I remember growing up in the 1960s watching a television show called “The F.B.I,” starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Like “Dragnet” and other shows of the era, “The F.B.I.” presented law enforcement as being filled with agents who were all honest, straightforward and trustworthy. They were to be admired and emulated.
Those shows were produced with the cooperation of the agencies they portrayed. “Dragnet” always included in its closing credits a thank-you to the Los Angeles Police Department for its cooperation. Likewise with “The F.B.I.” The shows served as public relations tools for the institutions they represented, and seemed to be created with the notion that Americans could only appreciate and support law enforcement if agents and officers were presented as unrealistically flawless.
Eventually, this façade began to crumble. The FBI’s founder and most visible symbol, J. Edgar Hoover – whose name was synonymous with law and order and who was among the most admired men in America – has had his reputation sullied by rumors of unsavory sexual escapades, along with undisputed facts about his abuse of power and illegal surveillance targeting political enemies.
Likewise, the LAPD’s lapses in the years following its pristine portrayal on “Dragnet” hardly needs recounting, from Rodney King through its botched investigation of O.J. Simpson through its ongoing problems with race relations.
Similarly, the Secret Service has been among our most respected institutions, protecting presidents and others from behind their dark glasses and black suits and ties. And then came reports of Secret Service agents frolicking with prostitutes during a presidential trip to Colombia, with Drug Enforcement Agency officials allegedly helping supply the hookers.
The latest excuse by the Democratic Party and others for Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton is that the Russians did it. The Russians, the theory goes, hacked Democratic Party emails and then shared them with WikiLeaks to tilt the election to Trump.
The Russians tried to influence U.S. politics and government? Say it ain’t so! Has anybody seen even one James Bond movie since 1962?
Now comes the CIA verifying all this, and when the Trump team casts doubt on the CIA, it is bashed by the media. How dare Trump question the integrity of the CIA? Why, he has to count on the CIA for intelligence when he becomes president!
The CIA might be right about the Russians, but it might be wrong. Why? Because it is comprised of people, and people have varying degrees of integrity, intelligence, ability and trustworthiness.
There has always been peril in glorifying any institution comprised of human beings, which is all institutions. When we do, we are destined to be disappointed. Putting people or institutions on a pedestal is not only a mistake, it’s a disservice to the very people we idolize because it holds them to a standard they cannot meet.
There are people we can and should admire. We all have teachers, coaches or clergy members who helped shape our lives. There are relatives or friends in whom we cannot bring ourselves to see any fault. And there are certainly law enforcement officers and agents at every level whose service is worthy of admiration and even emulation.
But we should not let our admiration lead to expectations of infallibility. We can only be shocked by revelations of impropriety, illegality or immorality if we deceive ourselves into thinking that anyone or any institution is somehow beyond the frailties inherent in all human beings.
It is with that in mind that I can still admire and even be in awe of the FBI and someone like J. Edgar Hoover, even if he was a cross-dresser and an illegal wiretapper. Most of his life was one of accomplishments so amazing that they are beyond anything I can begin to fathom.
I can still venerate the Secret Service and the bravery required of its agents to be willing to throw themselves in front of a bullet to protect the president, even if some among their ranks occasionally engage in less than stellar behavior.
Locally, we saw numerous examples in the investigation and trial of Hillsboro’s mayor of the good, the average and the bad that can come with an investigation. We can hope to be spared from any additional self-righteous statements of principle from those who imply that their character and integrity are so superior to someone else’s. To insist that they cannot associate with flawed people is to choose the life of a hermit, and disregards their own flaws by assuming that people should want to associate with them.
But acknowledging that they are not always perfect does not prevent me from admiring and appreciating law enforcement for the jobs they perform every day on our behalf. We rightfully respect law enforcers because of the courage it takes to pin a badge on their shirt and walk through their front door into an unpredictable and potentially dangerous day or night.
In the long run, the idealized portrayals by shows like “Dragnet,” “The F.B.I.” and others had an effect that was the opposite of what was intended, leading to a sense of disappointment and even betrayal much greater than otherwise would have been experienced when shortcomings were eventually revealed.
People who choose law enforcement as a career are to be admired and appreciated. They could choose other careers, but most of them are where they are because they believe in their mission to protect, to serve, and to uphold our laws, from the vast FBI to the smallest village police department. But we should spare them the disservice of pretending they are infallible or that they are not subject to poor judgment from time to time, like everyone else.
To do so holds law enforcement agencies to a standard that is impossible to meet. They are, in most cases, made up of decent, imperfect people doing the best they can. That should be expectation enough for them, as it should be for anyone in any walk of life.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.