Protectors, not Punishers: Law Enforcement in the 21st Century

Protectors, not Punishers: Law Enforcement in the 21st Century

To me, it's disturbing whenever I see authority figures embracing Punisher iconography because the Punisher represents a failure of the Justice system... The vigilante anti-hero is fundamentally a critique of the justice system, an example of social failure, so when cops put Punisher skulls on their cars or members of the military wear Punisher skull patches, they're basically siding with an enemy of the system." –Gerry Conway, The Punisher co-creator. 

Whenever there is a political or social movement, there is inevitably its converse. In the wake of Black Lives Matter movement came Blue Lives Matter. I certainly have my thoughts on what constitutes the genesis of both of those movements: Michael Brown’s death and the officers killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge. But this is not that article. 

With the rise of the Blue Lives Matter movement came an explosion of Thin Blue Line stickers, flags, patches, and other products. As a Law Enforcement Officer on the job well before Ferguson and the son of a cop, I grew up in the culture and knew of the Thin Blue Line (TBL) well before any of these incidents occurred. The TBL was something unique to law enforcement, a way of acknowledging our own, something that in a way had to be earned by carrying a badge and a gun for a living. I still support that idea of the Thin Blue Line, but I am uncomfortable with some of the variations it has taken on, specifically, the common association of it with The Punisher emblem. 

For those who don’t know, The Punisher, Frank Castle, is a Marvel comic book character who made his debut in 1974. Castle is a former US Marine Force Recon veteran who turns to vigilantism in the wake of the murder of his wife and children by the mafia after they witnessed a murder. Castle employs his extraordinary skills to hunt down bad guys and dispose of them when he deems necessary. There are plenty of articles and interviews from The Punisher’s creators and others who delve into psychology of Castle, but putting it very simply he is a tragic figure. 

I understand the appeal of The Punisher, especially for Law Enforcement Officers. He is not constrained by policy or hamstrung by politics; he certainly doesn’t have to wear a body camera. He is simply dispatching criminals, fighting a “total” War on Crime. He is not afraid to get his hands dirty and eliminate those who prey on the innocent. There have been many times in my career where I have seen crooks walk or get a sweetheart deal on serious offenses and it can be incredibly frustrating, especially when it was your case or your scene. You spend hours, days, sometimes months working on a case, speaking with victims, families, survivors, meticulously documenting incidents, drafting warrants, organizing evidence, reviewing criminal histories. Then, poof! There it all goes. You begin to wonder why you even bother. Sometimes the prosecutor drops the ball, sometimes you get a bad judge, sometimes you wonder where they find these jurors, and sometimes it’s your own damn fault. 

That frustration can easily turn into disillusionment with “the system”. You might start thinking The Punisher’s way of battling crime might not be that bad of an idea. Criminals should have a healthy fear of punishment, right? Part of The Punisher’s aura is simply his presence, a true consequence for wrong doers. The Punisher is “true justice” manifested. Except that as Law Enforcement Officers, we do not deliver justice. That is not our job. Our job is to deliver people to justice. 

As a veteran Homicide investigator put it to me, our mission is to find the right person, who did the wrong thing, and to help ensure a fair amount of justice is delivered. To put it another way-let the evidence and facts direct you to the guilty party and build as strong a case as you can in order for the other parts of the Criminal Justice System to do their jobs correctly. Police Officers play a part in “the system” but we are not the only cogs in the machine.  In a society that frequently tells us to be our own individuals, to blaze our own path, working in such a complex, bureaucratic quagmire, can be frustrating in its own right, let alone adding in the moral complexities of “right and wrong.”

Right about the time the Blue Lives Matter movement was born, American Sniper, the film based on a book of the same name, hit theaters. American Sniper is based on “The Legend”, US Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. Kyle racked up 160 confirmed kills and is credited with being the Deadliest Sniper in US History. Kyle famously used The Punisher logo as his calling card- one his team quickly took up. “The Punishers” of SEAL Team 3 put the emblem on their vehicles and kit and it unmistakably struck fear in the hearts of their enemies. 

As with most things military, they trickle down to Law Enforcement, especially things designated as “tacti-cool.” The Punisher emblem, a longed fanged Grim Reaper is most certainly that. But, as with most things developed for war, there is a not a straight line progression onto American streets. Our streets are filled with other members of our community, not enemy combatants. Should police be equipped with heavy body armor, carbines, have access to ballistic shields and armored personnel carriers? Yes. These are tools that have come from the military and have found to be vital to ensure officer and civilian safety. Further, these are only deployed in specific situations or to protect specific locations (i.e. Times Square, Airports, etc.). Police are not conducting patrol operations in APCs. 

Admittedly, over the past decade, the landscape of American Law Enforcement has changed a great deal. It is heavily influenced by the 18+ years of war our country has been in since 9/11 and in the wake of such incidents as Ferguson. However, that has not changed our core mission: to protect and serve our communities. Ours is not to intimidate nor take matters into our own hands. We are not Punishers, that is not our job, nor should we look up to that ideal. If you’re looking to get your war on, stay in the military or sign up, there’s one still going on. 


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