Sunday, December 9, 2007

Copping Out

Who says you can’t find a good cop these days?

Well, I do.

At least not on movie screens. Many of this year’s biggest films are built around the dramatically convenient ineptitude of policemen, who all appear to be bumbling through their first investigations. There is an epidemic of incompetent police work running through the contemporary movie world that would, if it were taking place in the real world, ignite a public inquiry. I, for one, am rooting for a good internal affairs housecleaning.

The central crime in Atonement, for which James McAvoy’s housekeeper’s son is sent to prison, is the perfect example. I’ve been engaged in an Internet debate about the nature of Briony Tallis’ suffering and her “atonement” for, as an overly imaginative 13-year-old girl, wrongly sending potential brother-in-law Robbie Turner to prison. However, maybe she could have been spared all that emotional turmoil had a minimally competent police investigation tossed her a bone.

Now I’m not blind to the fact that real-life police are not perfect, and that innocent men have gone to prison. But with a reporting background, I've heard horror stories. But I also have spent my share of time around police investigators, and generally think they make good judgments. To buy Robbie’s arrest and conviction, you would have to believe that an experienced investigator (and you’re not sending a novice to a wealthy estate) would build a case solely around a fleeting, pitch-dark observation of a flighty 13-year-old girl. This is particularly difficult to buy when she didn’t get a long look. Particularly when the men present all wore similar clothing. Particularly when her older sister describes her as “fanciful.” Particularly when there are presumably past instances where her imagination got the best of her. Frankly, you wouldn’t need to be an investigator to feel suspicions about her story. You would just need to have raised a child.

And I would expect the police to … oh, I don’t know … visit the crime scene and search for physical evidence. Wacky thought, that. I mean, I realize this is 1935. I don’t expect CSI or anything. But would a presumably experienced investigator fail to do the minimal Sherlock Holmes stuff? Maybe a piece of clothing stuck on a branch? A footprint left in the mud? Anything?

I realize actual competent police work would impinge on the class prejudice angle of the story. But the lack of it also damages its plausibility. I personally think a critical point of the story crosses the line into implausibility.

My pet example, though, comes in the deservedly little-seen Reservation Road. About that film, I said its police are better stocked with “common decency than common sense.” And I have a better sense of that evidence than they apparently have of theirs.

Mark Ruffalo has accidentally struck and killed a child with his car and left the scene. Police are knocking on the doors of people who own vehicles meeting the description. This is roughly how that doorstep interview went:

Knock, knock.

Officer: Good afternoon, sir. Are you Mr. such-and-such?

Ruffalo: Yes, that’s me.

Officer: Sir, is that a rental car in your driveway?

Ruffalo: Yes, it is, officer.

Officer: Do you not own (car-make-and-model)?

Ruffalo: Yes, yes I did. but I just gave it away to charity a week ago. I’m getting a new car, and I’m driving the rental in the meantime.

Now, if you’re a police officer and hear this do you:

1) Notice an owner of a vehicle matching the description of one used in a crime seems to have suspiciously gotten rid of his vehicle in haste, or

2) give a nice, hearty farewell and thank you for your cooperation?

You know the answer.

Of course it doesn’t stop there. In In the Valley of Elah, Tommy Lee Jones, a long-retired military policeman (not even a detective), shows up at small-town police department that is investigating his son’s death and promptly learns the local-yokel police lunkheads a thing or two ‘bout ‘vestigatin’. At least in No Country for Old Men, Jones is guilty of willful neglect, not ineptitude. Although if a killer were on a spree of that magnitude across Texas, do you really think his pursuit would be left to a couple of underfinanced rural Sheriff’s departments? I would hope that’s why my tax dollars go to DPS and Texas Rangers. I may not like American Gangster much, but at least Russell Crowe knows how to do his job.

That raises the question, whatever happened to the ace police investigator? I suppose the trend away from him stems partly from our discomfort with the rising presence of authority in our lives. In a world in which our identity precedes us – in business circles, in government file cabinets, online – we are being monitored even if we think we aren’t, and worry that it’s going to come back to haunt us in some Kafka-esque manner. Does that sort of environment encourage “You have the wrong man” stories? My guess is probably.

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