Questions that are rarely asked: why so many retired cops?

by on March 20, 2010 at 4:34 am in Film, Television | Permalink

JIm Crozier, a loyal MR reader, asks:

Why do cop movies and TV shows so often begin with an older (and often jaded) officer that is just about to retire? It is quite astounding how often this unrealistic plot trick is employed, and the psychological grounding seems weak at best. 

I don't have the viewing experience to give you an evidence-based response.  I would think the answer might lie in marginal utility theory plus behavioral economics.  Perhaps all his life that officer has failed to achieve some desired end, such as catching a criminal, bringing an evil politician to justice, reforming the corrupt police force, or whatever.  If the officer is near retirement, we know we are watching a very dramatic story which will define the life and career of that officer for ever and ever.  It is harder for the viewer to have the same feeling if the officer has four years, three months remaining on the force.  Failure would not mean final failure.

On the behavioral front, our impressions of experiences, and the memories we form, very often depend on what comes last.  Judges are more impressed by the group which sings last in the Eurovision contest, even though it is randomized.  The viewer thus implicitly knows that the cop really cares about the final segment of his or her career, reinforcing the point about decisiveness and marginal utility.

Viewers, can you do better?

1 Andrew Usher March 20, 2010 at 4:47 am

I would point to The Wire Series as a counter example, the retiring officers are incompetents who punch a clock until retirement. They also drank on the job and were habitually absent. The Jimmy McNulty character carries the most tension in the series yet is far from retirement. One data point but some what contrary to your hypothesis.

On a personal note the last semester of my undergrad seems to be filled with “checking out” as one compatriot termed it. I imagine in the real world officers close to retirement are like players who foresee an end to a repeated game: the return to effort and socially beneficial activity diminishes quickly.

2 HankP March 20, 2010 at 5:08 am

This shows the limitation of trying to apply economic reasoning where it doesn’t apply. Drama is not meant to be a recreation of real life, it’s meant to use the background of situations that resemble real life to play out a story that will hopefully move (or at least interest) an audience. Because of the increase in the volume of entertainment produced, many lazy authors will use standardized character types because there are a variety of characteristics that go along with that character type that don’t have to be explained in detail to the audience. You might as well do a statistical analysis of whether idealistic rookies or crooked cops are overrepresented – of course they are. That’s because real people tend to be unsuitable to conflicts that must be created and resolved in an hour time slot.

3 Michal Gancarski March 20, 2010 at 5:37 am

There is another reason – the dramaturgy of the officer being close to relative safety of a retired policeman’s life after years of dealing with society’s worst elements. Characters like these often wait for their retirement hoping that fortune does not involve them in a particularly difficult and dangerous case. This adds to the tension as we know that such case is coming and that this is exactly what the movie is going to be about. Think Fincher’s “Seven” and detective William R. Somerset (Morgan Freeman).

4 Adam March 20, 2010 at 6:09 am

Look, it’s late and I’m a little drunk, but here goes: First, a small digression to point out that this trope is not limited to retired cops: it is quite common to have a hero/main character that is on the brink of some sort of retirement that is pulled into drama. The thief who has to pull one last job, the assassin who has one last hit, et cetera. Examples: Usual Suspects, Heat, Point Break, Out of Sight, The Fast and the Furious, To Catch a Thief, Gone in Sixty Seconds.

The reason this works is because the hero has EVERYTHING TO LOSE. He can’t atone for his mistakes, make up for foibles. He (and yeah, it’s basically always a he) has no more time left. It has to go perfectly. Someone’s life is at stake, and he’s also too old. Plus, there’s the whole chicken’s coming to roost thing. And also: can’t we sympathize with dedicating our lives to a painstaking task, etc., something we liked but maybe also hated, like smoking, but we’re forced back into something we thought we had shorn off? Maybe this is just basically saying the same thing as what Tyler says, but ye gods it’s late and I want a cigarette.

5 Michal Gancarski March 20, 2010 at 6:46 am

@HankP

“This shows the limitation of trying to apply economic reasoning where it doesn’t apply.”

Yet, you contradict yourself by providing perfectly good economic reasons:

“Because of the increase in the volume of entertainment produced, many lazy authors will use standardized character types because there are a variety of characteristics that go along with that character type that don’t have to be explained in detail to the audience.”

6 BKarn March 20, 2010 at 6:56 am

Interesting that there are so many different (yet certain) takes on the meanings and potential behaviors of the soon-to-retire cop.

7 Alan Gunn March 20, 2010 at 8:01 am

What Adam said. One more example: Hoosiers, in which an aging basketball coach takes a team from a tiny Indiana town to the state championship. The story was based, loosely, on a real-life event, but the Milan team (the real one) was coached by Marv Wood, who was in his second year of coaching. According to the Wikipedia account, the people who made the movie wanted the coach to be old because if a young guy didn’t make it, there’d be other chances.

8 Bill Harshaw March 20, 2010 at 9:06 am

Speed in establishing characters. Time in drama is a scarce resource. Takes seconds to establish a character as a soon to retire veteran (or a rookie).

9 David Pinto March 20, 2010 at 9:19 am

When I saw the title of this post, I assumed you were referring to real life police officers. I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in 30 years recently, and when asked what he did, he said he was a retired cop. He’s now head of regional security for a private company, but gets to collect his pension.

My question is, given their level of pay and relative dangers of the job, is 50 really an appropriate retirement age for this group, and how much money does that cost us?

10 Brent Royal-Gordon March 20, 2010 at 10:03 am

My favorite professor this year is one who’s retiring in a few months and is covering classes for another professor on sabbatical. He feels completely free to joke about how screwed up the university’s bureaucracy is, how little he actually knows about the subjects he’s been tapped to teach, the lack of academic substance in some of the topics covered, and so on—things he might not be able to say if he were ten years younger. It actually makes his lectures more effective, because his students trust that they’re getting the straight story from him, and the cracks he slips in keep everyone’s attention.

I suppose people see the retiring cop as similarly honest. This guy isn’t interested in keeping the commissioner off his back or getting a promotion or anything else like that; he’s more free to just do his job than at any other point in his career. He can say and do what he wants and it won’t matter. This makes him more effective and allows the writer to make him do things that a mid-career cop wouldn’t risk.

11 CG March 20, 2010 at 10:44 am

The reason there are so many near-retirement cops is because in most places police officers can retire after 20 years with full pensions. I don’t have the data, but anecdotally I know that most do retire at 20 years. So every year, 1/20th of the force will retire (more or less depending on the class size 20 years before, % lasting 20 years, etc.).

12 Braden March 20, 2010 at 11:09 am

I think this tendency leads to moral mistakes: most people weight happiness at the end of life higher than happiness at any other point, as though happiness can be frozen at that level forever after.

13 LemmusLemmus March 20, 2010 at 11:17 am

In many of these films, the cop, who’s practically retired already, doesn’t really have to take the case in question (or others even try to dissuade him from doing so). If he nevertheless does, this tells us he feels strongly about it and isn’t just looking into the matter because that’s his job. More passion for the case means more exciting fiction.

14 Michal Gancarski March 20, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Greg, only because of one gimmick? 🙂 I think you just did not like the movie overall. I enjoyed it but I know many people that find it unbearable for various reasons and I understand them.

15 Daniel March 20, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Warning: this site can lead to a series loss of time spent browsing:
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ThatOneCase

16 Glen March 20, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Others have hinted at this, but I’ll say it explicitly: you need to distinguish between TV and film. Film does seem overpopulated with cops nearing retirement. TV, on the other hand, has many young cops. Just watch any of the Law & Orders, CSI’s, etc., and you’ll see a pretty wide distribution over career stages — and if anything is overrepresented, it’s probably the rookie stage. This makes sense because TV shows have to last over many episodes. TV shows could only duplicate the film strategy of focusing on the final case of a cop’s life by having very high character turnover — which would fail because of the lack of character continuity. So in TV, you need cops who are likely facing at least a few years of remaining service.

17 mulp March 21, 2010 at 2:30 am

Why do cop movies and TV shows so often begin with an older (and often jaded) officer that is just about to retire?

Because you are watching old movies and TV in black and white:
– B&W makes people seem older
– in the old days, men weren’t so vain so the looked older
– the male actors had long careers so they were older

Stop watching Dragnet.

18 Paul from TV March 21, 2010 at 9:14 am

My flatmate asked the exact same question a couple of weeks ago. My answer was because of selection bias. Older, jaded cops get given the interesting cases, Also, the less cynical cops don’t grow up to become older cops.

19 idiot March 22, 2010 at 1:52 pm

I think it’s mostly an excuse to justify why the retired cop has the experience necessary to do what he has to do in the course of the movie. After all, if the cop is about to retire, then he must have done a lot of work, therefore, he could easily blow up that building full of criminals…he had the experience, no?

I don’t know why said cop would be ‘jaded’ though, but maybe it’s an excuse for the movie to have more emotion?

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