CBS show “Blue Bloods” is one of the rare police shows that I can usually watch without cringing too often. Friday night’s episode, “The Truth About Lying” took on a topic I have talked about here, here and here. Friday night I cringed hard.
The show is a TV drama, so suspension of disbelief is essential in being able to watch any show, but particularly one that tries to take the reality and culture of police work seriously. It is drama after all, not reality. However, as I talked about here, most of what the public thinks about the police comes from media and entertainment, so it is not frivolous to pay attention to the message.
The first issue is a rookie cop who makes an arrest after a foot pursuit. The pursuit involved her being separated from her partner, being attacked with a pipe, drawing her weapon and electing not to use deadly force, more chasing and ultimately a tackle and arrest. Once the offender is on the ground he pulls a cell phone from his pocket and places it on the ground next to him. Then comes the “lie.” The officer recalls in her report that she took the phone out of his pocket, which a video of the action reveals is not how it happened. In the end, the writers resolve this one ethically. Her memory was inaccurate because of the intense stress she was under, there was no intent to deceive and therefore no lie. I have absolutely no issue with this conclusion and it rightly showed the limitations of human memory under stress. This is an important reality for police officers and the show does some good in helping educate viewers on something that is critical in interpreting post critical incident reports.
So far, cringe-free.
A staple feature in every episode is the Sunday family dinner. Three generations of NY cops; Grandpa, the grizzled-old-school-retiree; Dad, the current NYPD Commissioner and the steady voice of reason; #1 son, as the-ends-justifies-the-means super detective; #2 son, as the Harvard educated lawyer who somehow ended up back in the family business; the daughter, as the how-do-I-put-up-with-all-the-testosterone-charged-cops-in-the-family Assistant District Attorney, plus #1 son’s wife and a smattering of impressionable grandchildren. A variety of perspectives and a good cast for discussing whatever issue is at hand.
What has always been reliable is that Dad (the Commissioner, Frank Reagan, played by Tom Selleck) is the compass of the family. He reels in #1 son when he loses his way, he gives #2 son the occasional dose of reality to help him survive in the real world, he knows when to take Grandpa with a grain of salt and when to rely on his sage wisdom. Frank is a reliable role model who finds the path to “the right thing” in the most complex situations.
What happens during the dinner conversation, in short, is that all the cops at the table agree that a police officer has to do what is necessary to take the bad guy off the street. Some key quotes:
“Your not advocating lying are you Grandpa?” “You’re damn right I am.”
“The truth is a bad guy was taken off the street…no matter the cost.”
“Sometimes a cop has got to take some liberties.”
“If cops don’t take leeway there would be twice as many bad guys running the streets.”
“An experienced cop knows when he can and when he can’t.”
“Sometimes the end justifies the means.”
So the scene is set. All the men, the cops, at the table agree and their sister, the Assistant D.A., can’t believe what she is hearing. She appeals to Frank, “Want to shine some light here Dad?”
So Frank steps in and tells a story from when he was a cop with 5 years on the job. He sees a guy that just doesn’t look right. He can’t say why, “instinct just kicking in,” he does a stop and frisk and finds a gun. It turns out that the gun is tied to a pair of homicides. In court Frank testifies that he made the stop because he saw the suspect put his hand on what appeared to be a gun. He lied and the suspect when to prison for 20 years.
What happens next is Frank explains that he made a bad choice 30+ years ago. He thought sending this guy to prison was the most important thing and compromised his principles to make it happen. Since that time he has learned that “instinct just kicking in” is insufficient and with experience and training he learned how to articulate more clearly what he sees and that testifying accurately does put the bad guys away. Sometimes you lose some cases, but you never lose your integrity and your word can always be trusted. He tells his sons and grandchildren that if a police officer is willing to lie he can send anyone he chooses to jail, but that is an abomination of what the community has entrusted him with. We don’t have the authority to decide when to tell the truth and when not to, even when we are certain that the good outweighs the harm. In a moment of transparent humility he tells his family that he made a mistake back then. If it had been discovered, his truthfulness would have been forever questioned and his career as a police officer would have been derailed. Even though he took a killer off the street, he regrets the poor choice and decided never let himself succumb to that temptation again.
But that is actually not what Frank said. He said none of that. All he said about lying to get that conviction was, “As a cop and as a man I sleep just fine on that score.”
The writer’s of Breaking Bad are available. I would like to see how they would bring that chicken home to roost for Frank.