Overcoming the Status Quo:

Wonder Woman, Superheroes, and the American Criminal Justice System (Part 2)

In this three-part series, I explore where superheroes fit into popular conceptions of criminal justice in the United States, and the potential for Wonder Woman to help improve those conceptions.

Last week, I looked at the state of superhero media, Wonder Woman, and criminal justice in the United States.

This week, I focus on relationships between the American criminal justice system and American communities, roles of the system in educating citizens, and the status of education in the system itself, and opportunities for the presence of Wonder Woman in all of them.

The Guardians Revisited

There’s nothing more admirable than individuals who don’t seek credit for what they do, and the anonymity of superheroes is a powerful representation of that.  But our most popular superheroes have also developed into something else.  These heroes stand separately from those they serve, looking over “average people” and taking care of them.  Humans are essentially powerless in an overwhelming world, and superheroes are able to come to our rescue, making decisions on our behalf.  Even when these superheroes act outside the law, even when the citizens of their respective cities don’t trust their heroes to know better than them, even when Lucius Fox questions it all for crying out loud, we as the audience still trust the heroes to know better than us—or to at least give us a decent fight scene.  This has been a theme in the Dark Knight Trilogy, many of the Marvel movies, and will likely be prominent in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Popular culture repeatedly demands these kinds of stories, putting them at the forefront of our discussions, and because these notions only represent a small piece of the puzzle, I think this only contributes to very real problems between the American criminal justice system and American communities—what should be a crucial relationship.

According to Jacoba Rock, the Lead Forensic Social Worker at the Alternate Defense Counsel and a Professor of Social Work and Criminology at the University of Denver, “If people knew what really happens and how they were really affected—even if just from their wallets, if not from their hearts—I would surely hope they would do more.”

For some American citizens, the criminal justice system is something dealt with only rarely, mostly during traffic stops.  For others, it is a daily presence.  Either way, whether they are satisfied with the system, don’t care, or despise it, the majority of Americans have no idea what goes on behind the scenes.  Like many things in reality, the system seems to be taken by many as a given, and there are indeed numerous kinds of separation between many citizens and local law enforcement.

“I think it’s impossible to have a perfect relationship between law enforcement and the community because of the nature of the job they do,” Jonathan Rodriguez, an investigative reporter for WNCN in Raleigh, North Carolina, told me.  “Even if there was no corruption, the fact that their job is ultimately to restrict the rights of someone breaking the law, there will be conflict.”

There are places across the country with a severe amount of disconnect, where the actions of the system make people feel apprehensive rather than safe, and where everything but immediate events are swept aside.  Voices and more are lost behind gavels.

However, as my police officer who wished to remain anonymous emphasized, “The residential community and business community that law enforcement serves should be a continuously growing trust for one another…It is imperative to gain the trust of the people and for the people to be able to express concerns to law enforcement,” and “getting the community involved, and calling in suspicious activity, is the biggest help that an officer can get.”

There are, in fact, many law enforcement departments that actively pursue this goal.  My source’s team hosts events each year in conjunction with local businesses to interact with the community in a positive environment.  More than that, they regularly introduce themselves to local businesses, and this has been very helpful for them.  Not everyone in their community responds, but many departments around the country are nevertheless making more efforts to connect.  The officer also said, “I think that community members are being offered various classes, organizations, or community events in order for education about current law enforcement to exist.”

Even with a positive relationship, Rodriguez said, the criminal justice system is very complicated and in constant flux, while Rock pointed out to me that many citizens are still unaware that most courtroom proceedings are open to the public and that “most facilities offer public tours.”

Furthermore, Rock explained, citizens are frequently and consciously excluded from the criminal justice process.  For instance, despite what many victims believe, prosecutors represent the interests of the community, and this does not always represent the interests of a victim.  “I advocate for offenders,” Rock said, “but I think that often their needs and interests are greater met when a victim is involved in the justice process.”

There’s also the question of how much legislation reflects the will of a community, which presents its own rabbit holes.

And then, once again, there’s Wonder Woman—a figure who never allows herself to forget that people are the reason for the process.  From what I’ve seen, she never goes in without making sure that everyone involved knows why, and, more than that, never hesitates to listen.

Much of Wonder Woman’s time is spent as an ambassador.  She knows that her ways are different than those of humanity, and she always does her best to learn.  But she’s not just an ambassador of Themyscira.  Because she is working with the human system as an enforcer from the outside—and frequently even more than that—Diana is able to see larger ideas to serve as an ambassador for all, which means that she is both a guide and a listener just as much as she is a skilled warrior.  She doesn’t only come down from the sky when she sees something wrong.  She knows that she must make sure she is connected with people from the very beginning, even before the justice system is traditionally activated to become involved.  With her lasso, she doesn’t hold anyone back or keep anyone away.  She tries to open the world to them.  For Wonder Woman, justice is all.  How cool is that?

Although I still don’t know her thoughts on jury duty.

Great Power

Rodriguez thinks there can be more efforts for educating citizens, but he also said that people need to have a desire to learn it, and in his experience, “It’s such a complicated system that people just don’t have time and just don’t care about the details.  But the more people involved—media, journalists, authorities, etc.—show people why it affects them, the more they’ll learn.”

The education of those who aspire to work in the system is also something to think about.  Where are these relationships founded?  Are professionals prepared to be as enlightened as Wonder Woman?  The American education system as a whole is certainly not as well-rounded as Diana’s education.

According to Rock, education in criminal justice tends “to focus on the policing and incarceration of ‘others,’” while law tends “to educate future professionals about words and statutes, but not about the importance of due process and greater societal change.”  Rock told me that some academic reform is taking place, but the engagement of professionals actively working in the system is also important.

My anonymous source said that the police academy where he was trained gave its recruits a foundation needed to do the job.  My source viewed a college degree as helpful in making one more well-rounded, but not essential to being a law enforcement officer.  As he saw it, most insights are gained through experience on the job.

And yet, the job requires all of those involved to fulfill the highest of expectations.  Not only must professionals working in the system have the knowledge they need, but they have to be able to use that knowledge to make the best decisions they can about the individuals with whom they interact.

My police officer told me that for himself and his colleagues, every day is a “battle for what is justified, what is right or wrong, what is moral, and being held to the higher standard than the general public.  It is challenging to turn off the cop mode, and to return to home.  Every shift I deal with people in need, people at their worst times, people who are hiding or concealing something illegal, constant deceitfulness, and fairly constant negativity as soon as I make contact with someone.  Because I am constantly analyzing a person’s actions, statements, and body language, it is difficult to just shut my brain off from doing the same thing once I am off duty.”

He also said, “I find myself analyzing my prior actions and whether or not I did everything right, and did I do enough, or did I miss something…While the incidents are occurring, I am making a quick, sound decision, and the training and instincts kick in.  After the fact, it does play on repeat in my mind.  This type of stress does get better with time…talking about incidents with fellow co-workers is a good strategy to help aid the stress.”

Nevertheless, he noted, this stress can create significant feelings of mistrust toward citizens for many members of law enforcement.  Law enforcement officers must work through all of this to make sound decisions based on all information presented to them.  There is a lot to do, and humans, not Amazons, are the ones who must do it.

I think that all of the above elements are key areas where more presence of Wonder Woman in American culture could be very inspirational.  This presents incredibly productive food for thought.

And what of the journalists covering the system, the eyes for many citizens into the process?  Rodriguez told me that unless journalists take courses specifically geared toward crime reporting, they also learn about the topic as they go.

The framing for the American public about the criminal justice system is not able to be at its absolute best.  The messages between people have a great deal amount to grow.  In journalism alone, who are crime stories geared toward?  What kinds of words or video clips are used to describe each new development?  Until next time, stroke your chin on those questions.

Check back with Sequart next week for the conclusion of this series, in which I bring all of this together by looking at the roles of mass media and those of the citizens themselves.

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With a background in television production, film studies, and communication theory, Ian Boucher earned his Master of Library and Information Science at Kent State University to become a librarian to advocate for information literacy. He is fascinated with the stories cultures tell themselves, and writes about film and comics in that regard. Continue the conversation with him on Twitter @Ian_Boucher.

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Also by Ian Boucher:

Humans and Paragons: Essays on Super-Hero Justice

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