Cops in the romance genre

18 Aug

It has been discussed elsewhere, several times, by people from different backgrounds, but it bears bringing up again.

In many romance books, even in those where a cop is not one of the protagonists, or even a secondary character with a speaking part, law enforcement officials tend to be romanticized. We tend to see them as noble human beings who do what they do out of a desire to serve their fellow human beings.

Oh yes, we occasionally have the corrupt cop character; or we may have the corrupt police department changed from the inside by our hero or heroine, or brought down by bringing in outside attention from higher up the (police) food chain.

Note: here you can change corrupt to homophobic, antisemitic, racist, prejudiced, etc. and the premise holds.

The message, which is drummed into us not just by romance novels but by the media in general is that cops are, by and large, the good guys.

~ * ~

However, for people who belong to the many groups traditionally not liked by police–and no, I don’t mean criminals here–cops are, by and large, an entire class of people we should fear.

In our interactions with police, we should fear not just a fine, or harsh words, or a minor violation of our civil rights. The other person is armed, and often secure in the knowledge that almost any excuse explanation will work if you just happen to be hurt or die during that interaction.

A cop follows you, looking for reasons to stop you, no matter what flimsy; he provokes you and your react; guess what happens next? He pulls you backwards and you bump into him? Hell, you resisted arrest. Your shoe scuffed his shin? You kicked him.

Now you have an arrest in your record. Now you have to find money from somewhere to make bail–if you are lucky enough. Now you have to either give in, plead guilty, and pay whatever the fines, or find more money to get a lawyer to fight the charges and clear your name (good luck there).

And, should you die at the hands of police, or in police custody, you will automatically be portrayed as unstable, criminal, shifty, depressed, suicidal, dangerous, a bad student, a drug addict, an irresponsible person, or any other unsavory slant they can find.

Hell, even a white man working on his boat, on his own driveway, may have a cop drawing a gun at him, should the cop not like what that man is doing (such as, say, legally recording a cop stalking his house).

Without going into the dangers of arming police departments with weaponry and equipment that rivals many country’s entire armies; without going into how often cops are treated like a special–as in, superior to regular citizens–class of people by the courts (i.e., their testimony is routinely given more weight; search warrants are signed on their say-so, probable cause be damned); without going into the many and frequent, institutionalized abuses of power by police departments all over the US, lets just consider what I outlined above.

This is the reality millions and millions and millions of people live with. How often do we see this reality portrayed in our media of choice?

~ * ~

My answer: almost never.

A long, long time ago, when I read Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death for the first time, a paragraph struck me so deeply, I still remember it almost word by word (pray note, I was nine years old and it was a Spanish translation, so I’m paraphrasing from a three decades old memory¹). Poirot is talking about the victim, and he says, “it has been assumed that working in a prison warped Mrs Boynton’s personality, making her into a controlling, cruel person–when instead, this was work that satisfied the needs of her particular personality.”

I don’t doubt that many law enforcement officers want to protect and serve–their families, their communities, their society, their country. But I posit that many of them want to be cops because they see cops being treated as a class above the rest of the population. Cops carry weapons and have the law–and that not-so-thin blue line–behind them. This is not just a catchphrase, this, as we see time and again, is reality. Cops lie in their reports, they lie even when wearing body cams, and they expect that their lie will be backed up by their departments–we can only guess how often this is, in fact, what happens.

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Unchecked power kills.²

~ * ~

Most of us genre readers read for enjoyment. It does not follow that we should always read uncritically. By the same token, being aware of the reality our reading romanticizes does not mean we can’t enjoy a well written story that doesn’t reflect it.

But let us at least stop for a moment, and think about these things.

Writers write what appeals to them–whether it be the muse, the plot monkeys, or a fleeting, what if? But perhaps they could, should, think about these things too.


¹ I could find my copy of the book, as I still have it, but I’m lazy. Coincidentally, I agree that this is not among Dame Christie’s better efforts, but for me it more than makes up for that one epiphany.

² Please read this post by Ken White at Popehat, and read the comments; please pay close attention to, and follow the links provided by, Zendo Deb. (No, I don’t agree with her on a lot of things, but I agree with her here.)

10 Responses to “Cops in the romance genre”

  1. jmcbks 19/08/2015 at 9:38 AM #

    On the weight given to police testimony: I was recently called for jury duty in Baltimore City and was in the pool for a murder trial. During the voir dire, the judge asked if potential jurors would be more or less likely to trust or distrust testimony from police. At least 30% of the pool stood up; I don’t recall more than a couple people ever standing up for similar questions in the past. While their responses were muffled and held at the bench, I’m pretty sure many fell on the distrust side.

    Personally, my interest in military and cop heroes has long since waned. (See especially Suzanne Brockmann.) And TV police shows make me cringe with their blatant violations of constitutional rights and blase treatment of chain of evidence.

    • azteclady 19/08/2015 at 9:51 AM #

      Once upon a time, particularly when I first moved to the US, my admiration for the legal system here (and by extension cops) was great.

      After all, I come from a country where police corruption is so widespread, regular, law-abiding citizens, would rather deal with criminals than with cops.

      Almost two decades later…not so much.

  2. willaful 19/08/2015 at 12:58 PM #

    The Spanish translation is considerably more literary than the original!

    I’m currently reading a romantic suspense book with a hero in the NSA. That’s a pretty hard one to swallow as well. And billionaires — I distrust and despise them. How are these are heroes?

    • azteclady 19/08/2015 at 1:03 PM #

      Spanish translation: really? Perhaps I should try to find it in English and compare. *ponders*

      I can read cop and NSA and other government/Justice Department heroes, if I trust the author and she has made it work for me before (see Janice Kay Johnson, for example), but even when it does work, I am always aware that this is absolute fantasy.

      • willaful 19/08/2015 at 1:54 PM #

        The quote I found was fairly different — but it’s quite possible the same sentiment is said more than once in the book.

      • azteclady 19/08/2015 at 2:05 PM #

        Or I am remembering it wrong–I really should check.

        Lazy az iz lazy.

  3. willaful 20/08/2015 at 8:20 PM #

    Crap, I just realized what would have been the perfect comment on this piece:

    “Britta, pay your rent!”


    • azteclady 20/08/2015 at 8:37 PM #

      (I had to do a Google search for it–I don’t watch TV or cable–and, unfortunately, still don’t get the reference, other than it is from the show Community. Sorry ’bout that.)

      • willaful 20/08/2015 at 9:52 PM #

        “I don’t think police should be heroes.”
        “Britta, pay your rent.”


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