All stories have a narrative. It is how we transmit values, enrich the story-telling and identify who to jeer and who to cheer. In its simplest form every story has a hero, a villain and a foreseeable outcome which we call the narrative. Our traditional narrative lets us know that despite Luke Skywalker fighting with the rebels he is really a patriot; or that the vigilante known as Batman, the Dark Knight, is really a hero in disguise. So while the cinematic tension rises and the hero is confronted with challenge after challenge, we know and expect good will triumph over evil by the time the story ends. A powerful narrative is connected to and supports our cultural norms. But sometimes, narratives and stories signal the existence of debates about the possibility of social change. An Oscar for the movie Brokeback Mountain; movies and television programs with African American presidents; Emmy awards for the sitcom Modern Family, supporting the new nuclear family and same sex marriage. Analyzing the elements of the narrative adds insight into the direction of our national conversation.
Since the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Charleston, South Carolina the character of the criminal justice system has been under a microscope. It seems each day presents new questions about the law enforcement narrative. Should all cops be immediately deemed heroes or are some cops filling the villain role? Are the confrontations between communities of color and law enforcement the results of higher levels of criminal activity or provoked by biased policing? Is the criminal justice system fair and balanced or hopelessly tilted against minorities? This conversation is dominating mainstream media coverage, garnering the attention of academics and criminal justice experts, and generating social media hash tags and debates. This conversation is fundamentally altering the law enforcement narrative. The new narrative is yet to be defined.
Prior to the Ferguson summer, the law enforcement narrative cast the average cop and the criminal justice system as heroes standing in the breech between society and the anarchy of the criminal elements. While the law enforcement narrative of heroic service is still a staple in the minds of the majority of Americans the law enforcement narrative of heroic service is still a staple in the minds of the majority of Americans there are signs that new images are starting to form. Some of the changes are visible in recent polling. Consider that a recent Gallup poll listed public confidence in police at a 22 year low. Some of the debate is visible in the increase in the number of times the phrase, “excessive use of force”,appears in the media. But perhaps the most interesting sign of possible narrative changes are the images being used to portray policing.
In 1949 Norman Rockwell created the classic image of a police community relations call. The image shows the cop on the beat as a strong person capable of protecting a small boy and befriending local business people. Today the Rockwell image is competing with images of police officers in combat gear; armed with assault rifles poised above tanks; images of police shooting fleeing citizens in the back; or police officers restraining teenage girls in swimsuits. Mainstream and social media are now publishing an endless of array of photographs and video depicting cops as aggressors and not protectors.
It maybe to soon to determine if these images will have a permanent impact on the law enforcement narrative but public confidence in policing is essential to our society. While Americans’ still trust police officers more than politicians or business leaders, it is also true that confidence is on the decline. We need to carefully consider the impact of a change to the narrative and move it in the right direction. The public needs to believe that the Dark Knight and the Police are on the same side.