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Police are Useless

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Q: Why do the Politsiya always go around in groups of three?
A: One can read, one can write, and one keeps an eye on the two dangerous intellectuals.
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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 othersnote . 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.

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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 averts this trope more often than not.

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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 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 of 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).
  • 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.
  • 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! Finally, per case law, and charters and job requirements of some police departments (specifically at least the NYPD), police have no Constitutional duty to protect citizens from harm, and some police follow this to the letter, viewing their role as only to make arrests and issue fines, not to actually investigate or even save you from a criminal attack.
  • Police being underfunded or overworked: On the flip-side, another common image is that the police are so busy and under-staffed 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, supervillains, etc.
  • Police being generally incompetent: And, of course, finally, some are just standard-issue bumblers. Also, eating all that donuts could be making them braindead, sleepy and too obese to actually be of any use. But that's America for you.
  • Police work for the criminals: Often the police are actually The Dragon to the villains of the story.
  • Police are bribed by criminals not to pursue their work: Police can easily let criminals off the hook with bribery often in the form of cash. Unsurprisingly, criminals can pay better tips than the state governments funding their budgets. In real life, police forces were bribed by alcohol smugglers they were supposed to arrest in the Prohibition Era of the United States.

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 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.


Examples:


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    Asian Animation 
  • 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.

    Audio Play 

    Pinball 
  • In WHO dunnit, a high-profile murder at a prominent hotel-casino doesn't warrant any attention from the police. It's up to the player's Hardboiled Detective to solve the case.

    Podcasts 
  • Justified in episode four 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.

    Radio 
  • 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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • 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 Imperal 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.

    Theatre 
  • 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 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.

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