Watch “Blue Bloods”

Blue Bloods

I owe Tom Selleck an apology. The long-time genial hunk, famous as “Magnum, P.I.” and notable in show business lore for missing the career opportunity of a lifetime when contractual obligations forced him to turn down the role of Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” has guided his CBS police series “Blue Bloods” to five seasons, exploring tough ethics dilemmas in virtually every episode, and usually doing it very well. For some reason, I’ve only cited the show a few times, once critically, and it deserves better. Netflix started streaming the show, and my wife has been watching about three a day. I really hadn’t been paying sufficient attention, or respect. It’s a wonderful ethics show, the best since “Star Trek, the Next Generation’s” hay day, and one of the very best ethics TV shows of all time.

Selleck plays fictional New York City police chief Frank Reagan. The show could be called “The Conflicts of Interest Family, ” because law enforcement is the family business, and Selleck’s large brood includes two sons, one a patrolman and the other a detective, under his command, and a daughter who is an assistant district attorney. Reagan delicately balances the jobs a father, mediator and boss, all while being given back-seat advice from his father, who is retired but was also a NYC police chief.

I have found myself thinking about how Selleck’s character would react to the Ferguson ethics train wreck. Police shootings have been frequent topics of episodes, as have political efforts to demonize police. Frank was a fan of New York’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, and accusations of profiling do not reduce him to a mass of apologetic jelly. Meanwhile, he has forged a working relationship or trust with the City’s black mayor, whose loyalties to the black community, and more than a few dubious civil rights headline-seekers.

Selleck is a credentialed, if low-key, Hollywood conservative, and his show’s demographics are just short of Social Security territory.  It’s too bad: teachers should assign the show and discuss the episodes in class. The episode I wrote about earlier was an entire ethics course on its own, but hardly unique in the series: What should an undercover cop do when a child is imperiled in a burning building, and he is the only one who can get to the kid in time? If his photo is taken by the media that arrive on the scene, not only is his cover blown, but his life and family may be in danger. He hands off the child to his partner, who is the on photographed and becomes a hero. The city is clamoring for the Chief to decorate him as a hero. Naturally, the real rescuer is a Reagan.  Should the partner be willing to live a lie? Should the Chief deceive the public and preside over a fake ceremony to preserve an undercover operation that might bust the mob?  This was a memorable “Bluebloods” episode. but many reach this level of ethics complexity, and the duds are far and few between. This season the show has explored many ethics problems that have been debated in the news, such as campus rape, police body cameras, the “blue line,” news media bias, and others.

I apologize, Mr. Selleck. I have neglected your excellent efforts to present ethical dilemmas in law enforcement, leadership and parenting to the public in an intelligent, balanced, courageous and entertaining manner. Great job, on a great show. Please keep it up. I promise to pay closer attention.

 

 

“Blue Bloods” Ethics: The Good Lie?

Tom Selleck as NYC Chief of Police Frank Reagan

Tom Selleck’s CBS drama “Blue Bloods,” chronicling the exploits of  the Reagans, an improbable fictional New York City family that dominates NYC’s law enforcement, featured an excellent example of a necessary lie last night, in which utilitarian principles would hold that the lie,  a rather serious and extensive one—many interlocking lies, really—was the most ethical option available.

The situation arose because the Chief of Police (Frank Reagan, played by Selleck) learned that his police officer son, Jamie Reagan, had rescued a child from an explosion, and the press and city were clamoring to know who the hero was. (Nobody saw the rescue, which is a contrived detail, but necessary to set up the ethical dilemma.) But Jamie was also working undercover in a serious and dangerous operation, having infiltrated an organized crime family. (Why was a uniformed cop allowed to stay on the street while leading a double life? Seems reckless to me, but Father Chief knows best.) To protect the undercover operation and his son, Frank Reagan decides on an elaborate deception, persuading his son’s partner, who was on the scene of the rescue, to take the credit and even accept a commendation in a public ceremony.

Lying to the public and the press to such an extent is almost always inexcusable, but protecting an anti-crime effort in the public interest, as well as the imperiled officer involved in it,  is a rare case in which the balance tips away from the truth. The “Blue Bloods” solution was the best one available given the situation and the law enforcement priorities.  But… Continue reading

Hero, Villain or Hypocrite: The Dilemma of the Undercover Dog-Fighter

The limits of absolutism and the drawbacks of utilitarianism both come under scrutiny in assessing the strange saga of Terry Mills, whom the ASPCA recently appointed as its Animal Fighting Specialist.

Beyond question, this is a job he is uniquely qualified to hold. In 2008, Mills worked for the FBI’s domestic-terrorism task force, and went under-cover for more than a year to expose and break up a national dog-fighting ring. His efforts resulted in many arrests, and the rescue of more than 500 animals. Accomplishing all of this, however, required Mills to become part of the culture he was attacking. He trained and fought his own dogs, engaging in the very cruelty he was working to prevent. Continue reading