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The Lopsided Arm of the Law

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"There are so many worse crimes! Why are you persecuting me?!"
Lisa Simpson to Chief Wiggum, ten seconds before she is proven right by Wiggum ignoring a mass shooting, The Simpsons, "The Monkey Suit"

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.

A sub-trope of the Police Are Useless trope, related to Arrested for Heroism and Crime of Self-Defense. May be justified by Anarcho-Tyranny. 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 Slow Lasers, 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.

Subtrope of Artistic License – Law Enforcement.


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    Comic Books 
  • 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.
  • Twofold in Black Summer, first the police in the Seven Guns' home city were so corrupt the team had to fight them as much as the actual criminals. Second, when John Horus kills the president, far more time, effort and expense is spent hunting down his former associates than Horus himself.
  • Zig-zagged during the Marvel Civil War (2006) 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. Later, the federal government sends 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 Miles Morales: Spider-Man (2022), Agent Gao makes it very clear that she intends to put Spider-Man in handcuffs for his destructive superheroics... while also hiring known assassin and mercenary Taskmaster as part of her Cape Busters even while Taskmaster is making jokes about stabbing people.
  • In Outlawed, C.R.A.D.L.E. mobilizes a massive anti-teen hero coalition in a matter of days, patrolling towns with military helicopters, arming themselves with sci-fi weaponry, and quickly establishing posts in every major city in America. They also create fake crime sting operations to draw teen heroes out of hiding before taking them to what amounts to concentration camps to be brainwashed and tortured into compliance. Where is all this equipment and planning when actual supervillains attack and Alien Invasions begin? Who knows? The Reveal that C.R.A.D.L.E. is actually a Roxxon operation to hurt the superhero community just doesn't help, considering that this is the exact same demented amount of overkill S.H.I.E.L.D. has deployed twice already.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia revolves around Wonder Woman and Batman coming into conflict over the former protecting a woman named Danny who has killed four men. The men in question were responsible for raping and abusing Danny's sister Melody as well as getting her addicted to drugs which resulted in her death. The apathy from the cops lead to Danny deciding to take matters into her own hands by killing the men which resulted in her being wanted for murder. Note that it is never once shown or mentioned that Batman investigated Melody's death yet he pursues Danny with a zeal that he usually reserves for the likes of The Joker. It is also implied he's pissed that Danny got away from him twice.

    Fan Works 

    Film — Live-Action 
  • The Amazing Spider-Man: "There's a bipedal lizard man rampaging through New York and is carrying a mutating chemical weapon? SCREW THAT! Lets go shoot at Spider-Man.''
  • The Joker in Batman (1989) 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.
  • The Big Boss has Bruce Lee's protagonist, Cheng Chao-an, swearing off violence and turning a blind eye even after repeated incidents where his friends are murdered in the ice factory he works at, until the villains decide to slaughter his family, killing everyone save for the Love Interest. But after Cheng Chao-an pulls a Roaring Rampage of Revenge, executing the titular villain and all his cronies, he's quickly arrested by the police.
  • In the early Jet Li film, Born To Defense, the Qingdao police post-WWII are depicted to be hopelessly incompetent and all kinds of corrupt, allowing a trio of American punks to terrorize Li's surrogate family and cause ruckus in the streets on a daily basis, to the point where one of them ends up killing Li's uncle / surrogate father. The police then intervenes... to arrest Li for disturbing public peace, while turning a blind eye on the foreigners. It's a pretty Anvilicious film, all things considered...
  • 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.
  • In The Crow (1994), 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 (who just five minutes ago had taken the Gotham Stock Exchange hostage and were now on the run with hostages) and the police abandon chasing Bane to go after Batman instead. Even with the justification that the police believed that Batman had murdered Harvey Dent and committed the murders Harvey himself was responsible for, John Blake is completely livid and calls out his superior on the fact that he has such Skewed Priorities.
  • 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). In 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 vigilantism will escalate and 3) they fear that the crooks will become more brutal in retaliation, but in 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 — who were dirty (which they obviosuly didn't know)).
    • 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.
  • In District 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.
  • 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.
  • Wonka: This is lampshaded by Officer Affable after the Chief of Police, who has cut a deal with the Chocolate Cartel to eliminate competition, orders that more officers and resources be allocated towards arresting Willy Wonka for illegally selling chocolate:
    Affable: Sir, shouldn't we focus on those unsolved murders?
    Chief of Police: No, this takes priority!

  • 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 the scene to arrest him.
  • In Victoria, the police are useless for cleaning out the criminals and drug dealers the vigilante protagonists are trying to get rid of, but spring into action as soon as the criminals' own "rights" are violated by the heroes. Justified, since the mob has highly-placed allies in the legal system.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Not surprisingly, this turns up in Angie Tribeca. A SWAT team raids a home and ignore a drug lab, a counterfeit operation, and a man who's been held against his will for six months. Instead, they arrest the homeowner for illegally owning a ferret, and the man is later told he'll face up to fifty years in prison. Oddly enough, it is illegal to own a ferret in California, but Rule of Funny is what merits such overkill.
  • Occurs frequently on Arrow, most egregiously early in Season 2. The Arrow is trying to stop the Triads from stealing medical supplies bound for a beleaguered hospital in the earthquake-ravaged Glades district of Starling City. When the police arrive on the scene, do they focus on the people robbing doctors? No. They attempt to capture the only person capable of bringing China White and Bronze Tiger in non-lethally, allowing those two to escape and attempt another heist.
  • The Defenders (2017): Detective Misty Knight is an ally to Luke Cage, but she's out of the loop regarding the Hand and faced with pressure from an anti-vigilante superior, so after Stick is killed and Danny is kidnapped, she's forced to detain Luke, Jessica, and Matt because they won't explain what the hell's going on.
  • The whole set-up to the Grand Finale of Seinfeld occurs because a police officer sees it as more important to arrest the cast (that were snarkily jeering at a guy getting mugged and videotaping the robbery, and thus allegedly violating a "Good Samaritan" Law that somehow is structured to force people to help, rather than freeing them from liability if they help) than actually chasing after the mugger himself (or, if he doesn't wish to give pursuit, ask them for the videotape).
  • In She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, the Department of Damage Control is a whole lot more concerned about Jennifer Walters hulking out and smashing a television than the fact the television was showing a video of her having sex with a member of the Intelligentsia (evidence of rape by deception plus she did not agree to either being taped having sex or having it broadcasted, as well as clear evidence of the Intelligentsia — an anti-feminist group who does not likes the superheroines of the world, She-Hulk topping their hit list — being more than just a bunch of idiots in a forum), and make clear after they let Jen go that the group is a low priority for them because they don't have superpowers, if they actually decide to do anything about it at all. This utter lack of care incenses Jen so much that when she smashes through the fourth wall in the season finale, she makes clear to the Marvel writers that they better stow that crap plotline ASAP.

    Video Games 
  • In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, if the Task Force that relentlessly pursues Spider-Man for falling from Hero to Menace gave the actual criminals that much trouble, Spider-Man could probably retire or at the very least start taking days off and vacations.
  • In Batman: Arkham Origins, the entire GCPD save for Gordon is on the take. Not helping this is the fact that this takes place early in Batman's career, with him being seen as a dangerous vigilante who takes the law into his own hands.
  • In EarthBound (1994), 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.
  • Eastern Exorcist does this with Shu the Water Demon's backstory. She's a widow who lose everything - her husband, child, and pride when three punks ganged up on her to have some fun. When the village elders found out about the incident, they... have Shu sentenced to drowning instead, in order to "preserve the village's reputation".
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Commit any sort of crime in front of city guards and they will be right on top of you, but if you're the victim of a crime, say if you're attacked by thugs (usually in retaliation for stealing, but the guards wouldn't know that), suddenly they can't see or hear anything. At least one mod made it so if you're attacked in front of guards (and didn't do anything in that moment to provoke it), they'll actually do their job and help you.
  • A staple of the Grand Theft Auto series. Running for your life because a bunch of gangsters are trying to kill you? Sorry, boy, we aren't equipped to deal with that. Accidentally scrape a police car because you were trying to avoid hitting a pedestrian?? You are going down, you bastard. Fortunately, in later games they begin to act against other criminals, although they still will go after you for the smallest thing.
    • In the Grand Theft Auto III era, police would completely ignore all crimes committed by NPC's. In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City there was an exception, a random event where a police officer would chase down and eventually kill a generic NPC, and in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas police officers would open fire on any NPC that hurt them or crashed their car. The trend continues to a lesser extent into Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V, while nearby officers will now react to NPC violence it still a differing level of force than what is used against the player. Most notably they never escalate, if the NPC's kill all the cops the fight is over. If the player shoots a police officer, expect half a dozen squad cars and a police helicopter to respond in seconds. In a strange inversion, police in GTAV will always react with lethal force to NPC's regardless of their crime (in GTAIV they can arrest them), while the player can be arrested for minor crimes.
  • In Heavy Rain, the cops are more dangerous than the serial killer everyone is hunting. On one occasion, Ethan Mars 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 Ethan 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.
  • No Man's Sky: A baffling example comes from the Sentinels' approach to Space Pirates, considering how omnipresent they are in the universe and their firepower. The Sentinels do not care whatsoever if the player is getting chased by 4 to 6 Pirate ships, leaving you to fend for yourself. They also don't help alien ships that are getting attacked by a Pirate squad, forcing you to step in. But if the player so much as scratches the paint on an alien ship by accident, the Sentinels will attack the player immediately. Possibly justified, as the player is an Anomaly, which the Sentinels seem to particularly dislike.
  • Spider-Man (PS4): Sable International, a private military contractor, is brought into Manhattan to reinforce the police after a terror attack. They are so incompetent that if any sort of problem arises in the city, nine times out of ten, Spider-Man has to handle it... and the tenth time, the problem is their fault anyway. Their only real display of competency is trying to arrest Spider-Man.
  • Notably averted in Streets of Rage 4: the cops will attack your character, but they'll also attack the other enemies if they get close enough (with a few exceptions implied to be on the take). That the police are coming after you at all is completely justified given the massive civil disturbance your activities cause, and after the Chief of Police realizes you're actually trying to stop the local crime problem the cops leave you alone thereafter.
  • Watch_Dogs has Aidan using some of the features of ctOS not yet released to the police, such as the crime-prediction system. In addition, if Aidan uses the ctOS to raise traffic barriers, the police will radio to dispatch to request them lowered. Yet the police will never think to have dispatch raise them to cut you off.
  • Welcome to the Game II: Clint is in an apartment building occupied by no fewer than three serial killers, and an assassin is stalking the halls. Who do the NYPD target? Clint, for the crime of... going on the Deep Web. One of the most-mocked parts of the game is that you need to keep moving your VPN from hotspot to hotspot or else the cops will nonchalantly waltz past repeat murderers to kick your door in.

    Visual Novels 
  • The police in Spirit Hunter: NG are ignorant of any supernatural happenings and can't do anything to prevent the various grisly murders at the hands of spirits. Nor do they ever bother to go after the human criminals in the various spirit backstories. However, they have much less issue finding evidence that Akira was at the scene of the crimes (stopping said spirits and saving lives), and promptly haul him into the station during the Killer Peach case.


    Web Animation 
  • In the first episode of Bee and Puppycat, Bee is walking home and stops at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to turn so she can cross because she can't afford a jaywalking ticket. As if on cue, a cop shows up to authoritatively stare her down...all the while ignoring three children running across the street to chase a duck.
  • RWBY deconstructs this trope during the course of Volumes 7 & 8. General Ironwood and the Atlas military focus entirely on arresting RWBY and their allies while ignoring the real threats in their path. This is made evident with a battle between Qrow, Clover, and Tyrian, in which Clover prioritizes more on arresting Qrow than re-apprehending Tyrian. This results in Clover being killed via an Enemy Mine between Qrow and Tyrian. By the end of Volume 8, Atlas had been mostly destroyed thanks in large part to this trope, since Ironwood wastes all his energy on RWBY and forcing them to resolve all the crises themselves, all while the villains move with their plans (mostly) unimpeded.

    Western Animation 

  • Think animated Batman's life is easier than his comic-book counterpart's? Think again — when he's framed in the series pilot "On Leather Wings", and again in Mask of the Phantasm, the GCPD almost immediately bust out the kind of firepower that, consistently applied, would've reduced the Joker and 90% of the other supervillains to a fine red paste ages ago. "Over the Edge" teeters on this too, but does involve the GCPD seeking help from a supervillain instead of relying on its own muscle, and in any case it was All Just a Dream.
  • The titular team of Big Hero 6: The Series is the group most capable of handling the various criminals and supervillains of San Fransokyo, but Chief Diego Cruz cares more about arresting the team for vigilantism, even setting up a fake hostage situation to do so. Justified in that Chief Cruz has a personal (if entirely misdirected) grudge against superheroes and can't keep his personal feelings out of his work.
  • Family Guy;
    • In "Episode 420", the police couldn't care less that Peter is driving drunk or that he has a blood-soaked trash bag in the back of his car, but they go ballistic when they find out that Brian has "a small amount of pot".
    • In "Back to the Woods", James Woods steals Peter's identity simply by stealing his ID. Instead of arresting him for identity theft, Joe claims he has no choice but to treat James Woods as Peter and arrest the real Peter for "trespassing" in his own house.
  • 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.
  • Police in The Simpsons are usually flat-out useless, and even the protagonists escape the law because of it. However, when 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, etc.
    • In "Marge In Chains", the sheer exhaustion of the rest of the family being sick causes Marge to accidentally shoplift a bottle of cheap bourbon from the Kwik-E-Mart. She makes perfectly clear that she didn't mean to and that she will pay for the bottle immediately. Apu still presses the silent alarm and multiple patrol cars arrive within seconds and the officers aim their guns at Marge like she was armed and dangerous. Later in the episode, Snake steals the whole damn Mart building with a flat-bed truck and nothing happens.
    • "Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment" has Agent Rex Banner pushing his Dry Crusader agenda to the hilt, with his enforcement methods being brutal at best and lethal at worst. However, when Fat Tony tells Banner to his face that the mob is going to give up on beer smuggling in favor of heroin smuggling, Rex simply says, "See that you do." (After all, he's not here to enforce that.)
    • When Homer leads a violent band of vigilantes in "Homer the Vigilante", the police don't do much of anything. In "Simple Simpson", Homer's much more benign form of masked "vigilantism" — a Pie in the Face for people who deserve it — causes the cops to shoot to kill so he can't pie Quimby, who unapologetically bulldozed an orphanage to build a plastic surgery clinic. Lou points this out to Wiggum, but he doesn't want to hear it.
    • In "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge", Marge is afraid the family's house guest Becky is trying to murder her to take her place, and goes to the police. Wiggum refuses to help unless she's already dying ("Let me tell you what I tell everybody who comes in here: the law is powerless to help you.") When Marge threatens Becky, having mistaken her resuscitating Homer for kissing him, the police arrest her immediately.
      Marge: I thought you said the law was powerless.
      Wiggum: Yeah, powerless to help you, not punish you.
    • In "The Monkey Suit", Lisa rebels against Springfield Elementary stopping teaching the theory of evolution and switching to Creationism thanks to Ned Flanders. She starts an underground reading circle of the theory that is barged in by the Springfield Police with guns out and ready to fire, and when she asks why so much overkill as she's being arrested, Wiggum plainly tells her (and is embarrassed to admit) that the Springfield Police only has enough budget to enforce the latest law passed... and to make things more blatantly unfair, he doesn't care about Snake going on a killing spree right outside the room.
      Wiggum: (chuckles, then non-chalantly) In the old days, we would've been aaaaaaa-llll over that! (continues to watch the shooting)