The New York police department has been under national scrutiny for months following the choking death of Eric Garner on Staten Island in July. After a grand jury declined to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo for using an unauthorized chokehold on Garner, the NYPD announced that New York's Finest were dedicated to "rebuilding public trust."
What better way to rebuild public trust than to invoke Jack Nicholson's infamous A Few Good Men monologue justifying the brutal murder of a Marine?
For context: The image in the tweet, sent Monday afternoon, is a transcript of Nicholson's famous monologue from A Few Good Men (and if you haven't seen it, that's a crime against decency). The quote is Nicholson's Col. Nathan R. Jessup, standing trial for ordering the brutal killing of another solider. Jessup justifies a secret "Code Red" order to attack an American Marine on the grounds that, as Slate's Ben Mathis-Lilley eloquently puts it, "'grotesque' men and unsavory violence are necessary to protect the border between civilization and chaos."
Here's the full monologue:
"Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to."
Wow, wrong: Given the heightened level of mistrust directed toward law enforcement agencies across the country and anxiety over police brutality against unarmed civilians, choosing a quote of Jessup angrily arguing that he, a uniformed servant of the people, is justified working above and beyond the law because his existence, "while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives," is the absolute wrong choice for a police department allegedly attempting to "rebuild trust" with civilians. How NYPD commanding officer Edward Winski, who allegedly posted and then deleted this tweet, thought this was a good idea for Motivational Monday is beyond comprehension.
This may seem like a drop in the bucket, but it speaks to a larger issue. The USA Today/Pew Research Center Poll released in August, well before the Garner verdict, found that 65% of respondents said police did "only a fair" or a poor job in holding police officers accountable when misconduct occurs, compared with 30% who say they do an excellent or good job. In the wake of Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, there's a deep divide along racial lines — more than 9 out of 10 blacks thought cops did an "only fair" or poor job when it came to "equal treatment and appropriate force" — but more Americans than ever before see the criminal justice system as inherently flawed in how it treats white and black Americans.
It's worth noting here that yes, police officers, as the primary agents of law enforcement, have an incomprehensibly difficult job which involves exposing themselves to danger and uncertainty on the streets of American cities. But the slogan of most law enforcement agencies is "to protect and serve," a testament to the fact that police forces exist to serve the people, not to exist as some autonomous agency free from criticism.
It's tweets like this that reinforce the idea of police forces as above the law, above scrutiny and above accountability. It's the same logic that underpins the St. Louis Police Department's demand that the St. Louis Rams apologize for taking the field with the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture in early December, or the Cleveland police union's anger over a Browns player's Tamir Rice T-shirt — especially when documents and video suggest that the Cleveland PD is likely at fault for giving a trigger-happy officer a firearm and setting him loose on the streets of Cleveland.
The problem comes down to respect. Respect, as Gawker's Max Read put it, "is a reciprocal relationship. It is not the awed veneration of cops that prosecutors and grand juries apparently feel. It is built on trust and understanding and it must be continuously maintained. It is not ... a shield to be wielded by the state against the righteous anger of its citizens." But instead of respect, police forces around the country continue to sneer at the citizens they have sworn to protect, to treat the use of force as a God-given right then a legally bestowed responsibility. That NYPD tweet is more than a tone-deaf response: It's an affirmation that the cultural problems in American police forces run deep, and they can't simply be fixed by marches and rallies.
The general slogan of police forces across America is "to protect and serve," not "to intimidate and sneer." It seems that the NYPD, despite its vaunted title of "New York City's Finest," can't seem to handle that simple truth.