Real Heroes Wear Uniforms

What The Dark Knight Can Tell Us About Police and Law Enforcement Careers

Police Shooting
A police officer aims his weapon. Dieter Spears/Getty Images

Whether art imitates life or life imitates art, there's little question that popular culture, including music, television, and movies, can influence people's decisions later in life. Children who grow up enamored with superheroes of all shades are drawn to action, adventure and self-sacrifice. Often, these kids grow up to be our police officers, firefighters, and soldiers. When it comes to careers in criminology and criminal justice, the inspiration to do more for others can come from anywhere, even films.

The Dark Knight Looks at Law Enforcement

Director Christopher Nolan's epic trilogy takes on more than just telling the story of a billionaire philanthropist who wears a cape and tights and likes to beat up bad guys. In fact, the films dive deep into the collective psyche and explore some pretty fundamental questions about society, especially how we govern and police ourselves. In particular, The Dark Knight series takes a long hard look at law enforcement from all sides, including the good, the bad and the ugly.

Batman and the History of Policing

Overall, the trilogy paints a positive view of police officers. Much like the real history of law enforcement, the Gotham City Police Department has a lot of growing up to do before it's ready to supplant the caped vigilante and take on the role of protecting the city.

Corruption, Graft, and Greed in Law Enforcement

In the first film, Batman Begins, we see a picture of a broken society, much like how the world looked in the early history of policing.

Lawlessness and rampant criminal behavior prevail. What few authorities there actually are in place are hampered by graft and corruption. In many instances in the movie, the police are as much a part of the problem as anyone else.

But for a few noble exceptions, the department is full of officers who deal with Gotham's citizens more like bullies than protectors.

 Much like the early years of police forces in the United States, the law enforcement profession is frowned upon and mistrusted. Members of the police force are essentially just another rival gang, shaking down criminal elements for personal gain. Any notion of public safety is an afterthought if thought of at all.

As it is painfully clear Gotham's criminal justice system is broken, billionaire Bruce Wayne, himself a victim of violent crime, adopts the persona of Batman and takes matters into his own hands. In the first film, Batman takes on the cops as well as the criminals.

Professionalizing the Police Force

Just as in the 1970s and '80s calls for the professionalization of police lead to the standardization of police academies and continuing education and training, Batman serves as the call for professionalism and accountability in policing. He shows the cops how ineffectual they've been and how far they've fallen. The "brotherhood" mentality of Gotham's law enforcement community is exposed for what it is, and the need for change becomes apparent.

Walking the Thin Blue Line

The second film, The Dark Knight, sees marked improvements within the police department. Corruption still exists, but it's quickly losing places to hide.

With the establishment of a more professional police force, The Dark Knight begins to explore the fine line law enforcement must walk in order to both prevent crime and uphold rights.

While normal citizens, inspired by Batman, try to take matters into their own hands, the clear message in The Dark Knight is that true law and order should come from legitimate institutions. Much like the history of criminology itself, Batman hopes for a day when vigilantes are no longer needed and government authorities can take on the role of protecting their citizens.

The Dark Knight recognizes the moral dilemma posed by authorities operating outside of constitutional constraints. It seems to suggest that, though at times working outside of the law may be a necessary evil, it is always an evil nonetheless.

Law and Order

Ultimately, the message becomes one in favor of legitimate criminal justice and law and order, as Batman allows his own good name to be vilified so that governmental institutions, including law enforcement, can begin to take on the mantle of true public service.

Police Rise with the Dark Knight

The Dark Knight Rises takes place eight years after the events of The Dark Knight and portrays a city more or less reborn. Law enforcement has taken its rightful place as the protectors of the city. The officers are honorable and hard working. They operate within the law and on the side of the citizens.  In short, they represent the culmination of what society expects from its officers.

If anything, Nolan's Batman Trilogy ultimately paints an overly rosy picture of police. While it acknowledges the vast potential for corruption within the police force, it also shows the hope and the sense of honor and service that inspire people to want to find careers in criminal justice and criminology to begin with.

Inspiring Careers in Criminal Justice

Stories like The Dark Knight series can serve to help inspire people to seek law enforcement careers. They demonstrate the positive perception police still enjoy among the public they serve.  

Be a Hero

In the end, the Batman trilogy issues a challenge to candidates hoping to find jobs in criminal justice and criminology: live up to the best of what the public expects, and avoid living down to the worst of what the public fears. This is what a career in public service is all about. If you're on the fence about working in criminal justice or law enforcement, take this lesson from Batman to heart: most heroes wear uniforms.