Saturday 25/05/2019 - 11:53 pm

In pop culture, there are no bad police shootings

2016.10.26 05:50

Buster Keaton’s 1922 short film “Cops” begins with a mistake. “The Great Stone Face,” as the actor was known, is driving a wagon when he wanders into the route of a Los Angeles Police Department parade. If that isn’t enough to annoy the police commissioner, things get worse. Keaton’s character lights a cigarette on what he suddenly realizes is a bomb fuse planted by an interloper, and then tosses the device away, frightening the policemen and wounding some.

In the final moments of the film, the police find Keaton, and a mass of officers pulls him into a police station. The scene cuts out there, and the screen shows a grave marker with “The End” chiseled into the stone. Keaton’s porkpie hat hangs uneasily from the edge. The message is clear: Keaton’s character is dead, executed for another man’s crime.

Even by the standards of other contemporary silent films, including Keaton’s “Convict 13,” which includes an extended mock hanging, and Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” where mounted police charge at labor demonstrators and beat them with batons, “Cops” offers an exceptionally grim vision of police work.

In the context of the next century, “Cops” becomes even more striking. Keaton was early in his decision to depict police killing a civilian in circumstances that are obviously, outrageously wrong. In the years to come, only a handful would do the same. Just as the laws are structured so broadly that police officers are rarely charged or convicted when someone dies at their hands, American popular culture has spent decades telling audiences that there’s almost no such thing as a bad shooting by a police officer.

This is not the first moment in which Americans have reacted with anger and horror to the killing of civilians by the police. But decade after decade, pop culture has continued to churn out stories that justify and even lionize officers who kill. These stories first turned shootings — and they are almost always shootings — into acts of last resort by noble policemen, and later into exciting executions of dangerous villains. Hollywood has promoted the very myths that result in our being shocked when we see an officer shoot a fleeing person or fire into a parked car, as well as an inflated narrative of valor that generates a near-automatic presumption of the guilt of those killed by police.

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