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We spent a recent, rainy Friday afternoon seeing the new Robert De Niro/Al Pacino film, Righteous Kill. Although we typically prefer the convenience and economy of Netflix over taking out a short-term loan to sit in a theatre eating over-watered Coke and under-fresh nachos, the lure of seeing the two great actors together was strong. We were not disappointed. The story was engaging and the performances solid. But what we both liked best about the movie was how it engaged our intellects as cop and cop's wife, two people who spend much of their time living, contemplating, and writing about the LEO life.
First, a brief overview of the plot, with care taken to not become either movie reviewers or spoilers for those yet to see it: Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) are veteran NYPD detectives, each having over 30 years on the job, long-time partners, and best friends. Turk is dedicated to justice, highly driven, impulsive, and hot-headed. Rooster is thoughtful and calm, with a wry sense of humor and deep admiration for his partner. When bad guys--very, very bad guys, in fact--who have managed to avoid justice through the system begin turning up murdered, the killings appear to be the work of a serial killer with a penchant for vigilante justice. Turk and Rooster are teamed with another detective pair to investigate and soon it becomes likely the suspect in the killings is a cop, and may be closer than any of them initially suspect. The killer is, in fact, a cop (This is not a spoiler; that fact becomes obvious about three minutes into the movie).
Righteous Killis on one level a fairly boilerplate and somewhat predictable thriller, although with a really talented cast. On another level, and this is where we would recommend it to others, it is a troubling and thought-provoking morality play that examines how issues of loss impact and bend a character--specifically, the loss of faith in the system he serves as a cop, his loss of moral and ethical grounding, his loss of faith in God, and ultimately the loss of his soul to the emptiness the other losses have created. With each successive kill the character becomes colder, bolder, and more morally ambiguous.
This film prompts both discussion and self-examination. Each of us individually leaned over to the other at points in the movie and admitted that, all things considered, we actually enjoyed that the bad guy victims were being killed off with a degree of panache! We each found ourselves rooting for the ultimate escape, or at least redemption, of the killer. Of course, it is easy to release yourself of moral platforms and ethical obligations in the fantasy realm of TV and cinema--after all, Tony Soprano was a philandering, thieving, homicidal extortionist crime boss who whacked even his own nephew and a favorite cousin, among many others. Yet even we in the ranks of "good guys" rooted week-after-week for his continued success as a philandering, thieving, homicidal extortionist. Admit it, it's true! Maybe a "Tony Soprano" character touches a dark spot buried deep within us we vicariously identify with. Maybe the serial vigilante character of Righteous Kill acts out the anger, frustration, and disillusionment felt by so many cops who see "the system" repeatedly fail in its promises to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.
The impact of anger and disillusionment on the "real-world" cop
Although most police officers will experience some level of anger, frustration, and disillusionment during their careers when the realities of the job, the people they serve, and the inherent problems and politics of "the system" are realized, clearly murder is not where those feelings will inevitably lead. Nonetheless, there are pitfalls LEOs can and likely will face brought about by disillusionment. In addition to anger and depression, loss of job satisfaction and passion, and common off-duty problems related to the on-duty demands, LEOs face some very real temptations that can lead them to violate their oaths and ideals.
Falling prey to temptation can take many forms for the LEO: cutting corners for the cause of justice; while actually perverting it; neglecting duty because it "just doesn't matter, anyway"; or crossing the line into immorality or criminality. Cops falling prey to temptation are very much in the public eye.
Think about this: how many "Police News" articles on this and other online law enforcement websites are about officer-perpetrated acts of immorality, stupidity, over-the-top uses of force, or outright criminality? How many stories do you see in the world of print media about the same topics? How many stories and rumors float around your own agencies about current and former officers who have, through their own actions, brought shame on themselves, their badge, and (unfairly) their honest and more prudent colleagues? No agency is immune, and headlines decrying a "culture of corruption" in certain departments have become too common. We know these cases represent only a small slice of the law enforcement world and that, in reality, the unheralded work done everyday by the overwhelming number of good cops far outweighs the bad. All the same, "If it bleeds, it leads" dominates the media mindset and the public's eyes landing on stories of cops making bad choices taints the whole profession. Worse, for the cops involved in these cases, surrendering to temptation starts the cycle of loss, much as it did to the vigilante killer in Righteous Kill. The loss of ideals, of ethics, of credibility, and possibly career... sure, but also the loss of self and potentially all the officer holds important.
Law enforcement in the public eye
Ethical and legal breaches are not unique to law enforcement. Most professions have at least an expected standard of behavior, if not a formalized code of ethics. In many cases, violating the standards of behavior or code of ethics even carries severe criminal or civil penalties. Despite the expectations, codes, and laws governing the professions, lawyers are disbarred, social workers face sanctions, doctors are sued and business executives get indicted for an impressive variety of stupid acts.
What is unique to law enforcement is the degree it is in the public eye. The lawyer, doctor, social worker, or business executive does not represent the whole of their profession to the public. The disgraced cop does, like it or not. You are in the public eye and the public mentally lumps all shades of blue (as well as tan and green) together.
Safeguarding yourself from the impact of anger and disillusionment
So how do you stay grounded? How do you avoid the emotional and spiritual perils posed by anger, frustration, and disillusionment? How do you, in a profession where one sees the worst of human impulses made real, do you avoid losing yourself? How do you, working within a bureaucratic and inherently flawed system, keep sight of justice despite the temptations to throw your hands up in resignation? Are temptations easy for LEOs to avoid, or harder because you are exposed to so many?
These are perhaps rhetorical questions for your own consideration but we would be very interested to know how you answer them for yourself. You devote time developing defensive tactics to safeguard yourself physically, make sure to develop tactics to safeguard yourself emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Your life may depend on it.