Dirty Harry Was Bad At His Job
An ex-cop on what movies get wrong—really wrong — about real-life law enforcement
Years after becoming a cop, I rewatched a few of the old Dirty Harry films. I couldn’t help but notice the bad police work on display. There are easily half a dozen civil rights violations in every Dirty Harry sequel. Movie cops like Harry Callahan normalize police violence by presenting it as a necessary tool to fight evil, presenting cops as moral heroes who punish the wicked.
I grew up in the early ’80s watching just about every cop show and movie that came out, mainly because it’s what my dad watched. My dad wasn’t a cop; like most red-blooded men in the Regan era, he just loved cop movies. Looking back, that seems odd since he was far from a law-abiding citizen. I first met Clint Eastwood’s career-defining cop with a big gun, “Dirty” Harry Callahan, when my dad took me to see 1983’s Sudden Impact in the theater. It was no Disney film.
Sudden Impact opens with an angry judge dismissing a murder case because Harry found the murder weapon during an illegal search. (Being admonished for an unlawful search is a recurring theme in the Dirty Harry films.) Harry then proceeds to assault the newly freed killer in a courthouse elevator before driving to a diner for coffee where he shoots four armed robbers while uttering one of the most iconic taglines in movie history, “Go ahead, make my day.” All of this takes place within the first 15 minutes of the movie.
The rules don’t apply to Harry. In fact, the restrictions placed on law enforcement by the Constitution hamper characters like him. Who needs to worry about Miranda rights and due process when you can just shoot the bad guy, utter a badass line and go home?
I was a cop in Baltimore City for 18 years. Movies and TV didn’t push me towards police work but they definitely influenced my opinions of what cops can do.
I thought becoming a cop was going to be non-stop action. A foot pursuit or a car chase every night. And while there was plenty of action, there were definitely long dry spells (and maybe the occasional nap) in-between. I also thought I would be protecting the innocent, arresting only the worst criminals and making the city a safer place, but that’s the fiction. What I wound up doing was enforcing a lot of arbitrary local laws, completing tons of mundane paperwork, and spending a lot of my off-duty hours in court.
One of the most prominent hero myths about being a cop, which is perpetuated in film and television, is the danger involved. Sure, a cop can be involved in dangerous situations from time to time, but being a cop doesn’t even rank in the top 10 most dangerous jobs in America, and the fact that almost every cop movie involves some sort of prolonged car chase is especially ironic, since more cops die in the line of duty as the result of traffic accidents than being shot. There is no Dirty Harry for the commercial fisherman of the world, who have the most dangerous job. No, they get the rare Hollywood blockbuster like A Perfect Storm, where all the handsome actors playing working class men die, and no one even unloads bullets into the ocean.
Cops are sworn to uphold the Constitution and abide by the rules and regulations of their agency. The loose-cannon, rules-be-damned cops in movies generally don’t do either, and they’re celebrated as heroes. And while Dirty Harry shot his way through the Bay area fighting crime and injustice, the reality is most cops will go their entire careers without once discharging their gun in the line of duty.
‘What fucking movie did he see that in?’ That was the first thought that entered my mind last year when I watched footage from Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Officer William Umana’s body camera as he fired several rounds through the front windshield of his patrol vehicle at a fleeing SUV containing two shooting suspects.
Officer Umana and other officers chased the SUV through busy streets and into a residential neighborhood where it eventually crashed into the wall of an elementary school. Officer Umana exited his cruiser and continued shooting. A second officer arrived and killed one of the men with a single shotgun blast. The other man, who was wounded, fled inside the school and was eventually captured. Officer Umana fired a total of 31 rounds during the incident.
Cops aren’t trained to shoot at or from a moving vehicle. If you shoot the driver of a moving car, it could careen out of control and injure or kill innocent bystanders. As a cop, you’re responsible for any bullet you fire. Emptying an entire magazine of rounds from your speeding patrol car puts everyone around you in danger, and bullets fired through the windshield of a moving car could have their direction altered and strike something, or someone, other than the intended target. But time and time again there’s a movie cop, like Dirty Harry, shooting into or out of a moving car. So when a cop does something like shoot through his window while driving, I can’t help but wonder if a movie influenced that decision, because it certainly doesn’t strike me as an instinct.
Fortunately for Officer Umana, none of his actions harmed any unintended targets, and in recognition for his efforts, he received the TOP COPS award at this year’s Police Week, an annual week-long celebration of law enforcement officers held in Washington, D.C. I wonder though, would there be any awards had things turned out differently?
Dirty Harry killed 45 people throughout five films. That puts him just ahead of famous “movie maniacs” like Freddy Krueger who had 42 kills over nine films and Leatherface who had a mere 31 kills over 9 Texas Chainsaw films. Shoot a few guys holding up a diner, and you get quoted by a President. Kill a few teenagers in their sleep, and you’re a monster who needs to be stopped at all costs. Maybe there should be a Freddy vs. Harry?
The flip-side of this is movies where cops are cast in a negative light like Fruitvale Station which depicts the killing of an unarmed man, 22-year-old Oscar Grant, by Oakland, California transit cops. Movies that shatter the hero myth don’t sit well with real cops. The rare exception I can remember was Training Day. Denzel Washington’s portrayal of dirty L.A. narcotics cop Alonzo Harris was acceptable to a lot of guys I worked with since he answered to no one and was only stealing from criminals, which in hindsight is a little alarming considering the actions of the members of Baltimore’s “elite” Gun Trace Task Force who robbed drug dealers and planted evidence to secure convictions.
When I realized my time was over and I couldn’t handle the job anymore, I quit. There was no hero’s sendoff or awards, and there won’t be a sequel. I didn’t shout a cool one-liner from atop a speeding vehicle or shoot a bad guy and walk off as the credits roll. I simply signed a few forms and turned in my equipment. Cops aren’t heroes. They aren’t the only thing keeping society from plunging into anarchy and chaos. They’re human beings performing a job just like anyone else.