CBS’s “Blue Bloods”: Endorsing the Saint’s Excuse and Polk County Justice

 

Time for the department ethics training, Chief. You should sit in on it too...

Time for the department ethics training, Chief. You should sit in on it too…

“Blue Bloods,” Tom Selleck’s New York police family drama on CBS, began as a paean to the core values of public service, nobility, justice, courage and honesty as it chronicled the work and lives of three generations of the Reagan family. The Reagan men are all cops, the one female is a DA, and Selleck is the paternal Chief of Police. Based on last night’s episode, “The Truth About Lying,” series creators Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green have permitted the show’s writing staff to be infiltrated by the Dark Side in its fourth season, and now its calling cards will include the enthusiastic promotion of the abuse of power and the celebration of lying as long as it’s all for a good cause. That’s the Saint’s Excuse, one of the most deadly of the rationalizations, in which “good” people decide that they are empowered to do unethical things in the pursuit of what they believe are worthy goals. The Saint’s Excuse is something of a theme in the United States these days. Now “Blue Bloods” is making sure popular culture spreads the word.

The episode, which you can watch here, was ostensibly about Selleck’s Chief’s efforts to foil the city’s newly appointed “inspector general,” installed in the wake of a “ripped from the headlines” court rejection of an effective “stop and frisk” program by New York’s finest. The new watchdog, played by “Cheers'” “Lilith,” Bebe Neuworth, wanted to fire Selleck’s patrolman son’s female partner because she had misrepresented one detail of an arrest under oath: though she recovered the perp’s stolen smart phone from the sidewalk after she tackled him, she signed a statement that asserted that she had found the stolen item in his pocket (a bystander video showed that he had removed the phone from his pocket and placed it on the ground.) Selleck sets out to show Bebe that officers in the heat of the job might misperceive events as they unfold, and that the officer may have believed the sequence of events she swore to was accurate, even though she was wrong.

That was the one legitimate point of ethics in the episode—it isn’t lying if there was no intent to deceive—but Chief Reagan went much farther than that. In the course of the Reagan family’s traditional Sunday dinner together, Selleck revealed that he had once lied on the stand to convict a bad guy he had arrested, making a dubious arrest and search he had performed based on “instinct” sound as if it had been sparked by legitimate suspicion of wrongdoing. Then he tells all the Reagans—two cops, a DA, his ex-cop father, his son’s wife and three children— that he has never lost a moment of sleep over that perjured testimony.

Messages—-Remember, Chief Reagan is the central figure on “Blue Bloods” remember, and its moral center:

  • Lying is ethical if the cause is just.
  • Perjury, a felony, is acceptable to achieve a greater good.
  • The individual can veto the law and ethics when he or she concludes that laws and ethics are impediments to a just outcome.
  • Police can, do and should lie on the stand to convict criminals.
  • The ends justifies the means.
  • Lying police officers become chiefs of police.

“The Truth About Lying”  wasn’t done with its ethics bomb, however. The other plot in the story,  intentionally or accidentally echoing the Rebecca Ann Sedwick suicide and the subsequent arrest of two girls for their cyber-bullying comments online, involved a young Asian girl’s suicide, initially treated as a murder. Danny, Chief Reagan’s hot head, supercop son, finds an unsent email to her parents on the dead girl’s phone, vaguely stating that she can’t stand the pain any more, and queries the parents about what might have caused the “pain.” Eventually he learns that some school acquaintances were writing “terrible things” about her online. Soon Danny has traced some of the posts to a computer in the home of another girl, whom he assaults with accusations, tells she is in big trouble, and threatens with dire consequences if she doesn’t admit and take responsibility for what she wrote on a social networking site. “A girl killed herself because of what you wrote!” he shouts. He also announces that his partner is in the girl’s bedroom, searching her computer.

Welcome to New York’s Gustapo, Hysterical, Stupid and Abusive Division.

1. There is no evidence of any crime.

2. There is no evidence that the girl’s suicide was precipitated by the cruel postings.

3. Even if they were, they were not the “cause” of her suicide.

4. The police have no business coming into anyone’s home, interrogating them and berating them for Facebook postings, which are protected speech, unless those postings are  themselves a crime (threatening the President, for example) or evidence of a crime.

5. They cannot search a computer without a warrant, and they could not properly get one issued on these facts.

Ah, but the abusive interrogation works: the girl discloses that she was in a same-sex romantic relationship with the deceased! Her computer was falsely implicated by the real bullies cyber-manipulations! And…the true poster is the dead girl’s brother!!!!

(We do not see young Reagan apologize to the distraught teen for accusing her of murder base on completely mistaken information.)

Back to the home of the dead girl goes young Reagan and his partner, where they confront the brother. Yes! It’s true! He posted all those terrible things! He was only trying to end the relationship with his cruel postings because it would bring shame to his tradition-bound, Asian, old school parents! He loved his sister!

Oh.

Well that’s okay then! Make vicious postings on the internet for a sincere, if misguided reason, and if the target kills herself, hey, stuff happens. But if the vicious postings are just to be mean, well, that’s murder! Or, well, something. It certainly isn’t very nice and the police have every right to arrest you for it, because free speech isn’t free or legal any more if it offends the Reagans and public sensibilities and somebody over-reacts to it, especially a nice young girl.

The brother, however, now wants to kill himself for inadvertently driving his sister to jump in front of that subway train, and holds a knife to his own throat. “No!” shouts Danny. “Don’t do it! You didn’t kill your sister! Don’t blame yourself, even though I told that girl that the exact same posts DID make your sister kill herself, but that was different, see, because I thought her posts—when I thought they were her posts— didn’t have a loving, if idiotic, explanation for them, but now that I know you sent them, they did, and beisdes, you feel bad, and I get that because I lost a brother and empathy is everything, so while it would have been some kind of crime if she posted them, or should be, but never mind, we’d threaten her anyway and in Polk County Florida they’d arrest her, those comments are not a crime if the victim’s brother posted them and is really, really sorry about what happened! Now give me a hug!”

Or words to that effect. This so confuses the boy that Danny is able to take the knife away from him.

Now what have we learned in the “Blue Bloods” House of Ethics Incoherence?

….that an online post becomes a crime if anyone says or thinks that someone hurt themselves because of it….

….that the government, in the person of the police, can decide to use the law enforcement process to punish the poster whether there is a real law against what was done or not, and whether there is any real evidence or not…

…that the same act isn’t a crime if it is done out of stupidity or love, or the actor feels bad enough afterwards….

…and that good police officers use their power and badges to arbitrarily decide who should be arrested, assailed, accused or comforted for the exacts same words published online.

In the Fifties and Sixties, TV drama regularly taught moral and ethical lessons, and on the whole, they didn’t do a bad job of it, though there were some horrible misfires. In the Fifties and Sixties, however, parents routinely took the time to teach ethical values in the home, a practice that is may be becoming extinct. Now children get most of their moral and ethical instruction from popular culture and such wretched role models as our elected leaders and celebrities. When an entertainment series, especially one supposedly concerned with values like “Blue Bloods,” promotes such incoherent and unethical conduct as “The Truth About Lying” does, it is cultural malpractice.

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “CBS’s “Blue Bloods”: Endorsing the Saint’s Excuse and Polk County Justice

  1. The pilot had a line that approved a similar behavior as this, that was my sign to bug out. There aren’t enough consequences in drama for this kind of dredge.

  2. “…and that good police officers use their power and badges to arbitrarily decide who should be arrested, assailed, accused or comforted for the exacts same words published online.”

    Just a short time ago, a few misguided cops here in Texas were stopping and ticketing people for flashing their headlights, warning on-coming motorists that a speed trap had been erected…the only real problem…the behavior is not illegal. The officers in question were informed that they were mistaken in their assumption, but continued to ticket motorists for it until told by a judge to stop.

  3. At the risk of going too meta, I like it when you discuss ethical issues in the context of popular fiction such as television shows. Granted, they sometimes take place in ethical alternate universes with stacked decks and different rules, but using them for illustration has the advantage that (1) we all have access to them, (2) we have a lot more information about events and motivations than we do in real life, meaning we can argue ethics and not assumptions, and (3) we can mostly keep politics out of it. I’d like to see more of this kind of thing.

  4. Regarding Danny talking to the brother,
    Danny was defusing a situation. The brother could attack Danny or could kill himself. In that sense he said the right things.

  5. I’m trying to remember who said “The path to hell is paved by good intensions”. Of course lying seems to be that natural tendency of just about all of U.S. politicians. The only Presidents I can remember who didn’t lie were Herbert Hoover (who was very unsuccessful) and Calvin Coolidge who wisely didn’t say much of anything 😉 As far as the police captain being named Reagan “what a coincidence”.

  6. Didn’t you see that part where Frank explains that he made a bad choice 30+ years ago. He thought sending this guy to prison was the most important thing and compromised his principals to make it happen. Since that time he has learned that “instinct just kicking in” is insufficient and with experience and training he learned how to articulate more clearly what he sees and that testifying accurately does put the bad guys away. Sometimes you lose some cases, but you never lose your integrity and your word can always be trusted. He tells his sons and grandchildren that if a police officer is willing to lie he can send anyone he chooses to jail, but that is not what the community has entrusted him with. We don’t have the authority to decide when to tell the truth and when not to, even when we are certain that the good outweighs the harm. In a moment of transparent humility he tells his family that he made a mistake back then. If it had been discovered, his truthfulness would have been forever questioned and his career as a police officer would have been derailed. Even though he took a killer off the street, he regrets the poor choice and decided never let himself succumb to that temptation again.

    Neither did I. Too bad.

    Thanks for your excellent analysis, as usual.
    I couldn’t help but pontificate on this one too. http://wp.me/pMf6W-vk

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