing. The script goes out of its way to depict Dogberry and co. as completely useless (they don't actually enforce any of Messina's laws for various idiotic reasons), but purely by accident, through sheer bumbling, they manage to capture the villain's henchmen, expose his plot and save the day.
- Played for Laughs with the Sergeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance, who, along with all his men, is a Dirty Coward, being quite terrified of facing the pirates and put off actually going to do their duties for as long as they can.
- Early on in Sleuth, Milo complains that in Andrew's detective books the police are always incompetent and leave the work to the amateur sleuth. Later he has to experience the fact firsthand, as the police don't believe his story of how Andrew humiliated him, leading him to take matters into his own hands.
- In Ace Attorney the police range from mostly effective (Jake Marshall, Angel Starr, Tyrell Badd) to corrupt (Damon Gant, Tobias Gregson, Ted Tonate) to flat-out incompetent (Maggey Byrde, Mike Meekins, Dick Gumshoe). You spend the most time around the latter.
- Though Maggey's less incompetent than horrendously unlucky.
- Gumshoe, to his credit, does have fits of competency. It usually depends on either circumstances being dire enough (Maya being kidnapped by an assassin, for example) or someone he cares about being put on the line (Edgeworth or Maggey being arrested for murder). He also has quite a few Big Damn Heroes moments, though those rely more on him having an uncanny ability to show up just in time.
- In Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, Ema actually is quite competent and provides Apollo with helpful evidence-finding methods. She generally is really apathetic towards her job (which she never actually wanted), though.
- There are so many incompetent police in Ace Attorney that "the police are stupid" is an oft-repeated phrase used to cover up would-be plot holes, akin to A Wizard Did It.
- Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc: Discussed in an early scene, where the students trapped in Hope's Peak express hope that the police are trying to rescue them from imprisonment. Monokuma shows up and says that the police are only good for getting their asses kicked to show how dangerous the villain is.
- Double Homework:
- The cops interrogate the protagonist and the girls when the yacht comes back to port about the mass quantities of drugs on board, but they apparently never check out the registered owner of the boat.
- Also, Morgan gets off scot-free after stealing a jet ski just by laying low for a while, even though theres still supposedly a warrant out for her arrest.
- Used with some justification repeatedly in Hatoful Boyfriend. In Bad Boys Love, they can't interfere due to the dome and the treaty. In chapter two of Holiday Star Ryouta calls the police but makes the mistake of telling them that a magazine editor is planning to blow up their school with a giant laser — it's true, but sounds too absurd to believe, and he can't try again with something more plausible or else there wouldn't be the rest of that chapter's plot. In one of the drama CDs there is a hostage situation and this exchange.
Yuuya: I'm sending them a message. But right around now is the season for summer birds crowding the streets. Everybirdie's working on traffic control, so they'll be delayed.
Okosan: Coo cooo! (Is that how it is?! If you wish to commit a crime, right now it's an all-you-can-commit special!)
- Played with in Higurashi: When They Cry. The police haven't gotten anywhere with the string of deaths surrounding Hinamizawa, but this turns out to mostly be due to their investigative efforts being stifled by local government authorities (some of whom are in on Hinamizawa's secret). The main police character, Kuraudo Ooishi, is frustrated by this and is acting against orders in order to actually do his job, and while the main characters are off-put by his attitude, he does become a valuable ally in many different scenarios.
- Miho from Liar Liar went to the police to report her Stalker with a Crush however they said they couldn't do anything until he hurt her. After no help from adults, she got Yukari to kill him for her.
- Twice in Melody:
- Campus security sees Melody climbing out of Steves dorm room (presumably with her guitar in hand), and they dont do anything to stop her.
- When the cops find Melody drag-racing another driver, she manages to lose them - and judging by the fact that they never pay a visit to either her or Arnold, they never managed to get her license plate number.
- In Marco and the Galaxy Dragon, a lone Galaxy Police officer joins the protagonists during the final battle. He gets defeated almost instantly, whereas everyone else is holding their own against Astaroth's forces.
- In Spirit Hunter: NG, the police and security in the game only serve two roles - an inconvenience to the characters when they're trying to investigate after-hours (until Seiji or Ooe use their connections to get rid of them), or as fodder for the murderous spirits. They also do absolutely nothing to stop the human criminals (with the exception of Yasuko). Kaneko being starved to death by her village, Miroku kidnapping and mutilating little girls, and the Sumii Group covering up an arson, embezzling money from the company, and murdering someone who knew too much? They ignore it. Even the spirit Killer Peach, the victim of the Sumii murder, laments how useless the police are, to the point of killing Detective Ooe if the latter insists that Peach leave the case she is pursuing to the police.
- Bee and Puppycat: While Bee is waiting to cross the street, two police in a cop car drives to the intersection and stops to glare at her to make sure she doesn't jaywalk while ignoring two kids running across the street to chase a duck.
- The police in the GoAnimate Grounded videos seem to have something of a Hair-Trigger Temper, as they will instantly peg a character with jail time for littering if they so much as walk up to a piece of paper on the ground. Other times, they just outright arrest people for little to no reason or show a bias towards the trouble-making kids' parents (or basically anyone but the trouble-makers for that matter), sometimes even arresting the kids just for talking to them. Outside of that, the police will instantly come to arrest someone if they are simply asked to without complaint, even if they are being called to arrest a kid for smashing their sibling's iPod.
- Subverted in the Homestar Runner cartoon literally called "The Strong Bad is in Jail Cartoon", which begins with Strong Bad and the Cheat being caught by the "police" (or more accurately, Homestar doing a poor imitation of a police siren) and arrested. He then escapes from a literal Cardboard Prison and attempts to kidnap the Poopsmith, but once again the "police" (which includes Homestar, Bubs, and Coach Z) manage to easily recapture him.
- The Most Epic Story Ever Told in All of Human History: Captain Epic is the police officer in charge of the crime scene during The Most Epic Crime-Stopping Mission Ever, and he ends up antagonizing Epic-Man rather than dealing with the person who obviously caused the crime, Ridiculously Epic, who more or less just gets to leave as a Karma Houdini.
- On The Edge: Many of Shigeo's clients tried to report the criminals to the police only for the police not to do anything, forcing them to turn to Shigeo to get justice for themselves.
- Puffin Forest: In "That time our characters when to New York City, the character characters killed several people with bows and arrows and somehow the police never caught them.
- One episode of After Hours discussed this, with Katie's irrational hatred (and confused slurs) towards police was caused by this trope's prevalence in movies.
- If they were living in reality and not a Rule of Funny psycho-world, most of Channel Awesome would have been in jail or mental homes by now. Specific examples would be Chester A. Bum and Ask That Guy with the Glasses, as they can get out of any trouble by using the insanity defense. The James and the Giant Peach review did open with the reveal that the Critic was serving time in the "Internet State Penitentiary"... for doing a really bad Let's Play.
- Discussed frequently in the True Crime episodes of BuzzFeed Unsolved. A lot of the unsolved cases had their investigations bogged down by Dirty Cops, incompetent officials, and people who just straight-up didn't do their jobs correctly. A lot of the series' scarier episodes are unnerving not just because of the grisly nature of the crimes, but because of how many families and friends of the victims will most likely never see justice because of the neglect of the people who were supposed to help.
- In Meme House, the incompetence of the Oasis Spring police force is a sight to behold. They've been defeated by locked doors, fooled when suspects pretend to be asleep, dance, and violate several gun safety laws, and on the rare occasion they do arrest someone, it's impossible to keep them in prison for long.
- Averted HARD in The Stories of Sodor, where the police are not only competent, but the conflict of several episodes is solved by them.
- In The With Voices Project, the Human Child actually thinks to call 911 with the cell phone Toriel gave him, in Undertale With Voices: Pacifist. Unfortunately, thanks to the magical barrier in place on Mt. Ebott, the cops can do nothing but wish him the best in his new life underground.