“Dad, why are the cops bad?”
This was the question I had to answer when I recently watched First Blood with my son. Only eight years old, he still lived in a world that was simple: cops are good guys, and their job is to catch the bad guys.
I explained to him that cops are just people like everyone else. Some are good and some are bad. That answer seemed to satisfy him, and soon he was watching Rambo II and Rambo III, films he favored even more, perhaps because they were less morally complicated.
While these films have some merit, it’s First Blood—which in October turns forty years old—that remains a masterpiece, in large part because it’s morally complicated. Indeed, the film, which is based on David Morrell’s 1972 novel, challenges a widely-held belief: that the American system of law and order is fundamentally good.
The John Rambo portrayed by Sylvester Stallone, who also co-wrote the screenplay and deliberately made the title character more sympathetic than the character in Morrell’s novel, isn’t a hero like Rocky Balboa. He’s a victim of police profiling and police brutality, and it’s these actions that trigger violence, chases, and a manhunt that leaves several people dead.
‘Why You Pushing Me?’
When Sheriff Will Teasle (played magnificently by Brian Dennehy) pulls up alongside a lean, shaggy-haired man in a green coat with an American flag on the breast, he first seems friendly, like a sheriff you might find in any small town in America.
“Morning,” Teasle says, smiling slightly. “You uh, visiting somebody around here.”
“No,” Rambo replies. Unlike Teasle, he doesn’t smile. Nor does he offer further explanation. This prompts Teasle to continue.
“You know, wearing that flag on that jacket, looking the way you do, you're asking for trouble around here, friend,” he tells Rambo.
Rambo doesn’t respond, so Teasle offers to give Rambo a lift and he accepts. During their ride across town, however, a tense exchange occurs after Rambo asks a simple question.
Rambo: You got some place I can eat around here?
Teasle: There's a diner about thirty miles up the highway.
Rambo: Is there a law against me getting something to eat here?
Teasle: Yeah! Me!
Rambo: Why you pushing me?
Teasle: What'd you say?
Rambo: I said why you pushing me? I haven't done anything to you.
Teasle: First of all, you don't ask the questions around here. I do. Understand! Second, we don't want guys like you in this town, drifters. Next thing we know, we got a whole *bunch* of guys like you in this town. THAT'S WHY! Besides, you wouldn't like it here anyway. It's just a quiet little town. In fact you might say it's BORING. But that's the way we like it. I get paid to keep it that way.
At this point in the film, the audience doesn’t know much about Rambo. We don’t know he’s a former Green Beret or a war hero, only that he’d served in Vietnam and has no one. (In the first scene, we learn that Delmore Barry, a man Rambo had hoped to reunite with, died the previous summer.) But we see Rambo is right. He’s done nothing wrong. He is just hungry and wants to get something to eat. (Is there anything more human than that?)
So when Teasle dumps Rambo outside of town and has the chutzpah to pretend he’s doing him a big favor—”Hope this little ride helped you out”—it’s pretty annoying. Hungry, alone, and cold, Rambo is left with a simple choice. Does he walk 30 miles to the diner up the highway? Or does he defy the arrogant sheriff and head back to town.
Rambo of course does what we want him to do: he turns around and starts walking back to town, and it’s this decision that creates the film’s conflict. By defying the pushy cop, Rambo gets busted by Teasle, setting off a chain of events that includes motorcycle and helicopter chases, lots of explosions, a great deal of violence, and the arrival of the National Guard and Richard Crenna (who plays Col. Sam Trautman, Rambo’s commanding officer in ‘Nam who is flown in from Fort Bragg to try to bring Rambo in).
The film climaxes with a bloody shootout between Rambo and Teasle, which ends badly for Sheriff Teasle. Instead of killing Teasle, however, Rambo spares him and turns himself in—but only after delivering an epic soliloquy that gives First Blood serious anti-war cred. (The ending is a contrast to Morrell’s book, which concludes with Teasle and Rambo dead.)
To Protect and Serve?
It’s easy to think that the violence that transpires in First Blood never would have happened if Rambo had just swallowed his pride and walked the 30 miles to that diner up the highway.
But the right question is this: What if Teasle had simply given Rambo a lift to the local diner to get a bite to eat? Better yet, what if Teasle had simply left Rambo alone?
When Teasle stops Rambo for absolutely no reason, he thinks he’s “keeping the peace.” In reality, he’s creating a situation: a police encounter. As First Blood shows, these encounters can create violent situations and get innocent people killed.
In 2016, Philando Castile was stopped by a police officer over a broken taillight. He was shot and killed by a Twin Cities police officer after announcing to officers he had a firearm in his car that he was permitted to carry. (The police officer who shot Castile eventually was fired but a jury acquitted him of all criminal charges.)
One year earlier, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, was pulled over by Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia, who said she failed to use her turn signal. In some ways, the confrontation between Bland and Encinia resembled that of Rambo and Teasle.
A transcript of the encounter shows just how quickly a seemingly benign encounter can spiral into a violent situation.
Encinia: Okay, ma'am… You okay?
Bland: I’m waiting on you. This is your job.
Encinia: You seem very irritated.
Bland: I am. I really am… you were speeding up, tailing me. So you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket.
Encinia: Are you done?
Bland: You asked me what was wrong, so I told you. So now I’m done, yeah.
Encinia: You mind putting out your cigarette, please?
Bland: Why do I have to put out a cigarette when I'm in my own car?
This last question—Why do I have to put out a cigarette when I'm in my own car?—did not sit well with Trooper Encinia, much like Rambo’s defiant question—Is there a law against me getting something to eat here?—aggravated Teasle.
At this point, Encinia decides he’s had enough. In response to Bland’s question, he orders her to step out of her car. Bland starts to protest, and things quickly go south from there. A tussle ensues and Bland is charged with assaulting a public servant and booked at the Waller County jail.
All of this would be bad enough, but the story gets much worse. Bland, who was just about to begin a new job at her alma mater Prairie View A&M, was found dead in her jail cell three days later. Her death was offically ruled a suicide. (Bland’s family believes otherwise.)
For his role in the matter, Encinia was fired and indicted on a charge of perjury for lying in his police report. (The charge was dropped on condition that Encinia forfeit his police license and never work in law enforcement again.)
‘The Law Becomes Perverted’
There are plenty of differences between the tragedy of First Blood and that of Sandra Bland, but they are similar in a key way: lives were lost (and ruined) because of an encounter that never should have occurred in the first place.
In First Blood, Rambo was stopped by Teasle because he looked like a bum. In Bland’s case, she was cited for a nitpicky traffic violation: failure to turn on her turn-signal. Police records suggest Encinia was a martinet in this respect.
“Encinia had a history of performing pre-textual traffic stops,” writes journalist Malcom Gladwell, “having issued more than 1,600 mostly minor tickets in less than 12 months, using the pretext of little enforced minor infractions to then perform random searches in the hope of finding some criminal.”
Encinia would no doubt argue he was simply keeping the public safe by enforcing traffic laws, and many would undoubtedly agree with him. Others would say this is how we catch criminals, while still others would argue that the tickets Encinia wrote provided important revenue to public safety.
The sad truth is that most would agree with at least one of these arguments, and maybe more. (After all, polls showed that stop-and-frisk was a highly popular policy even though it was a blatant violation of civil liberties.)
Americans pretty much take it for granted today that police have not just the right but a duty to “keep people safe” and enforce the law, even if the law being enforced creates a “crime” with no victim. Tacitly, Americans have accepted a culture of policing that prosecutes not just crimes but behavior, whether that behavior is driving “too fast,” having a beer before the law says you can, not buckling a seatbelt, or possessing a plant the state doesn’t think you should have.
The reality is, few are prepared to entertain the idea that we don’t actually need armies of police to keep us safe. At the very least, however, Americans should understand the tradeoffs of policing behavior that might be unsafe but is not criminal.
There are more than 60 million police-public contacts in a given year, and nearly half of them are initiated by police, usually when no actual crime has been committed. These confrontations come with serious costs.
“When police stop people for things like broken taillights or dark window tinting, it creates unnecessary opportunities for deadly encounters,” write Akhi Johnson, Director of the Reshaping Prosecution Initiative at the Vera Institute, and writer Erica Bryant. “The list of people killed after police detained them for trivial reasons is far too long—and continues to grow. Police action should make people safer. Stops for minor infractions, as an excuse to look for evidence of bigger crimes, do not.”
Johnson and Bryant are right, and their words are an important reminder of who the law is supposed to serve.
“The law becomes perverted when it is used to violate the rights of the individual,” wrote the great 19th century economist Frédéric Bastiat.
Now, I don’t think David Morrell or Sylvester Stalone had Bastiat in mind when they were writing First Blood. But the film perfectly demonstrates how needless confrations between police and citizens can escalate rapidly and ultimately pervert the law.
Like I told my son, police are not bad guys. They are just people, like everyone else. But we should not be asking them to police people’s behavior. In their quest to “keep the peace” and “enforce the law”—even in instances when no actual crime has occurred—police can accidentally cause violence.
This is why the role of police should be narrow, and they should not be asked to enforce laws against victimless crimes.
First Blood is an important reminder of what can happen when the law strays from its one true moral purpose: the protection of individual rights.