21 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2016 Last revised: 10 Aug 2016
Date Written: March 11, 2016
In recent years, video recordings of police violence have upended the traditional narrative of police heroism. The videos have led to discussions of police accountability, and even some charges and indictments. Yet the controversies surrounding these incidents have also served to highlight the strength of the traditional narrative. In this essay I explore how the police narrative is told in appellate opinions. To show the strength of the traditional police narrative, I first discuss the prevailing cultural story of the dedicated police officer, as depicted in popular media. Next, I examine how police narratives are conveyed in appellate opinions, through use of police language, including “copspeak,” as well as narrative devices such as point of view, emphasis, and selective detail. Finally I discuss examples of counter-narratives in court opinions. These counter-narratives may tell the story from the perspective of the people encountering police, thereby humanizing them for the reader. In rare cases, the counter-narrative includes context that frames the action in a very different light than the traditional police narrative. Such context might include what citizens know about police behavior and police brutality. We are accustomed to reading what police know about the people they encounter (that they are patrolling a “high-crime” area, for example) but we rarely read that citizens are aware that there is a problem with violent police. My conclusion is not that all police narratives are suspect, but that judicial writers need to be aware of how they tell the story of a police-citizen encounter, recognizing that the story is a kind of argument for the court’s ultimate conclusion.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation