Law and order: When is too much, too much?

One of my favourite shows from the 80s was Hill Street Blues, that wonderfully gritty police drama set in a ghetto of an anonymous city in the USA. The cops were led by the Captain, Frank ‘Pizza Man’ Furillo. There were Andy Renko and Bobby Hill, white and black partners. Furillo was an alcoholic, as was Detective LaRue. There were realistic gangs, pimps, pushers and pickpockets (always caught by Mick Belker whose favourite m.o. was to bite the offender on the leg to subdue him.) People were shot and killed, often the wrong people, and the good guys were sometimes hard to tell from the bad guys.

The ground breaking show was lauded for its realism and deserved the many awards it won. It paved the way for other great police dramas from the USA, England, Australia and Denmark, amongst others. Of course, no matter how realistic a show is, there will always be something not quite authentic. But the Hill Street cops and their successors were damned close to the mark.

The mark now, though, appears to be far, far different, and this worries me.

What follows is not a criticism of our police in Australia. Laws must be upheld and enforced, and those who break the law must be apprehended and afforded all the legal rights our judicial system provides. The police put their lives on the line in the course of duty to ensure this. They deserve our respect, and I respect them and value the difficult job they do. 

However, I was watching the news a few days ago, and what I saw concerned me. The police were responding to a knife wielding man who had threatened a woman in a park, fled and climbed a tree.

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One man with a knife up a tree, with no hostage: if this had been Hill Street Blues, or any real police force from the 1980s you’d expect to see the police standing around the tree, trying to coax the man down, wearing their normal street uniforms. What I saw, however, was far different. The police were wearing body armour with helmets and visors. There were a few with rifles. One at least had a police dog, and there was at least one with a perspex anti-riot shield. All were heavily armed.

This man was most likely in need of psychiatric help, which is not to excuse his crime but to put it in context. I’m sure there was a counsellor or trained negotiator there, and the individual eventually came down on his own accord. Thank God, there were no injuries. 

But did the incident require riot gear and more? I thought I was seeing a scene from the riots in Ferguson, Missouri or Baltimore but this was here, in Melbourne. It was as if it was Osama Bin Laden up that tree with a missle, not one man with a knife. The police on the news looked like special operation soldiers.

As I said, I respect the police, but I am worried. If this is the level of force used to subdue one man with a knife, what will we see when there is a more threatening situation? Tanks and artillery? Does such a display of weaponry result in fear of the police, instead of respect? Will such force become the norm, and the response to every incident? Have the criminals’ weapons really advanced so much that we need a cold war type arms race to keep ahead of them? The special police in Hill Street were often ridiculed for their love affair with the latest military gadgetry which they never used. Now, they’d be heroes.

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Is there is a correlation between the amount of power on hand, and the readiness to use it? Does such a level of deadly force exaggerate the perception of risk, and make police more likely to use it? We have read of too many people shot by police in America, and I hope this trend doesn’t reach our shores.

Yes, there are situations which require more than a policeman’s night stick or baton. But police in even small America towns with little crime have become increasingly militarized in their tactics and gear, in part a response to an out of proportion fear of terrorism. Are we blindly following America?

I don’t know the answers, but while I trust the police, I’d have preferred that the man up the tree had been dealt with by police resembling Officers Hill and Renko from Hill Street. I know life isn’t a television show, and Hill Street Blues was fiction. It reflected the reality of its time, however. 

I wonder: is our reality now really so different?