Dad, why are cops bad?
This was the question I had to answer when I recently saw FirstBlood with my son. At only eight years old, she still lived in a simple world: the cops are good and it’s his job to catch the bad guys.
I explained to him that police officers are people like any other. Some are good and some are bad. That answer seemed to satisfy him, and he soon began to see Rambo II Y Rambo IIIfilms that he liked even more, perhaps because they were less morally complicated.
Although these films have some merit, it is FirstBlood -which turns forty in October- which remains a masterpiece, in large part because it is morally complicated. Indeed, the film, based on the novel by David Morrell from 1972challenges a widely held belief: that the American system of law and order is fundamentally good.
Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo, who also co-wrote the screenplay and deliberately made the title character more likeable than the one in Morrell’s novel, is not a hero like Rocky Balboa. He is a victim of police profiling and police brutality, and it is these actions that trigger violence, persecution, and a manhunt that leaves several dead.
Why do you scare me?
When Sheriff Will Teasle (played superbly by Brian Dennehy) pulls up next to a thin, shaggy-haired man in a green coat with an American flag on his chest, he first seems friendly, like a sheriff you might find in any small town in America. USA.
“Good morning,” says Teasle, smiling slightly. “Are you visiting someone around here?”
“No,” Rambo replies. Unlike Teasle, he doesn’t smile. Nor does he offer any further explanation. This causes Teasle to continue.
“You know, wearing that flag on that jacket, the way you look, you’re asking for trouble around here, man,” he tells Rambo.
Rambo doesn’t respond, so Teasle offers to give Rambo a ride and Rambo accepts. However, during the drive through the city, a tense exchange ensues after Rambo asks a simple question.
Rambo: Do you have a place I can eat around here?
Teasle: There’s a coffee shop about thirty miles down the highway.
Rambo: Is there a law that prevents me from eating here?
Teasle: Yes! To me.
Rambo: Why are you scaring me?
Teasle: What did you say?
Rambo: I said why are you scaring me? I haven’t done anything to you.
Teasle: First of all, you don’t ask the questions here. I do them. Understands! Second, we don’t want guys like you in this town, bums. Next thing we know, we’ve got a bunch of guys like you in this town. THAT’S WHY! Besides, you wouldn’t want to be here anyway. It’s just a small, quiet town. In fact, you could say it’s boring. But that’s how we like it. I get paid to keep it that way.
The law is perverted
There are many differences between *First Blood’s tragedy and Sandra Bland’s, but they are similar in one key way: Lives were lost (and ruined) by an encounter that should never have happened in the first place.
In FirstBlood, Rambo was stopped by Teasle because he looked like a bum. In Bland’s case, she was cited for a petty traffic violation: not turning on her turn signal. Police records suggest that Encinia was a stickler in this regard.
“Encinia had a history of making pretext traffic stops,” write journalist Malcolm Gladwell, “having issued more than 1,600 tickets, mostly minor, in less than 12 months, using the pretext of under-enforced minor infractions and then conducting random searches in the hope of finding any offenders.”
Encinia is no doubt arguing that he was simply keeping the public safe by enforcing traffic laws, and many would no doubt agree with him. Others would say that this is how we catch criminals, while others argued that the fines Encinia issued provided significant revenue for public safety.
The sad truth is that most would agree with at least one of these arguments, and perhaps more. (In the end, the polls showed that the “stop and frisk” policy was very popular despite being a flagrant violation of civil liberties).
Today, Americans take for granted that the police have not only the right but the duty to “keep people safe” and enforce the law, even if the law being applied creates a victimless “crime.” Americans have tacitly accepted a police culture that pursues not just crime but behavior, whether it’s driving “too fast,” drinking a beer before the law says you can, not wearing a seat belt, or owning a plant that the State does not believe should be.
The reality is that few are willing to entertain the idea that we do not need armies of police to keep us safe. However, at a minimum, Americans should understand the benefits of policing behavior that may be unsafe but is not criminal.
There are more than 60 million contacts between the police and the public each year, almost half of them initiated by the police, usually when no crime has been committed. These confrontations have a high cost.
“When police pull people over for things like broken taillights or darkened glass, unnecessary opportunities for deadly encounters are created,” they write Akhi Johnson, director of the Vera Institute Prosecution Restructuring Initiative, and writer Erica Bryant. “The list of people killed after being detained by the police for trivial reasons is too long, and it continues to grow. Police action should make people safer. Stops for minor infractions, as an excuse to look for evidence of major crimes, do not do it.
Johnson and Bryant are right, and their words are an important reminder of who the law is meant to serve.
“The law is perverted when it is used to violate the rights of the individual,” wrote the great 19th century economist Frédéric Bastiat.
Now I don’t think David Morrell or Sylvester Stalone had Bastiat in mind when they wrote FirstBlood. But the film perfectly demonstrates how unnecessary confrontations between police and citizens can quickly escalate and ultimately pervert the law.
As I told my son, the police are not bad. They’re just people, like everyone else. But we shouldn’t ask them to monitor people’s behavior. In their quest to ‘keep the peace’ and ‘enforce the law’ – even in cases where no crime has occurred – the police may accidentally cause violence.
Therefore, the role of the police should be limited and they should not be asked to enforce laws against victimless crime.
FirstBlood it is an important reminder of what can happen when the law strays from its one true moral purpose: the protection of individual rights.
This article was originally published in FEE.org
Jonathan Miltimore is the managing editor of FEE.org. His writing and reporting have been the subject of articles in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, Fox News and the Star Tribune.
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How “First Blood” presaged America’s police problem
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