Cop Knowledge: Beyond the Badge and Billy Club

Cop Knowledge : Beyond the Badge and Billy Club

English's Wilson traces history and controversy of police narratives

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

From 19th century journalist Stephen Crane to television programs like "NYPD Blue" and "Law and Order," fictional and non-fictional narratives about urban police officers and their work have had a captive audience in the American people.

In his recently published book, Cop Knowledge, Prof. Christopher Wilson (English) discusses this interest and explains how popular perceptions of the police affect society's understanding of crime, disorder and class. He also suggests that the police's role greatly influences the public's concept of political authority and control.

Using a variety of examples from media, Wilson illustrates the disparity between popular notions and myths about police with the reality of their complex profession.

Wilson said his interest in police narratives was fueled in part by the Boston Globe's coverage of a 1991 Boston dual homicide case. He said he was struck by the fact that a paper would provide such in-depth coverage of an inner-city crime to its largely middle-class suburban readers, who were unlikely to feel much of a connection to the event.

Prof. Christopher Wilson (English)

The nature and motives of those who create police narratives, and their understanding of their audience, Wilson said, "have frequently had a bearing on how police stories have been presented over the past century."

Cop Knowledge begins with a look at the turn-of-the century New York Police Department under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, where urban politics clashed with reforms to turn police departments into professional organizations. Journalists such as Stephen Crane regularly reported police crackdowns on crimes like prostitution that offended middle-class concepts of morality and civility. This media coverage helped transform the police into heroes who were beyond reproach, explains Wilson.

By the mid-20th century, Wilson said, popular films and TV shows like "The Naked City" and "Dragnet" showed police as heroic but human, pitted against an increasingly romanticized criminal element more likely to be portrayed as clever than merely evil and devious.

During the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, the police were often portrayed as enforcing conservative social principles, Wilson says. In the TV series "Police Story" and novels like The Blue Knight and The New Centurions, police appeared as a more paramilitary element whose rank-and-file officers could not grasp the social changes taking place.

Over the next decade, Wilson says, police narratives shifted to a more "true crime" mode through such television shows as "Cops." A new style of urban journalism depicted police as battling both criminals and bumbling or corrupt city officials. Although the media did not gloss over cases of police corruption, brutality and racism, Wilson said, they took a generally sympathetic view of officers and the burdens they faced.

The Boston Globe's extensive coverage of the 1991 homicide of Roxbury youths Charles Copney and Korey Grant, Wilson says, is an example of how the media can use the police narrative form to help assert an institutional presence in the community. He maintains that the Globe went far beyond simple reporting of facts and, by using the viewpoints of psychologists and social workers as well as police officers, greatly influenced the public's perception of the crime and its meaning.

"It has often been the case that the Boston Police Department's own premium on order has found a willing cohort in the Globe's own desire to claim the status of dominant civic voice for its city," said Wilson.

When the police returned to the concept of community policing in the 1990s, Wilson says, a dichotomized view of their work began to take shape in popular culture: caring, personable and neighborhood-oriented, all the while enforcing a so-called "zero tolerance" mantra against a perceived growing juvenile crime wave.

According to Wilson, these and other recent trends have helped to blur the line between real and fictitious urban police narratives in the minds of many people. This gives the creators of police narratives a significant measure of political leverage, he said, whether they are aware of it or not.

"We might begin to think of community policing as not only a police tactic," said Wilson, "but more as a cultural narrative which dramatizes some of the central debates of political authority in our time."


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