Six of the most memorable portrayals of corrupt and reckless cops on film and TV

Ian Rankin has warned that crime writers are facing big questions due to changes in the way the police are now viewed around the world.

But with the Edinburgh-based author declaring that police officers are no longer seen as “knights in shining armour”, it is worth recalling some of the most memorable portrayals of bad policing in popular culture.


James McAvoy gave one of his most memorable performances as Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, the main protagonist in Filth, the Jon S Baird-directed adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel. He bullies, plots and schemes against his colleagues, while indulging in drugs, alcohol and abusive sexual relationships, before starting to experience increasingly vivid hallucinations.

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    Line of Duty

    The most-talked about police drama on TV in recent years focuses on the cases being probed by an anti-corruption unit and the links between them pieced together by detectives Kate Fleming and Steve Arnott, played by Vicky McClure and Martin Compston. Created and written by Jed Mercurio, six series have been made to date.


    Jimmy McGovern’s Manchester-set ITV drama was dominated by Robbie Coltrane’s portrayal of criminal psychologist Dr Edward Fitzgerald. But one of the most memorable characters was Detective Sergeant Jimmy Beck, whose spiral of prejudice, violence and corruption culminates in the rape of a colleague.

    James McAvoy starred as Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson in Filth.

    Bad Lieutenant

    Harvey Keitel starred as the un-named titular character at the heart of Abel Ferrera’s crime drama, which explores the decline and downfall of a corrupt New York policer officer addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling. He becomes increasingly embroiled with criminals as his debts mount up, while he attempts to redeem himself.

    Cop Land

    Sylvester Stallone had one of his strongest roles as the sheriff in a suburban New Jersey community, populated by New York City police officers, who slowly discovers the town is a front for mob connections and corruption. When he realises the extent of the wrongdoing, he decides he can no longer stand by and do nothing.

    James McAvoy played a corrupt Scottish police detective in Filth.

    Dirty Harry

    Clint Eastwood’s iconic portrayal of San Francisco detective Harry Callahan was so successful he went on to play the character in four sequels. However, Callahan refuses to play by the book in his pursuit of serial killer, which led to critics lambasting the film as “deeply immoral” on its original release.

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    Martin Compston plays Steve Arnott, one of the leading investigators, in Line of Duty. Picture: Chris Barr

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