Real-life events make 'Cop's Vengeance' an unsettling docudrama


"Shoot First: A Cop's Vengeance" is in part about police officers meting out justice vigilante style.

To NBC, the docudrama that airs at 9 Sunday on WMAR-TV (Channel 2), is only entertainment.

But in light of the disturbing videotape we have all seen of Los Angeles police officers viciously beating an unarmed man, it seems important to ask whether such television shows about cops and violence are ever only "entertainment."

A question worth considering when watching movies like "A Cop's Vengeance" might be: Has make-believe television contributed to a real-life belief among many police officers -- and others of us -- that excessive police violence is OK?

Preview tapes weren't available from NBC, which recently changed the movie's name from "Death of a San Antonio Cop" to the more provocative current title, perhaps to capitalize on the L.A. controversy. But a story synopsis, provided by the network, describes the plot: Two rookies (Dale Midkiff and Alex McArthur) on the San Antonio, Texas, police force go in different directions when their idealism is severely tested by the realities of "the street." One becomes a vigilante.

In the end, the rogue cop is punished, but the message of such obligatory punishment is often lost on viewers. What's remembered is the good feeling we got several times over during the movie when a cop blew away one of the "scumbags," "dirtballs" or "animals."

Such language is an important part of what film and television have been teaching us about police, violence and justice. It is the language of "Hill Street Blues" and creator Steven Bochco's paranoid, paramilitary and, arguably, fascist view of society. Bochco made his dark vision so compelling in "Hill Street" that it has shaped most television series and many made-for-TV movies about cops since. In turn, those shows have helped shape how we see crime and punishment.

Critics of the Los Angeles police say part of the problem is an "us vs. them" attitude on the part of LAPD members toward the citizenry. Remember the opening of every "Hill Street" episode? The sergeant ended his remarks by saying, "Be careful out there." The implied end of the statement: "It's a jungle." Animals live in jungles -- the kind of animals that maybe need to be stun-gunned, shackled and clubbed into submission.

Of course, Bochco didn't invent this worldview; around the time of "The Untouchables," the industry learned lots of blood could be spilled if it flowed from criminals who were presented as less than human. The big screen's Dirty Harry took it to another level, and then came Bochco with all his talk of "scumballs" and a precinct house on "the Hill" -- a beacon of goodness and decency in a sea of violence, chaos and slime.

It would be crazy to directly blame television or film for what happened in Los Angeles. But we have to figure how those media do work on each of us. And one of the ways is to think about "The Untouchables," "Hill Street Blues" and the overriding message of many similar shows when watching "Shoot First: A Cop's Vengeance."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad