thinking about the lego police.

Going home for Christmas is always a good way to stretch my brain. When I arrived, I was happy to find that my nieces have reached the age where they can really play with Legos. We have an epic family Lego pile. Since my brother and I combined our stashes some twenty years ago, I like to remind the girls that the Legos belong to everybody. I do this even as I go through picking out my favorite pieces, trying to make sure that they don’t notice my pile of Lego computers, suitcases, and favored building components from the Paradisa collection of 1992 (rare! I now live in Toy Story).

The impulses of girlhood are strong, and my nieces had dutifully, albiet contentiously, picked out and divided all of the female minifigures. It seemed like a good gift-giving opportunity, so I decided a shared gift could diversify our minifigure holdings. I settled on the “fairytale and historic minifigures set” mostly because it came with mermaids and lots of ladylegos, but also because it didn’t come with any police.

I have really mixed feelings about the Lego Police.

I think police toys are weird. It’s kind of like police procedurals- I don’t really find them entertaining because they are too much analytical work. Generally, I just can’t enjoy them, I have to think about what they mean. It can’t be helped- crime and punishment are the focus of my intellectual life. I accept my discomfort with Lego police sets because they naturalize the carceral state as well, just another part of life in the Lego City. Usually I ignore that because hey, I hardly ever think about Legos.

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Something curious has happened to me recently: my revulsion toward the Lego police sets gave way to fascination. The Lego offenders (notably, there is no court) have scruffy, unshaven faces that are variably smirking, scowling, or smiling toothlessly. Lacking the gender parity of other Lego city careers, Lego criminals are all male. The narrative of the sets- as seen in the video here– is that Lego museum robbers will inevitably be caught by a complex Lego police apparatus that includes, a semi-truck (“police command center”), “prisoner transport,” a police helicopter, dogs, forest police station (which comes with a bear!), and so on. The pièce de résistance, however, is the Lego police station.

I’ll be honest with you: in spite of myself, I really want the Lego police station.

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It comes with a booking area for mugshots! A coffee pot and watercooler! A Lego policewoman with an adorable bob! The garage doors open! The cells even have toilets!

The cells even have toilets?

That brings me back to earth. Even the Duplo police set, intended for 2-5 year olds, includes jail cells with toilets. Recently I read Joseph F. Fishman’s 1923 account of American jails, Crucibles of Crime. He writes:

“At Key West, as in so many jails of the country, the loathsome ‘night bucket,’ as it is politely termed, is used. The night bucket, which we have met so often, is used in jails- there are hundreds of them- which have no toilet facilities or plumbing in the cells. They are emptied each morning. As they are made of iron and last for many years, and as so many jailers are not particularly concerned that they be kept clean as possible, the atmosphere of the jail will be apparent” (p. 84-85).

At the very least, the jails of 2012 have toilets. The Lego jail cell toilets, trivial as they may seem, are a strange piece of evidence in the historic contingency of the carceral state– every facet of the Lego police set reflects some aspect of the carceral state that was wanted, created, built, reformed. The Lego sets reflect the way many in the public would like to think about the criminal justice system- that it is tidy, humane, just, non-violent. The Lego police sets are the criminal justice system as we would like to see it. No guns, no victims, no courts, no activists. Just a few silly bandits who will get what they deserve at the hands of righteous police with a lot of cool crime-fighting tools.

But I can’t overlook the comforting aspect of the Lego police sets:

They can be dismantled.

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