In one of the best scenes in the 1932 Marx Brothers movie “Horse Feathers,” Harpo Marx plays a dog catcher accosted by a cop for blocking traffic while stopping for lunch.
The cop pulls out a notepad and begins writing Harpo a ticket.
Harpo pulls out a notepad and begins writing the cop a ticket.
The cop tears up Harpo’s ticket.
Harpo tears up the cop’s ticket.
The cop shakes his baton at Harpo.
Harpo grabs the baton and shakes it right back.
The cop points to his badge.
Harpo opens his coat and points to dozens of badges.
The scene ends as you might expect, with the cop locked in the dog cage, Harpo finishing lunch, and horns honking incessantly.
In the 1922 silent film “Cops,” Buster Keaton plays a hapless character who inadvertently disrupts a police parade and winds up getting chased by the entire Los Angeles Police Department. Naturally, he outwits them all.
Such was the way cops were depicted in those subversive pre-Depression comedies. It was Everyman against the Establishment, and the cops were always on the side of the Establishment. They were petty tyrants and lackeys of ward bosses who worked for the mayor, who was inevitably a corrupt politician.
And although Everyman usually won the battle in those early comedies, the war was always a lost cause. Harpo stayed mute in his rags, Keaton never cracked a smile, and Charlie Chaplin wandered into the distance, the eternal tramp.
The enduring appeal of those comedies shows that they said something permanent about Americans’ attitudes toward law enforcement officers. Depending on the decade, and sometimes the day of the week, they are knights of the highway, doughnut gourmands, peacemakers, pigs to be offed, the friendly cop on the corner, overbearing bullies and emblems of justice.
Last week, cops were targets of public scorn when videos surfaced of them shooting suspects, apparently in cold blood. By week’s end, public sympathy for law enforcement soared when cops themselves became the victims in Dallas of a cold-blooded killer.
After protesters of police conduct scattered when shots rang out, counting on the police they were criticizing to stop the killer, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called them “hypocrites.” He might as well have called them “Americans.” We’ve all had times when we wished a cop was around, and we’ve all had times when we were grateful one wasn’t. That uniform and gun command both respect and fear.
Mixed feelings about cops are built into the nation’s DNA, but we should not let our emotions confuse us about reality. First, there is no war on cops. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which keeps track of these things, 123 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty in 2015, one more than in 2014. Even with last week’s murders, the pace is exactly the same this year as last.
In no year of the Obama administration has the number of officer fatalities equaled the fatality total in every year of the administrations of Richard Nixon, the law and order president, and of Ronald Reagan, the conservative icon.
Back in the 1920s, when those cop-bashing comedies were being made, officer fatalities typically topped 200 a year in a country with a much smaller population.
Moreover, being a police officer isn’t even especially dangerous. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, you are more likely to die on the job if you are a logger, a roofer, a rancher or a commercial fisherman. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies don’t even crack the top 10.
Second, police in America are far more likely to shoot civilians than in other advanced countries. According to the Guardian newspaper, U.S. police officers shot more citizens in the first 24 days of 2015 than police in England and Wales have shot in the last 24 years.
Third, violent crime has declined in the United States, as has the number of shooting deaths. Yet we continue to increase spending on prisons while skimping on education. Between 1980 and 2013 in Montana, spending on prisons grew by 254 percentage points more than spending on education. Voters in Yellowstone County just approved a jail expansion, but School District 2 voters turned down a levy to hire more teachers.
Fourth, it’s been common wisdom for a couple of centuries that blacks are treated worse by police than white people are. Statistics are hard to come by, because this sort of thing has been historically underreported, but the crime of DWB (Driving While Black) wasn’t invented because black people wanted to pretend they were victims.
Even in those subversive comedies, blacks were always portrayed in subservient, even if sometimes sympathetic, roles. Things had to get better before they could even reach the status of Everyman.
And, finally, things have gotten better, as anyone knows who has been around as long as I have. We didn’t even pretend that black people were entitled to full civil rights until the 1960s. And in those years, crime was far more prevalent and violent than it is now. There was more social unrest. There were more riots. Trust me. No, don’t.
We’ve come a long way since 1968, when Arlo Guthrie could reliably get laughs by joking about squashing a cop. He doesn’t use that line anymore, and if things seem worse now, that’s only because everybody is carrying a camera and tape recorder.
In the long run, that will help enforce better behavior on all sides. In the short run, it seems like all hell has broken loose.
At times like these, we still need Harpo Marx.