Years ago, there was an article in the Onion entitled, “Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested”. As with most late-90s Onion material, it was letter-perfect in its execution. Movies routinely depict characters doing things that would get an actual person some serious jail time. Or at the very least, would not be considered brave or charming, but just downright creepy.
The Onion article was the first thing I thought of when I read this story in The New York Times. The “plot” reads like a bad 80s action movie starring Patrick Swayze (I realize this sentence is redundant). Except instead of becoming the most famous bouncer in America, the protagonist of this story gets a lot of people thrown in jail, ruins a whole bunch of reputations, and inspires millions of dollars in lawsuits.
A federal agent calling himself Sergeant Bill showed up in a small town in Missouri, an area plagued by a methamphetamine problem (in your SAT drug analogies, meth : rural
America :: crack : ghetto). Sergeant Bill vowed to clean up this one-horse town, and the town, which had applied for federal law enforcement grants, was grateful for his help. With the help of local police, he used strongarm tactics to put the dealers out of business
(this is where you’d put the montage of bad guys getting busted). Peace and quiet returned to this sleepy village.
Except a few months into his crusade, it turned out that the “federal agent” was nothing of the sort. Sergeant Bill had deceived local police and politicians through a labyrinthine series of ruses, aided by some collaboration and childlike levels of gullibility. Sergeant Bill had no federal connections whatsoever. He wasn’t even being paid by anyone. He just showed up in the town to smash some drug dealers’ skulls, and the entranced local officials followed him merrily as if he were the Pied Piper of Ass Kicking.
Of course, this did not end well. Though he hasn’t been charged yet, Sergeant Bill will almost certainly be indicted for impersonating a federal officer. Three local policemen, including the chief–all of whom are suspected of covering up for Sergeant Bill–have lost their jobs. And the town’s mayor is on the hot seat as well, blamed for allowing this embarrassing charade to happen in the first place.
How did Sergeant Bill gain everyone’s trust? He drove a Crown Vic, for one, the classic Cop Car. He had a real badge from a previous job as a police officer in another small town–a badge that was apparently so impressive, no one bothered to see if it was issued by an actual federal agency. He also walked around town wearing a black t-shirt that said POLICE across the chest. Only a real POLICE would wear something like that.
The town did perform one act of background checking, though: they called a phone number that Sergeant Bill provided, which he said would vouch for his True Police-ativity. The woman on the other end of the line answered “multijursidictional task force.” This was, apparently, proof enough that Sergeant Bill worked for Some Important Federal Agency.
One big problem with Sergeant Bill was that he liked to barge into people’s houses without a warrant. That’s kind of illegal–if by “kind of”, you mean “totally,” and if by “illegal”, you mean “unconstitutional.” He insisted he didn’t need warrants because he was a completely-not-fake federal agent. Anyone who’s ever watched a cop show would be skeptical of this excuse, but his victims likely said nothing since Sergeant Bill liked kicking people in the head and threatening them with shotguns during his searches.
In the movie version of this tale, such violent behavior would be directed solely at drug dealers and other assorted scumbags. But not everyone on the receiving end of this treatment was charged with a crime, so now Sergeant Bill and the town face a series of multimillion dollar civil rights violation lawsuits.
Not to mention that the few bad guys that Sergeant Bill did help arrest will go free, since his search-and-seizures were completely illegal and no evidence they produced would be admissible in any court of law. Oopsie!
In the movie version, Sergeant Bill would be an ex-Marine or a retired police officer, disgusted by rampant crime and determined to use his skills to make things right. The real-life protagonist did serve in the military, but I doubt a Hollywood screenwriter would have also made him a convicted sex offender. Your hero becomes less sympathetic if he pled guilty to abusing a teenage girl, as Sergeant Bill did when he was 22.
In short, Sergeant Bill and his band of Merry Men seem less like righteous vigilantes and more like Homer Simpson’s Drunken Posse.
Reading all of these details on paper, this was obviously a misguided, deranged, and reckless act motivated by some perverted Superman Complex and a lust for the spotlight. And there was no way that Sergeant Bill wasn’t going to get caught. His backstory completely unraveled once a reporter from a local newspaper spent an hour googling him.
But I don’t think Sergeant Bill and his enablers thought he wouldn’t get caught. They probably all figured that, once he was caught, the inherent “goodness” of what they were doing would trump some silly civil rights violations and 200+ years of Constitutional law.
In other words, they figured this “story” would end just the way it would in a movie. Grateful citizens would rush to Sergeant Bill’s defense. They would talk about all the good he’d done, and how he’d never even taken a dime for his services. He was just a man who was fed up with drugs and crime. An old judge would dismiss all charges. Then, a cranky bureaucratic FBI agent–one who’d been his sworn enemy up to that point–would show up to give Sergeant Bill a for-real federal badge. And he’d get carried through the streets on the shoulders of the people, to the tune of “You’re the Best.”
I would bet any amount of money that these people never once considered that their actions would lead anywhere but a golden palace of fame and wonder and enchantment. The sheer idiocy of it all indicates a brazen disregard for any sort of reality. A childlike, fingers-in-ears, la-la-la-I’m-not-listening view of the world.
So what’s scarier: the fact that Sergeant Bill conceived of this scheme, or the fact that he was able to make it work for any length of time?