Thursday, October 11, 2007

Vidocq and the "Rogue Cop" Tradition.

How much confidence do you have in American law enforcement to stick to ethical methods while fighting crime? Obviously we have a very specific legal code which sets limits on what the police are supposed to be allowed to do. On a more fundamental level, all US citizens are granted due process (a guarantee of fair application of the law) by the Bill of Rights. I believe that there are many people who take these rights for granted, and many others who assume that these rights will always be extended if they ever find themselves accused of a crime. Unfortunately, legislation (such as the Patriot Act) has curtailed these essential protections in our modern era. There are many folks who are happy to trade away some essential freedoms for an increase in (perceived) security.

Yet even before 9-11, I think a lot of abuses were perpetrated by authorities on the citizenry. Sometimes these acts came to light through subsequent investigations. Still one would have to be naive to accept the presumption that individual law enforcement agents always play by the rules. The figure of the rogue cop is indeed an iconic archetype in our mass media. In fact, a movie under that title was actually released as early as 1954 (starring Robert Taylor, George Raft and Vivien Leigh). I haven't seen that one, but I'm very familiar with such stories. Abel Ferrara plumbed that vein in 1992 with Bad Lieutenant. In that bleak film, Harvey Keitel stars as a corrupt cop struggling through his life of drug abuse, violence, and sexual exploitation. For the more idealistic amongst us, Keitel's character is an essential wake-up call.

In truth wicked men have walked among the rank and file of law enforcement for hundreds of years. I recently picked up the Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime. One might expect that the author is a notorious criminal- and in fact, they'd be correct. But that's not the whole story. Eugene Francois Vidocq was also one of the most successful and respected detectives of 19th Century France. This symbol of controversy was born in Arras in 1775. As a youth he was inspired to flee his hometown after accidentally killing his fencing instructor. He served in several military units, but continually deserted them after one or another incident of insubordination. From there he graduated to running with gangs of raiders and brigands.

Inevitably Vidocq's life of crime led to a series of imprisonments. He quickly proved himself adept as a prominent escape artist. Despite the occasional attempt to make a bid for the straight life, his penchant for booze, women, and the company of criminals consistently put him back on the path of the outlaw. After being sold out by a conspirator, and in a bid to escape a harsh penalty, he finally decided to volunteer his services to the French Police Inspector M. Henry in Paris. Challenged to demonstrate his sincerity and worth as an informer, Vidocq initiated a campaign of betrayal against his fellow blackguards that astonished and impressed the authorities. His reputation as an underground agent soon eclipsed that of his previous criminal career. After a period of years, he became the legendary head of Brigade de Sûreté (Brigade of Surety)- a plainclothes detective unit.

During a single year (1816) Vidocq made as many as 811 arrests. His facility for catching crooks no doubt rested in his ability and knowledge within the underworld milieu. Notably, Vidocq didn't always go about his work in the most ethical way. He instigated crimes only to later receive credit in reporting them. He also (self-admittedly) employed tactics as diverse as extortion, lying, entrapment, and minor graft in order to "get his man". No doubt he was a con-man, a braggart and a scoundrel- but he was also tremendously successful at putting "bad guys" behind bars. What more could the privileged of French society ask for? No doubt many of them believed that he ends justified the means. And besides... if you weren't doing anything wrong, then you presumably had nothing to fear from Vidocq.

That's a common argument presented by those who would look the other way as law enforcement personnel cut legal corners in order to police society. How do you feel about that? Surely you aren't a criminal, so why do you care? Well... people do sometimes get accused of crimes of which they are innocent. Tough break, huh? What if the authorities decide that they simply don't like you? If they are above the law, then they can hurt you with impunity. You may find all these civil rights inconvenient when other people invoke them, but you may someday benefit from those same rights if they are still respected in our society. Similarly you may trust the current administration, but your enemies may someday seize control and exercise the same powers.

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