Inspector Harry Callahan - "Dirty Harry"
Officer John McClane
FEATURED IN TRAINING
It’s the 1970s, and I’m a young cop. Dirty Harry’s been in theaters, and police officers flocked to see it. In the opening, Inspector Harry Callahan single-handedly stops a trio of bank robbers with a few well-placed shots from his .44 Magnum revolver. He confronts the wounded, surviving suspect, who begins to reach for his shotgun. Harry points his .44 at the suspect and launches into probably the most famous cop-movie speech ever: “I know what you’re thinking …”
Like a lot of cops, my fellow officers and I were influenced by this film police persona. Some even marched over to the local gun store and bought .44 Magnum revolvers just like Harry’s. This was a classic case of movie “product placement.” At the time, there were no restrictions on what we carried, so pretty soon we were out on the streets armed for justice, Dirty Harry style.
But after a few trips to the range, it dawned on me that I was a victim of Hollywood’s seductive influence. It’s usually a bad thing when you can’t control the recoil of a long gun. Worse yet, I had to face the fact that the .44 was kicking my butt: I would start shooting and after six magnum rounds, discover I was now 10 feet further back.
The reality was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but Hollywood was sure trying to sell me their version. We didn’t have proactive law enforcement trainers to counter this effect and tell me the truth: I was clearly influenced by the fiction of the screen rather than the common sense of the streets. So this month I wanted to share a few thoughts about the influence of the entertainment media on our personnel and perhaps even ourselves.
Fill Your Hand!
Weapons handling: One of the things I usually look at in a cop movie or TV show is how the actors handle their firearms. Rarely will you see a character use safe techniques. Often, this is obvious from the way they’re appallingly ignorant of the cardinal firearms safety rules. The careless pointing of a weapon at another cop or innocent civilian makes me cringe. Footage displaying such a disregard for safe handling can send the message that it’s acceptable behavior because people on the big screen (or its little brother) are doing so. Impressionable officers may emulate what they see.
Similarly, if an actor has his finger on the trigger when unnecessary, then the visual message to the viewer is clearly unacceptable. I worry about our officers getting it in their minds that it is OK to finger the trigger because of the numerous times they’ve seen it done on the screen.
The movie Pulp Fiction depicts the cause and effect of unsafe weapons handling. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson are in a car’s front seat arguing about trivial matters. Jackson is simultaneously pointing his handgun, finger on the trigger, at a person in the back seat. When the car hits a bump, the gun fires and reduces their backseater to a dead, bloody pulp. The lead characters then launch into a grotesque Abbott-and-Costello-gone-gangsta argument over who’s to blame. Clearly, the answer is Jackson’s unsafe handling.
You Can’t Handle the Truth
Let’s next look at a generic Act 1, Scene 2. The hero’s just been involved in a raging gunfight. Screen writers rarely include any form of ammunition management awareness. The character’s gun has a magazine that amazingly never goes empty. In the same scene, the actor may rack the action prior to searching a room or going after the bad guy. (Even more disturbing is the cinema cop trying to get a confession by working the slide and pointing the gun at a suspect, threatening to shoot if he doesn’t cooperate.) The problem is that there’s already a round in the chamber, but the character works the bolt just the same.
The director wants this for dramatic effect. A trainer’s truth, however, is that this can have a subconscious effect on our officers. This may seem farfetched, but I’ve seen its impact more than once on the range. Typically, the officer doesn’t even know what they’ve done. Such an action depletes the magazine by one precious round and may cause a malfunction. Sometimes the light goes on; other times, the student can’t comprehend the mistake. That’s when it hits me that maybe this officer’s been influenced by flawed and potentially fatal film fiction.
Reports? What Reports?
Get real! What report writing? We rarely see officers involved in such an important process. Of course, we know why. It would lack viewer appeal if a cop TV series’ screen time was taken up by paperwork. But it’s another Hollywood message that is contrary to the reality of what we do.
My friend Gordon Graham said something to the effect that the difference between a good report and a crap report may often be as little as five minutes of effort. In my experience, some cops don’t want to bother. There are a number of factors involved in this poor decision. One is that our officers would rather be out runnin’ and gunnin’ than writin’ and typin’. You might be thinking: “What good street cop wouldn’t want to be on the street rather than writing a report that won’t go anywhere?” After all, that’s how it’s done in Hollywood.
While we can understand this desire, trainers should help officers recognize that proper documentation of events is what we do. Mature, professional cops will also acknowledge that detailed report writing puts criminals in prison. I once worked with a sergeant named Bob Moran. One of the things he did to foster good crime documentation was to post the following quote: “It is conceivable that any police report will reach the U.S. Supreme Court.” As an instructor, you understand that a good report wins cases. A piece of crap—a reflection perhaps of Hollywood’s priorities—will have a much different effect.
Gotta Look Sharp
It seems to be required these days that movie detectives and even uniformed TV cops sport a five-o’clock shadow that would make Richard Nixon scream (see the 1960 Nixon-vs.-Kennedy TV debate if you don’t understand). In those days, it was considered unprofessional to not be clean shaven. This should still be true.
In addition to officers who think this is a cool on-duty look, I’ve had to work with instructors who show up for training and it’s clear that they don’t maintain a good relationship with their razor. Either they want to project that Hollywood look, or else they were just too lazy to take the time to shave. Unless there is a good excuse—an undercover assignment, for example—if they’re working for me, they usually get asked to clean up.
Hell’s Coming With Me!
Professional conduct: Hollywood’s frequent use of bad cop stereotypes drives me nuts. The 20th anniversary of the Rodney King incident just passed, and we’re still hearing of cops who haven’t learned the hard lessons of that event. The reality, of course, is that most good officers out there use force correctly. However, in countless TV series and movies, we too often see these fictional cops use physical force against a suspect trying to extract confessions or dispense a screen depiction of street justice.
This includes harming suspects when they are handcuffed. Dirty Harry and his police progeny might get away with it. But in the real world, it’s wrong on so many levels. Although nothing of consequence may happen in the Hollywood versions, the same does not hold true for real-life cops. You know this: In addition to being against policy and the law—which, oh, by the way, may trigger an FBI investigation—such actions can lead to severe discipline, even termination. This is not to mention the trauma of a civil lawsuit, and the impact on an officer’s family and way of life. During relevant training, proactive instructors can reinforce this truth getting the right message across.
Sometimes Fate Knocks, with a Search Warrant
My opinion: Our society is now more violent and considerably more deadly than when I started as a cop. Just look at the good officers we have lost within the last year. I know that there are a number of factors involved but I’m going out on a limb here: I believe the entertainment media’s influence has contributed to the increase in violence, especially acts directed against law enforcement.
I strongly believe in both the 1st and 2nd amendments. But we should recognize how the entertainment industry has negatively influenced our society. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman counts off the high number of assaultive behaviors our children are exposed to while watching the tube. It’s scary, but there’s more.
After teaching an active shooter instructor course, a student sent me a website that linked an excerpt from a computer game. The player becomes an AK-47 armed terrorist who goes into a public place and begins killing. Clearly, it’s a recreation of the Mumbai, India, tragedy.
Equally disturbing is a computer game where points are racked up for killing cops. Is it any surprise that some American kids don’t grow up to be normal, healthy adults?
There are more scenes in this month’s script, but my editor just yelled “Cut!” I think there’s a parallel to end with: Hollywood knows that on-screen cigarette use has an effect on impressionable minds, but it still continues. Fortunately, there’s a growing effort to halt such depictions in order to stop lung cancer.
When it comes to Hollywood’s version of police work, we should be at the forefront of a similar effort. As an instructor, recognize that all of us are susceptible to images on the screen. And yes, you and I know that we can’t change what officers watch. But when appropriate, we can identify those who may have fallen victim to the media’s negative police influence and rewrite the script before it turns into tragedy.
The true stars, the real heroes, are the men and women we train. They are out on the streets doing good police work night and day. Do what you can to help them with a difficult job during difficult times.
Train safe. God bless America.
Deadly Sins of Hollywood
Gun choice: Cops need as much gun as they can handle safely and accurately. Although Dirty Harry’s .44 is an indelible Hollywood image, it might not be a common-sense choice for police work.
Gun handling: Too often TV and movie cops point their guns at suspects, wave them around erratically, keep fingers on the trigger and rack the action with a round already in the chamber. All very dramatic, but real cops should never mimic any of these behaviors.
Gun magic: Ever notice that the gun never goes empty and the hero never needs to reload? Pure fiction. Make sure your officers train on reloads and malfunctions, because they are the reality.
Disappearing reports: TV and movie cops don’t ever waste the viewer’s time with report writing. That would make for a dull movie. But real cops must understand that after the action is over, reports make or break a case, and every report has the remote chance of appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court. Bottom line: A good report is time well spent.
Unprofessional appearance: Everyone knows the Hollywood cop is haggard, poorly rested and easily agitated, but this doesn’t fly on the real streets. Officers today must look and act professionally, and this means showing up for duty clean-shaven and ready for work.
Unprofessional conduct: You can’t knock people in custody around. To do so is wrong on so many levels, and yet we continue to see police portrayed this way on TV and in movies.
Violence is OK: People growing up today are exposed to fictional violence relentlessly in video games, movies, music, TV and computers. In some depictions, violence against police is OK, even rewarded. This affects everybody, and a good trainer reminds officers of the dangers of police work and corrects Hollywood-based perceptions before they become a tragedy on the street.