[Part of Law and Lawlessness Week]
In comic books, superheroes have had a long, complicated history with the police. Perhaps one of the most famous of these relations is between Batman and Police Commissioner Gordon. In some depictions, like the campy '60's show, Gordon is very pro-Batman and relies on his help heavily. The bat-signal has become part of our popular lexicon, a universal word for putting out a call for help.
In other depictions, though, Gordon turns to Batman reluctantly and skeptically. He is unsure about teaming up with a mysterious vigilante dressed as a giant bat.
In real life, RLSH have had a mixture of experiences. Some, like Superhero and Thanatos, have had open communication with law enforcement. Captain Jackson was even endorsed by the Jackson, Michigan police department.
Others have had negative reactions.
Motor-Mouth, for instance, recalls in a blog post about how he and other California RLSH were on a patrol, when they encountered 5 San Francisco motorcycle police. They explained what they were doing and the officers called them "trekkies" and "losers."
I still have more work to do as far as interviewing and understanding law enforcement opinions, but I would like to share my experiences so far.
When I was in Seattle, I thought I should talk to the police department there. I had read two references about Seattle RLSH encounters with crime and police that I wanted to see if there was any record of.
The first involved the Black Knight. There is a lot that can be said of the Black Knight, but at this point I'm going to limit it to this incident and to mention that he retired his Black Knight persona and apparently related activities.
Anyway, I think just copying our e-mail exchange is all that's needed.
TEA KRULOS: "The first reference I have is from the Black Knight. In a blog entry, he says he was doing a solo patrol of downtown Seattle on May 16, 2009. Around 2AM he was walking toward the Seattle Aquarium. As he approached the intersection of Madison and 1st street, he saw what appeared to be two guys fighting each other. He decided to get involved and was attacked by the two men and two of the men's friends, being kicked in the face and ribs. He says a passerby called 911.
The second reference I have is from June 12, 2009. Mr. RavenBlade says in a blog that he, Black Knight, and White Baron were patrolling downtown Seattle when they encountered the Seattle PD, who warned them that walking around with masks on wasn't a good idea. I don't know if a report was filed."
POLICE SPOKESMAN MARK JAMIESON:“I have searched, but cannot locate any contact between Seattle officers and the superheroes Mr. RavenBlade or Black Knight. If the information in the first reference is correct, then I think it illustrates some of the dangers of attempting to insert yourself into a violent situation.
The best advice, one that we would tell anyone, would be 'Be a good witness.' If you see something such as a fight, call 911 and report it. Get a description of those involved, a direction of travel if they leave, etc. The fact that Black Knight involved himself in the middle of a fight and then was attacked himself should be a lesson.
I think the advice that the group was given by officers, if in fact it is true, is very good advice and should be heeded. One doesn’t need to wear a costume or mask to do the right thing. In fact, walking around in a mask will probably generate a lot of calls to 911. It is best to leave the crime fighting to the police.”
NEW BEDFORD, MA
Here's an excerpt from an article I wrote on Civitron and other New England RLSH. For the article I put in a call to the New Bedford Police Department to get a reaction.
"We prefer to be the only costumed crime fighters out there," says Lieutenant Jeffrey Silva, a police spokesman. He says the department is aware of real-life superheroes, but they have yet to cross paths with them.
"Although they might be well-intentioned, we don't endorse citizen patrols, because we don't know the level of training," says Silva. Even so, he concedes that any help to police is welcome.
"Anytime someone wants to get involved and help police, we see it as a good thing, so long as they don't work without police participation. We prefer people to be the eyes and ears of the police."
But what about the strange costumes?
"Well, fortunately, we're not the fashion police," states Silva.
I'm planning on speaking more with my local police department, including trying to arrange a ride along. While on patrol with Watchman and Blackbird we ran into Milwaukee Police Department officers. Here's my description of the police encounter...
Watchman is explaining how he has never been stopped by the police, when another squad crawls by slowly, then turns around and pulls up, parking on an angle near us.
“What’s with the masks?” A female officer asks out of her car window. She has a wary smile. Her partner, a gruff looking male, stares at us, frowning.
It seems like she thinks we are on a destination- maybe a late night costume party. When Watchman says we are just walking around, keeping an eye on things, both officers get out of the squad.
“I need you to take the masks off.” The male cop says.
“What- really?” Blackbird says.
“Yeah really. Masks off and I need to see IDs.” Something Watchman has told me many times, is that he will always cooperate with police. The two remove their masks, their hair messy. Blackbird is somewhat surprised that under the mask; Watchman is…[DESCRIPTIONS DELETED].
I go on to explain, that while the initial reaction was confusion, and possibly concern, after Watchman had a couple minutes to explain what was going on the officers eased up. Although I think the female officer was still confused she began to process that the guys weren't up to trouble, and ended our encounter with a "God bless ya, guys!" delivered in a thick Wisconsin accent.
Also- neither of those two officers had ever heard of "real life superheroes," despite Watchman being in Milwaukee magazine and FOX 6 News.
Thanatos has been careful to work with the Vancouver Police Department instead of against them. He has told them in the past that he is handing evidence over to them, and as he told me this in his van, he showed me black plastic security folder that he uses to put evidence in.
On one of the nights I was in Vancouver, we decided to do a patrol of the downtown area, which was filled with drunken Canadians, half crazed about their victorious hockey teams. In a blog entry, I recall the scene only a half block into the patrol.
We head downtown, and almost immediately meet police officers on bicycles. They’re concerned because there was a recent appearance by an anarchist black bloc(1)who smashed window fronts in Vancouver in protest of the Olympics.
“I think it’s the wrong time to do this with masks. The crowd might get the wrong idea and if there’s drunk people, they might be a target themselves.” An officer tells me.
Thanatos and Motor-Mouth heed the officer’s advice and decide to do the patrol maskless.
Like the Milwaukee officers, I think they were initially confused and concerned about RLSH becoming targets themselves.
SAN DIEGO, CA
Mr. Xtreme of San Diego has tried to establish ties with his local law enforcement, but as the San Diego Union-Tribune reports, it's been a mixed bag for him:
Most police officers are uncomfortable with anonymous, masked characters walking neighborhoods carrying weapons.
Mr. Xtreme has tried to attend community meetings at the police station in the Mid City Division, but police asked him to leave when he refused to take off his mask, said San Diego police spokeswoman Mónica Muñoz.
“It didn't work out too well,” Mr. Xtreme admitted.
Police also are concerned that the superheroes are putting themselves at risk.
“What we're looking for is for the community to be our eyes and ears. If you see a crime, report it. Be a good witness,” said San Diego police Capt. Chris Ball. But “you shouldn't be carrying weapons and you shouldn't be confronting people.”
Source: "Homemade Heroes Offer Low Level Law Enforcement," by Kristina Davis, San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 17, 2009
"Real life supervillain" Poop Knife has done two interviews with members of law enforcement about RLSHs in "Ask a Cop" Part 1 and Part 2. I don't know what his sources are. I'm not saying that he's fabricated anything, I just don't know what his sources are.
At the RLSH-Manual, Superhero has written advice for RLSHs dealing with police in an essay HERE.
WHAT ARE YOUR POLICE EXPERIENCES?
I'd like to end again with asking any RLSH (or similar) to share any encounters with the police you've had. What happened? How did it go?
1. An anarchist black bloc is a group of individuals who all wear black ski masks and handkerchiefs to disguise their identity and show solidarity. Although some use non violent forms of protest, others (like the ones in Vancouver) use vandalism, property damage, and rioting as part of their demonstration.