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Sliding Scale of Law Enforcement

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Portrayals of the men in blue vary greatly across history, cultures, and nations. From governors under pressure by rabid religious groups to engage in persecution against a Jewish prophet in ancient Israel, to borderline Sociopathic Heroes engaging in regular Police Brutality against criminal suspects, views of society on law enforcement are influenced by both political climate and the present news.

At one end of the scale (most often inside the Animation Age Ghetto and rife with And Knowing Is Half the Battle), cops are The Real Heroes. They are willing and able, like the Emergency Services, to help out others with little hesitation, and always deliver helpful lessons by the end of the episode (usually a very special one) to the show's protagonists (and the viewers). Policemen are benevolent, paternal figures people can rely on in case of dire emergency, be they victims of abuse in the family. In milder versions of this, there are additional Aesops about the police not always being around to help with every problem, an attempt at a realistic balance between cynicism and idealism in this matter.

At the other end of the scale, the closest thing to a "good cop" is a Knight Templar Rabid Cop. Most cops are corrupt and brutal thugs who enjoy terrorizing and brutalizing the civilian populace. If they fight against crime at all, it is either a clash of Lawful and other evil or for the bidding of a rival crimelord. In milder versions of this, cops are generally portrayed as bumbling, corrupt, and ineffectual, as well as Lawful Stupid, but generally well-meaning, with occasional Inspector Javerts and Rabid Cops peppering the mix. There are also settings that mix the two, with the cops that aren't useless being dirty as all get out. Quite a lot of media from the counterculture movement or groups with similar opinions in the 60's and 70's tend to fall firmly on this side.

Generally, shows with law enforcement members as protagonists sit somewhere near the middle of the scale, with both a few Wide-Eyed Idealist cops and the occasional Dirty Cop, Internal Affairs Javert with a Rabid Cop (sometimes one of the protagonists) thrown in for good measure, while shows with criminal protagonists or set in tyrannical regimes tend to sit somewhere towards the negative end of the scale.

Compare Jurisdiction Friction for other scales within Law Enforcement itself.


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    Comic Books 
  • Batman has been all over the map.
  • Rorschach in Watchmen is an Anti-Hero, though that's because he has impossibly high moral standards. His heroic actions include leaving a child murderer to die, and killing a serial rapist then leaving his body at the police station when the police themselves cannot catch him.
  • In Transmetropolitan, all cops save for one exception are knuckle-dragging, corrupt thugs who care about nothing but their paychecks and the power their badges bring, and a chance to regularly beat up or shoot peaceful protesters and other freaks.
  • Sin City, with its Wretched Hive setting and criminal protagonists, sits squarely on the negative end of the scale. As Marv, one of the criminal protagonists in question, notes, "everyone knows who they work for and what it takes to keep them happy." The cops in Sin City are so bad that they even have a death squad that deals with those who know too much about stuff those in charge want hidden. The only good cop of the bunch is Detective John Hartigan, and he pays for it quite dearly. Characters at times mention that there are good cops out there, but they can only survive by keeping a low profile and turning a blind eye to their colleagues' activities.
  • Judge Dredd: Surprisingly, a very nuanced take on law enforcement in spite of its hero being a fascistic Judge, Jury, and Executioner serving a dystopian Police State. The Judges' portrayal as an institution varies between brutally repressive bullies and dedicated law enforcers who can be fair (often dependent on whether the story focuses on them or the citizens). It's made clear that without having the Judges around, the city would simply tear itself apart and has from time to time. And while Judge Dredd himself is memetically known for his blind obedience to THE LAW, he has had many Pet the Dog moments throughout his career and even resigned when he started to doubt the system.

  • Hot Fuzz sits in the middle, leaning towards the positive side. While the police are portrayed as ineffectual and bureaucratic, they do end up coming for the criminals in the Ancient Conspiracy at the end and Angel is portrayed less as a contrast to a world of bad and corruption and more of a lighthearted contrast to the ineffectual, politically correct bureaucracy of the other bobbies.
  • The Dark Knight Trilogy looks to be sitting in the middle. Corruption is present in the police force, but idealists like Gordon earn promotions and praise, even the cop that sells out Rachel Dawes gets mention of being pressured for her mother's hospital bills, and the police are more portrayed as misguided with occasional elements of corruption within their midst.

  • The Watch books in Discworld lean towards the "good cop" end, though before Carrot shows up they're mostly just incompetent (in the case of Colon and Nobby) or an alcoholic Knight in Sour Armor (in the case of Vimes). In Night Watch Discworld, which is somewhat of a Whole-Plot Reference to Les MisÚrables, Vimes goes back in time and takes the place of Inspector Javert, deconstructing the original character's archetype: Javert sees "justice" as punishing the guilty, while Vimes sees it as protecting the innocent.
  • Les MisÚrables sits at the negative end of the scale. The main example of law enforcement is the Trope Namer for Inspector Javert, and the author makes it clear that it's because he's such a good cop that he's a villain. Javert swears to uphold the law, even when the law is unjust, while failing to show compassion for Valjean, Fantine, or any other people who the law fails to protect.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Shield, of course, as aforementioned, sits at an unusual negative end of the scale. Given that it was inspired by the breathtakingly awful Real Life Rampart scandal, it really couldn't be expected to go any other way.
  • CSI tends to sit towards the positive side, as the police themselves are generally background characters.
  • Alien Nation had an LA Precinct overcome racism and embrace an alien cop as one of their own, and thus sits largely toward the more positive end of the middle, given that the whole show was an allegory to the struggles of minorities, immigrants, freed slaves, and homosexuals set 20 Minutes into the Future. However, there were some corrupt cops, other cops who were racist jerks, and the Captain of the Precinct was a bureaucratic prick given to alternating fits of condescending and sucking up to his two more noble Buddy Cop subordinates.
  • Cold Case is a relatively positive portrayal, as the main characters are detectives, but issues like institutional sexism, racism, and anti-homosexual sentiment are still brought up, as is the problem of corruption (particularly during past eras) and police incompetence. They tend to be fairly good about Police Brutality, too, at least compared with SVU.
  • Crime Dramas in Hong Kong usually place cops on several sides of the scales of justice; on one hand, there are few Corrupt Cop stories, while in others, the cops are seen to have an excellent track record and their free time activities aren't just drinking beer or coffee but outings with some Camp elements.
  • Gene Hunt of Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes (2008). Very big fan of "Kicking in nonces," as he'd say. The show oscillates widely around the mid-point of the scale; sometimes Gene Hunt is perfectly willing to do bad things in a good cause, but sometimes he's so willing to do bad things that he doesn't need a cause beyond feeling like hurting someone. The other regular officers stake out points all along the scale, with modern officers Sam Tyler and Alex Drake at the more heroic end, while Ray Carling tends to be the lower end of the range — excepting occasions when Gene overshoots him. There are also some really bent coppers, which helps the viewer see Gene as being a bad cop, but not an evil one.
  • Since Firefly focuses on a motley collection of outlaws and fugitives, the police are generally considered a danger and threat. However, while the cops are enemies, they aren't presented as particularly evil, but range from decent local sherrifs willing to look the other way to no-nonsense federal marshals to corrupt officers running cloned body parts.
  • Top Gear:
    • The "rozzers" (along with nearly every other form of invasive traffic control, such as speed cameras) are mildly annoying petty villains, whose main role is to interfere with the presenters. While some Top Gear challenges include alleged traffic stops thrown in entirely for humor (in one memorable sequence, The Stig was actually arrested), other races have been delayed or interrupted when a presenter is held up by a traffic stop.
    • The police did come out in full force when demonstrating proper police procedure in the Police Car Special. There was also the Bonneville episode, where Richard and Jeremy are stopped by a policeman after loudly revving the engines on their muscle cars (they do it specifically to set off car alarms, and the police officer is portrayed as being completely in the right and refuses to believe that they were "Just fooling around").
  • While Third Watch leans heavily towards the cynical side on That Other Scale, it is much more positive on its portrayal of law enforcement. While virtually all the cop characters engage in a questionable activity over the course of the show, they are generally portrayed as good people doing a tough job. Even the blatantly crooked Sergeant Cruz is shown to have strong moral reasons for her actions, even if her actions are morally reprehensible. If anything, the show's message is that cops don't get enough credit for the good that they do, and that bad cops are the exception rather than the rule.
  • House is largely neutral-to-positive on police generally, but Detective Tritter was portrayed as a vengeful jerkass. He was right that House was an addict in a position that should not be held by an addict, and did get to deliver one really solid justifying speech to Cuddynote , but he still came across as vindictive and petty, and the fact that he was going up against Our Favorite Jerkass didn't help.

  • Arlo Guthrie tends to slide between the center of the scale and cynical, with officer Obie/Odie in "Alice's Restaurant" being competent and a friend, though ultimately useless to the system when it comes to convicting Arlo and friends for littering, and the unnamed cop later in the song being a little abrasive at worst. "The Motorcycle Song" (the long version) features Arlo telling the audience that he landed on a cop car and squishing the cop (he just fell 50 feet off a cliff on a motorcycle) inside without showing a grain of remorse or guilt, though this is somewhat debateable due to the "you've got to sing [The Motorcycle Song] with that kind of enthusiasm, like you just squished a cop!" line, which can be taken as either nervousness or... well... actual enthusiasm.

    Video Games 
  • The S.W.A.T. game series leans very heavily to the idealistic end, given its focus on being a simulation of a By-the-Book Cop SWAT team. Police brutality can occur if the player approaches challenges carelessly, but then you're always heavily penalised for not following protocol. The use of less-lethal weaponry is particularly emphasized in the fourth game. (That installment's tutorial even mentions that SWAT functions primarily as a life-saving organisation, not an armed cleanup force.) Getting a civilian killed by provoking a suspect or shooting a civilian dead results in an instant mission failure, while abusing deadly force against suspects (especially without warning) adds penalty points.
  • Similarly, its parent series, Police Quest is also on the idealistic side. The protagonist of the first three games, Sonny Bonds, is an archetypal By-the-Book Cop who excels at every facet of police work, be it as a patrolman, in narcotics, undercover, working homicide, or as a SWAT officer. Corruption in the police force isn't even a factor until the third game. As it stands, police procedures must be rigidly adhered to, especially in the first game and Sonny doesn't actually kill anyone until the final confrontation with Jesse Bains at the very end of the second game.

    Web Original 
  • The police in KateModern are generally fairly incompetent, provoking one Serial Killer to remark "What does a person have to do to get arrested around here?" When they do arrest anyone, it's always the wrong person, and the whole legal system is manipulated by an evil secret society anyway. Interestingly, it's only the English police who are portrayed this way; the French police, while still incompetent, aren't corrupt.

    Western Animation 
  • The old Action Man (1995) cartoon was rife with examples at the more positive end of the scale.
  • Chief Clancy Wiggum on The Simpsons is a textbook example of a sliding scale. He and his department are often the butt of jokes about Police inefficiency. Wiggum himself often makes up laws as he goes along. Although it's a defining trait of Wiggum and the entire SPD, however, the scale shifts quite often depending on what the episode calls for. Sometimes they can be helpful, though it's usually dependent on the circumstances of the episode. The departments' corruption fluctuates as well, though generally it's not malicious.

    The entire Springfield Police Department's undergone the effect of Flanderization big time. It really depends on what the episode calls for. There is an instance of an SPD Officer shooting Homer with a pistol as he runs over a rooftop several stories off the ground (the cops were on the ground), while there is also the time several SPD Snipers are unable to hit a passed-out woman laying motionless on the floor.

    Real Life 
  • Real Life in modern times is somewhere in the middle of the scale. There are some cops who are nice and just do their jobs, some cops who are corrupt and brutal, and everywhere in between.