I have no formal training in police tactics. But I've got cable, and I've seen the American TV show Cops. A friend of mine jokes that if you've seen enough of this show, then you are probably as qualified to wear a badge as many police officers. If that's true, then I've seen enough to be commissioner.
Cops was the original reality TV -- no bikini-clad babes, no buckets of cash for debasing yourself in public. Just a cameraman sitting in a squad car for a night filming whatever nonsense the police officer ran into. It is a veritable pillar of modern US culture, rivaled only by monster truck rallies and anything Jerry Bruckheimer has done.
I'd always wished there had been a Taiwanese version of Cops, and little did I know that I would get my wish earlier this week.
If you've ever seen Cops, you've no doubt been shaken to see five huge Texas troopers forcibly remove a Mexican migrant farmer from his car and knee him in the crotch, pointing their guns and screaming incomprehensibly at the top of their lungs because his tail light was out. It can be disturbing to watch the ferocity with which some policemen around the world go about their jobs.
Cops served a useful role in this regard. It offered a double-barreled cinema verite cautionary tale. On the one hand, you saw quite clearly why you should obey the law, while simultaneously learning why we must keep the government's police powers in check. Brilliant.
But I'd been missing something. I wasn't giving the cops in Cops enough leeway. I began to realize this last Sunday, when police were filmed chasing a drug addict in his car halfway across Taipei.
Judging from the video of the chase, here are some conclusions about the National Police Agency's standard procedures when pursuing a suspect in a vehicle.
First, you follow the suspect around until he happens to run into traffic. While he's waiting for the light to turn green, you draw straws to see which of the 40 cops chasing him has to approach the car. If you're unlucky enough to get the job, walk to the front of the car and ask him to get out. Although you are permitted to draw your sidearm, you are not permitted to lose face or cause the suspect to lose face by raising your voice or appearing angry.
Next, look back at the other cops with a helpless expression on your face, thinking: "Oh sweet Jesus, what do I do now?" This will prevent the suspect from having an unhealthy fear and respect for authority. If this doesn't stop the suspect, try asking again. If this fails, use the critical thinking instilled in you so effectively by the Chinese Nationalist Party's (KMT) education system.
I began watching Cops: Taipei with amusement, thinking how lucky we are to have such docile and courteous police. I giggled with anti-authoritarian delight as the man led the police on a chase around the city, accompanied on TV by a fusion of Michael Jackson's Thriller and Darth Vader's entrance theme. What fun!
My merriment abated when the police started shooting at the man's tires. This seemed an odd tactic, considering he was on a busy street and could have been blocked in by police cars, or pulled out of the car without too much trouble. But no, the confronting officer deemed it better to start squeezing off rounds into the back tire.
The cop then asked the driver if the bullet-riddled rubber had mollified him. No luck. So the cop went back and capped off a few more rounds into the same tire. But then the light changed and the suspect drove away.
This scene played itself out numerous times. The driver stops at a red light, and the cops run up to the car and stand there hesitantly while he ignores them. After the suspect outwitted his pursuers once again by, er, waiting for the light to turn green and driving away, the confronting officer hung his head and arms in exasperation, like a 10-year-old who had just been told he's too short to ride the rollercoaster.
Well, all the cops seemed to get pretty excited by the shooting, because soon everyone had their weapons out. Before long, the police were weaving down crowded city streets blasting their 9mm pistols out the windows of their squad cars, as though it were a rerun of The Dukes of Hazzard.
One officer filling out a ticket on the side of the road heard the sirens, looked up and decided in a split second that he had assessed the situation well enough to draw his weapon and open fire. He emptied his clip, fanning his pistol in a 180o arc across the busy street as the car sped by. Then he stopped to reload. Yee-haw!
Soon I was groaning in dread as it became apparent that Taipei's finest were simply baffled, and that the best plan they had was to keep firing. So, with the cowboys in hot pursuit, the suspect's car was showered with bullets in the middle of Taipei.
After 51 rounds were discharged at the driver, it seemed the news crews would not get a chance to stick their cameras in the face of a mortally injured person groaning in agony for the first time in Taiwan's history. One brave cop strode over to the cameraman and pushed him away, trying to prevent him from filming the death scene. But, yes, he withered after the cameraman protested, allowing him to continue filming rather than risk losing face in a public confrontation.
There's a broader trend here. It seems the police force has gone from being the oppressive, jackbooted bad-asses of the Martial Law era to, well, pansies (and trigger-happy pansies, at that).
This week we also saw a handful of police try to apprehend a man at the Shih Ming-teh Show because he had a box-cutter.
After the chap humiliated the cops by shaking and punching himself out of their iron grip, the defeated officers apparently decided the old man was too much trouble to pursue, and stood helplessly as he walked away, cursing them. One satisfied policeman, however, held up the confiscated blade like a trophy. Never mind that a handful of cops let a wiry old gaffer manhandle them, before allowing him go to buy another box-cutter.
Taiwanese are courteous and polite. But some jobs are made for people with an assertive streak. When lives are in danger, cops need to tap into that asshole mentality and act like cops.
If the police had used just a little muscle and a little brains in the beginning of the car chase, they might have been able to avoid turning downtown Taipei into the Showdown at the OK Corral. And the suspect might have lived to see a prison cell.
Oh, and did I mention that the suspect was unarmed?
But that's another story. Next time, I'll ask the police to put a couple of dents in their squad cars. It's somewhat safer and a lot easier to block someone in than to do a Rambo on his tires.
I only hope I can get my new, 24-hour Cops: Taipei programming off the ground in time to make a difference.
Heard or read something particularly objectionable about Taiwan? Johnny wants to know: email@example.com is the place to reach me, with "Dear Johnny" in the subject line.
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