Tin Star and Criminal Justice Reform

Who Watches the Watchmen?

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“Only a killer can hunt a killer,”

Dave Grossman – Creator of the field of “Killology” and Full-Time Police Trainer

Hello internet, I’m Jackie Fox and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Tin Star is the Breaking Bad of “loose cannon” cop dramas – or, at least, it wants to be.  The tension is balanced between the actions of the police chief as he spirals into an alcohol-fueled revenge rampage and the audience’s feelings that his actions are justified.  Out of context, the things he does throughout season one are inexcusable, and yet we see him forgiven over and over by the people most able to influence a change in his behavior.

It’s less about breaking norms and more about crashing through them skidding sideways in a police cruiser while shooting through its own windshield.  The only thing keeping you sympathetic to the chief’s actions is how heinous the other characters are.  This is a show about cruelty and the evils we do when we believe ourselves to be righteous and justified.  But it’s also a show about corporate homicide, environmentalism, indigenous rights, and  above all else police accountability and power.

“There is sometimes a fine line between a cop and a criminal.  What drives their personality may be the same, and they have simply chosen different roles and professions to call their own.”

Dr. M.L. Rapier PHD
– Clinical Psychologist

The first episode is a roller coaster unto itself.  It all starts with a former undercover cop becoming the police chief in a small Canadian town on the verge of a deal with a major oil company.  The chief and his daughter both vocally opposed the drilling operation, and that sets their whole family in the company’s crosshairs.  By the end of the initial episode, the Chief has had his nose bloodied, his son is dead, his house has been invaded and set on fire, and his wife is in a coma after being struck in the head with a bit of her son’s skull.  As the first credits roll, you’re feeling willing to let him do whatever it takes to get revenge.  The next nine episodes will test the righteousness of that conviction.

This is one of the main similarities to Breaking Bad; it places its male lead in an impossible situation and forces him to break any laws that get in his way.  In Breaking Bad this was because the protagonist got cancer in the context of a failing American healthcare system, but his descent into violent crime happens slowly and out of the necessities of staying alive and being able to afford healthcare.  In Tin Star, we see a cop more used to being a criminal acting with dangerous impunity while in a near-constant state of being blackout drunk.  We are constantly reminded  the only difference between the hero of the story and the criminals he hunts is the titular tin star on his uniform.

South of the fictional Little Big Bear, here in America, we have similar difficulty in holding the police accountable for their actions, up to and including murder, without massive public outcry.  Like in the case of the police murdering the innocent Breonna Taylor, even public condemnation hasn’t achieved justice for her.  There are a few systemic issues allowing  the police to act with impunity as Jack does in Tin Star, and the first is specific to the police chief position itself.  As an unelected position, even when a police chief makes life in a town hell as in Tin Star, the people often have no way of holding them accountable for their actions.

But the more pressing issues concerns all police officers, and this covers a multitude of problems that need to be reformed: the power of police unions, qualified immunity – a loophole protecting  them from most lawsuits, and the existence of state-level Police Bill of Rights in some places.  Collectively, this and the convention of courts believing cops over ordinary citizens and potentially having connections, personal or institutional, with local district attorneys, gives any police officer much more freedom from the consequences of breaking the law they are meant to enforce than the average citizens.  In towns where all of these issues converge, the police are very much above the law, though even they would have a hard time getting away with some of the things Jack does throughout season one.  For example, he shoots one of his constables in the leg, not once but twice, because he got in his way – once when he was being pursued for a murder he committed and covered up, and once while he was breaking a criminal out of jail.  By the end of season two, he has been removed from his position as Police Chief, but there have been no legal consequences.

Tin Star shows us the police covering up murders to protect Jack behind something called the blue wall of silence.  Also known as the blue code or blue shield, these terms are used in the United States to denote the informal code of silence among police officers not to report on a colleague’s errors, misconducts, or crimes, including police brutality. If questioned about another officer’s misconduct, the officer being questioned would perjure themselves by feigning ignorance.

But enough about the show’s sordid heroes. Let’s talk about the villains.  First, Elizabeth; she’s probably the closest thing the show gives us to a good person.  As North Stream Oil’s Vice President of Stakeholder Relations she lies as naturally as fish swim, but when she learns of her company’s vicious past, she actively tries to get to the bottom of it.  She takes the evidence to the company’s leadership instead of the police and demands a “seat at the table, this table” in order to fight for the environment and ethical behavior within the company from inside.

Much like the police, North Stream Oil is too powerful to be held accountable for its actions.  North Stream does business in tar sands oil, one of the most destructive, carbon-intensive, and toxic fuels on the planet. Producing it releases three times as much greenhouse gas pollution as conventional crude oil does. Tar sands oil comes from a solid mass that must be extracted via energy-intensive steam injection or destructive strip mining, techniques that completely destroy ecosystems, put wildlife at risk, and defile large areas of land. Finally, when transported by pipeline or rail, it puts communities, wildlife, and water supplies in danger of toxic spills that are nearly impossible to clean up.

Aside from that, as Elizabeth and Jack discover, the company also hires hitmen, bribes and spys on the local police, and uses non-disclosure agreements to keep its web of crime under wraps. The reason you keep rooting for people like Elizabeth and Jack throughout the show is that it feels like, unless someone does something outside of the criminal justice system, justice will never catch up to them.  It is for this reason we cheer for them even as they turn Little Big Bear into a war zone, which is the same mechanism our culture uses on us through the media to excuse police brutality.  We are made to feel like there are horrible criminals out there we need to be protected from and so it’s okay for an officer to take a life in the line of duty. In truth, violent crime had been steadily decreasing before the Trump administration, with hate crimes making up much of the increase in violent crime over the last few years.

Even at their best the police resolve very few cases of things like theft or rape, and things like domestic violence are often over-excused and under-punished, with many abusers and rapists being with the ranks of the police themselves.  Studies from the 1990s found that between 24% and 40% of participating families of police officers reported incidents of domestic violence. More recent studies suggested possible rates of officer-involved domestic violence that ranged from 4.8% to 28%.  

A Bowling Green State University study revealed that as few as 636 cases of forcible fondling, 405 cases of forcible rape, and 219 cases of forcible sodomy by the police recorded between 2005 and 2013.

A study by the US Department of Justice suggests that the problem may be even worse. And yet, even though they do little to protect us from these pressing crimes, the number of criminals within our criminal justice system continues to increase like a bloated tick sucking on its cash cow.

In part, this is because the way our private businesses interact with our prison system creates  an overall system that’s incredibly good at creating recidivism.  According to an April 2011 report by the Pew Center on the States, the average US national recidivism rate for released prisoners is 43%. According to the National Institute of Justice, almost 44% of the recently released return before the end of their first year out.  Why is that?

The first thing to acknowledge here is that the 13th amendment allows for slavery in the form of prison labor.  The second is this slave labor is immensely profitable to the companies that use it. Third is the rate of prison labor – 61% of incarcerated people in America are made to work, and in many states they go unpaid.  

In California, prisoners have been working the deadly wildfires for years, and despite putting their lives on the line, they are paid as little as $3 a day.  Meanwhile, in former slave states like Louisiana, prisoners work the fields for pennies an hour.  In other states, they can be punished with solitary confinement for not working, which is considered by many to be a psychologically damaging form of torture. 

Many of the same companies in America who use prison or slave labor also don’t hire people with any sort of record, meaning  even simple possession could easily leave you hard up for a job and more likely to pursue illegal means to make money, increasing your chances of being imprisoned again, with a longer sentence.  It’s not that these companies are really opposed to having criminals work for them, they simply don’t want to pay them much more than a dollar a day, which is something they can get away with by outsourcing labor to foreign countries without sound minimum wages and to our own prisons domestically. 

There’s also the school-to-prison pipeline.  Like in the adult population, juvenile crime rates are plummeting, and the number of Americans in juvenile detention has dropped. One report shows the juvenile incarceration rate dropped 41% between 1995 and 2010.  School discipline policies are moving in the opposite direction: out-of-school suspensions have increased about 10% since 2000. They have more than doubled since the 1970s. Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, according to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and research in Texas found students who have been suspended are more likely to be held back a grade and drop out of school entirely.

High School dropouts, especially those forced out of their schools due to disciplinary issues, are likely to find it harder to get a job, leading them to resort to criminal means of securing income, making them more likely to end up behind bars later on.

Despite all its hateable characters, I ended up enjoying Tin Star because it was clear to me the show didn’t seek to glorify Jack’s actions as a rogue cop the way other “guns ablazin’” cop shows do.  I can’t be sure how much, but I feel like those types of shows and movies and their “shoot first, investigate later” policing have something to do with who chooses to become a police officer and what they think the job is.  This show’s focus on a darker look at police accountability is even reflected in its soundtrack, with Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” playing in scenes with a dramatic emphasis.

“Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name.  Feel the fire, crucified, in the human frame.  A million candles burning for the help that never came.  You want it darker… We kill the flame.” 

Every time the music drew to that refrain I wondered if this was a sort of thesis statement on the show.  “You want it darker” could refer to the trend of violent cop shows getting darker and more complex over the last few decades since shows like NYPD Blue offered us a very different look at the police lifestyle as daytime shows like Family Matters.  “We kill the flame” may as well have been spoken by the writers as they crafted the perfect series of injustices to make Jack lose all hope and go on an alcohol-fueled rampage.

Even high-school career fairs and police recruitment videos show the violent side of the law enforcement with officers in body armor crashing through doors at dawn, fast-roping from helicopters, taming riots, and shooting their way out of trouble.  Tin Star does a good job of making Jack feel like a depraved madman even when his actions are justified and possibly necessary.

Let’s talk about Dave Grossman’s philosophy of “Killology”- a movement to teach our police officers to be more like Jack called “Warrior Training.”  Within law enforcement, few things are more venerated than the concept of the Warrior. Officers are trained to cultivate a “warrior mindset,” by men like Dave Grossman.  An article in Police Magazine opens with a sentence  demonstrating with notable nonchalance just how ubiquitous the concept is: “[Officers] probably hear about needing to have a warrior mindset almost daily.”

But don’t take their word for it, listen to the inventor of the program Dave Grossman, who teaches classes to police officers to kill 200 days a year, explain it himself, “the only way you make a frightened person react in a certain way is to drill it into them.  To make it a conditioned response”.  That’s just what he does in his classes by creating a conditioned response to kill as an instantaneous reaction to the slightest provocation.

“Once you’ve made the decision to take a human life, you’re a transformed creature, you’re a predator.  What does a predator do?  They kill.  Only a killer can hunt a killer.   Are you emotionally, spiritually, psychologically prepared to snuff out a human life in defence of innocent lives.  If you can’t make that decision, you need to find another job.” 

We see the damage this causes in bodies dead on the sidewalk or sitting in the driver’s seat of their car, like Philando Castile.  The officer who killed him was one of Grossman’s many students.

What can we do about all this?  We mustn’t allow ourselves to see crime and feel okay with giving police unilateral power over us. This is only trading our safety for the illusion of a safety theater.  Many of the largest and most impactful crimes are ones like wage theft (which robs 17% of low wage workers of nearly a quarter of their earnings each year) which policing agencies have little power to alleviate or punish. Another is rape, which they seem to refuse to investigate with over two-thirds going unresolved each year.

So whether your take on the police involves disarming, defunding, or disbanding, a large amount of your focus must be on dismantling the systems that shield them from the legal consequences of their own criminal actions.  Instead of tolerating over-militarized police trained to kill to solve our remaining crime problems, we should begin to dismantle the systems that encourage recidivism and trap people into lives of petty crimes just to survive

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