[Updated] Picturing The Gap Between Fantasy And Reality

Police and the Punisher Skull

[Additional Context from 4/14/2022]

Since this post went up last night there has been additional reporting that helps further contextualize this image and the underlying moments of tragedy it encapsulates. Today the Texas Tribune reports that the police officer pictured above, Ruben Ruiz, was the husband of one of the teachers who was shot and killed:

Media organizations and social media users were up in arms over an image pulled from the video posted by the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV that showed a policeman glancing at his phone as the shooter, in two adjoining classrooms just down the hall, was killing children and teachers with a semiautomatic rifle.

“This really makes my blood boil,” Terrance Carroll, a former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, wrote in a tweet. “This officer is checking his phone while kids & teachers are literally dying a few doors down.”


But to Uvalde residents and officials investigating the shooting, the footage showed something else. The officer depicted is Ruben Ruiz, whose wife, Eva Mireles, lay dying inside one of the classrooms with the gunman.

Mireles told Ruiz in a phone call that she had been shot. Ruiz, standing in the hallway with his pistol drawn, was unable to get to her. Other officers ultimately escorted Ruiz from the scene and took his gun. Mireles was alive when police transported her from the classroom, but she died before reaching the hospital.


After some consideration, I do not feel that the original post should be removed–both because I think I need to own what I wrote and also because the original post was not meant to specifically call out Officer Ruiz individually. I cannot imagine what Officer Ruiz was experiencing in that moment. And I am truly sorry that he as an individual has become a visual proxy for a toxic trend in policing.

I also firmly believe that the core theme of this post is not a critique of an individual, but rather a collective culture within a critical civic field and should stand. I also have checked with James and Steven and they agree.

[Original Post From 7/13/2022]

Yesterday, the Austin American-Stateman and their news partner, KVUE, jointly released video footage of hallway security camera footage of the Uvalde school massacre. As the Stateman documents in an accompanying essay, the news agencies obtained a one-hour and twenty-two minute video that covered the moments from when the gunman entered the school to the police finally entering the classroom to finally engage the shooter. From that original video two cuts were made: a four-minute “highlight” video and a longer version that featured two key edits (the blurring of a child’s face and the sound of children screaming as the gunman enters the classroom).

Both videos are exceptionally difficult to watch and demonstrate how far from the truth the initial “official” police accounts were of what happened that day. And there is a significant amount to critique. But one moment especially stands out: at approximately eight minutes and thirty seconds into the video an officer reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone to check a message. Clearly visible on his phone’s screen is wallpaper of the Punisher’s death head skull done in American Flag colors.

On the off-chance someone isn’t familiar with the character, The Punisher was introduced in the 1970’s as a villain in the pages of Marvel’s Spider-man. The character quickly shifted from being a hitman to becoming a vigilante who ruthlessly hunted and executed criminals (tapping into the Deathwish zeitgeist of the time). Thanks to the 1980s and 90s rise of the anti-hero in comics the Punisher became one of Marvel’s most popular and lucrative properties (though not someone you should ever rent a jet ski to). Since then, played by a variety of actors, he’s made the jump to live action and appeared in three movies and a number of Netflix series.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only way the character entered into popular culture. The character’s iconography, a death head skull, began to be adopted as a symbol–first by military units (as documented in American Sniper) and more recently, by police forces. This has been characterized as part of a larger ongoing militarization of the police (much of which happened in conjunction with the “War on Terror”).

The tragedy, brought on by an abjected failure of policing, in Uvalde brings the contradictions and absurdity of police embracing the logo into stark relief.

One problem with the adoption has been identified by Gerry Conway, one of the character’s creators. In one interview he stated, “the Punisher represents a failure of the justice system… so when cops put Punisher skulls on their cars or members of the military wear Punisher skull patches, they’re basically sid[ing] with an enemy of the system.” In another he expanded on this further:

By definition, he’s the opposite of what they’re supposed to be, you know? He is someone who is outside the law taking the law into his own hands. So if they are claiming the Punisher as their symbol, they are saying they are outlaws and that they are criminals and that they are enemies of society. Is that really what they want to be saying?


To Conway’s point character divides the world up into two types of people: criminals and non-criminals. And, in his opinion (or the opinion of the people who write him) criminals are meant to be killed (or at the very least maimed). It’s a mindset that leads to police hostilely viewing the communities they patrol (especially if those communities are considered “high crime”). This was called out a few years ago in an essay, published during the aftermath of police officers murdering George Floyd, by Patrick Skinner, a former CIA operations officer who became a police officer:

What we now see deployed in many cities and towns is anti-policing. It’s the death of true community police work and, too often, the death of our neighbors. The well-documented militarization of American police departments has inevitably produced officers who see themselves and their roles as “warriors” or “punishers” or “sheepdogs.” Much of what our society finds so distressing and unacceptable in police interactions with their neighbors — disrespect, anger, frustration and violence — is not a result of “flawed” training; it’s a result of training for war.


The tragic irony of Uvalde is it demonstrates despite “training for war” and seeing themselves as Punishers, a not-insignificant portion of our police force is actually just cosplaying–putting on a costume and pretending they are something else than they are. But when the chance comes out to live out that fantasy, reality sets in.

The entire scenario was one plucked out of a comic book or action movie waiting for “one good guy with a gun.” And yet, despite all the tactical gear, overwhelming firepower, body armor, and Punisher wallpaper on their phones, the police stood outside a classroom containing an active shooter, teachers, and many children for over 45 minutes.

Then they systematically began an effort to hide their incompetence (often blaming others outside the force). No officer or official involved with this debacle has chosen to resign their commission.

And the worst part about this is that this incident will have no systemic change on police culture. In fact if anything, we’ve seen calls that the issue was the police needed to be better funded, better armed, and better trained. And of course, there need to be more cops (many with unofficial Punisher gear[1]) deployed in schools on the lookout for criminals to punish (often finding them among the students).

1. Ironically the implications of the Skull have become so toxic that recently Marvel Entertainment redesigned it to try and distance themselves from its adoption by the Police.

Quick note: I miss all ya’ll! Due to a bunch of life and work things I haven’t been able to carve out time to write. I am working to rebalance things in order to start contributing more regularly soon.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Entertainment, Law and the Courts, Policing, Popular Culture, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Matt Bernius
About Matt Bernius
Matt Bernius is a design researcher working to create more equitable government systems and experiences. He's currently a Principal User Researcher on Code for America's "GetCalFresh" program, helping people apply for SNAP food benefits in California. Prior to joining CfA, he worked at Measures for Justice and at Effective, a UX agency. Matt has an MA from the University of Chicago.


  1. Not the IT Dept. says:

    I think, before too many more months go by, there’s going to be more coming out about that mass murder, and it will be even worse. There’s just such a weird vibe about the whole post-event cop response.

  2. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Thanks for the Punisher explanation. I don’t pay a lot of attention to such things any more, and I have been wondering about it.

  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    The well-documented militarization of American police departments has inevitably produced officers who see themselves and their roles as “warriors” or “punishers” or “sheepdogs.”

    My response to the “sheepdog” thing has been to point out that sheepdogs are actually there for the benefit of the shepherd, not the sheep and will happily sit by while the shepherd slaughters the herd.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    Thanks Matt. Glad you found some time to write. Using the Punisher thing to talk about what the cops are, as opposed to what they should be, works nicely. I see the mayor of Uvalde is pissed about the video. Pissed that the Austin paper published it.

    Unless James is paying you a lot more than I expect, which is to say, unless he’s paying you, prioritize what’s important. We’ll be grateful for whatever you contribute here.

  5. Thomm says:

    The adoption of the logo is extra ironic considering frank castle ain’t above snuffing a cop or twenty either.

  6. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Lots of Police want to be Punisher—-until it’s time to do Punisher-type shit.

  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Good to see you back. Great post! Thank you for the insights and reflections on them!

  8. MarkedMan says:

    In the US our gun policy is at the mercy of people who live in eternal fantasy, but at the same time completely lack imagination. They seem to have an inner life comprised entirely of things imagined by others – tough guy TV shows, action adventure movies, gun wielding comic book heroes. But they lack the necessary imagination to think through how all these childish scenarios would play out in real life.

  9. Gavin says:

    This is the entire philosophy of the right wing — they have to engage in theoreticals [“I’m The Punisher!”] because the reality of what they promote [“This cosplay is only intended for me to bully a few powerless undesirables”] is so deeply unpopular that they can’t engage with reality [ “I’ll take money from a town but won’t accept any kind of responsibility to that population which pays my bills”] on reality’s terms.

    Care to bet the budget discussions would be different at town, county, state if it was part of the debate that no matter how much money you shovel at cops, they would NEVER do anything for your citizens?

  10. CSK says:

    Apparently this officer was the husband of one of the teachers shot and killed. He was checking his phone for messages from her. When he tried to enter the building to rescue her, she was restrained by the other cops and had his gun taken away.

  11. Kathy says:

    Those who affect a tough attitude, prey on people weaker than themselves, and run or back down when faced with resistance, are bullies.

  12. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I think this speaks to a real problem with the Republican party writ large.
    It’s a party largely driven by fantasy; blithely untethered from reality.
    Trump, a morbidly obese man wearing make-up and elevator shoes (and judging by many photos, an adult diaper) is portrayed as a macho alpha male, complete with rippling muscles, that the God of Thunder himself would hesitate to tangle with.
    The rank and file pulls into Starbucks for their morning pumpkin-spice lattes, carrying assault rifles and spouting nonsense about good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns. A wild wild west wet dream.
    They befriend fascists like Putin believing him to be a friend, and imagine that the greatest threat to this nation is from hordes and hordes and hordes of people attacking us from the southern border, threatening our women and children.
    In their eyes a decimated economy is the greatest economy the world has ever seen, and 1,000,000 dead Americans is a miraculous pandemic response.
    But as Uvalde shows us, close-up, their rich fantasy lives have consequences out here in the real world.

  13. Slugger says:

    Excellent piece. Thanks for posting.

  14. Han says:

    @CSK: If that is the case, I have to wonder why he hasn’t been speaking out since the beginning. Did he think his fellow cops were right to restrain him? Does he think they’re right trying to hide what happened? So much of this doesn’t make any sense to me.

  15. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    One other point on this video…censoring the audio, while being empathetic, does a dis-service.
    Not until Americans are confronted with images of the carnage of these mass-murder events, or in this case the screams of the children being massacred, will anything happen about gun violence.
    Americans need to be shown the truth, not an abstraction that makes it easy for the gun industry to manipulate reality.

  16. CSK says:

    I don’t know. There was another cop, Felix Rubio, who was restrained while his daughter was being shot to death. He hasn’t spoken either, as far as I know.

    The story about Ruben Ruiz, whose wife was murdered, was released by Joe Moody, a Texas Democratic representative.

    This is a horrendous, tragic mess.

  17. Gavin says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    imagine that the greatest threat to this nation is from hordes and hordes and hordes of people attacking us from the southern border

    Note, of course, that those immigrants both have no power and have a 100% chance of being exploited at $1/day once arriving in the US. Those immigrants are indeed taking the jobs of people in the US — because the OWNERS get more money by firing the US citizen. And the causality is (intentionally) misplaced — the responsibility is not with the illegal but rather the capitalist.
    Want to stop immigration immediately tomorrow? Random raids with $100,000 fines on the business for every illegal found.
    But hey, we can’t attack capitalists, right?

  18. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The funny thing is that Republicans are whining about a lack or workers, while also insisting we not allow workers to immigrate.

  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Han: He doesn’t speak out because he knows the consequences of his fellow officers “not having his 6” in the future. “Snitches get stitches” isn’t just for gang life and prisons, you know.

  20. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Yes. There’s that. I’m sure the other officer who lost his daughter is aware of that as well.

  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: And neither one of them is really Murkan either, if we want to get specific.

  22. Matt Bernius says:

    To everyone, thank you for the great feedback and engagement as usual. I’m a little under the weather today, so I’ll keep responses short and in a single post:

    @Cheryl Rofer:
    Thanks for that feedback. I think many of us who have been immersed in a specific type of pop culture since an early age overestimate how much it’s permeated into the mainstream. The links around the history of the Punisher Skull, the Military, Police, and increasingly Right Wing Movements are all great reads. In particular this graphic essay:

    I’m just thankful that James gives me a public writing platform. Plus, when that sweet sweet Soros/Obama money comes in for me selling out my values and pretending Republicans are not always right comes in… it will be all worth it.

    Mainly, I’m bummed because there has been a lot in the news that fits into my specific baliwick and if I don’t keep practicing writing I’ll never get faster at it (which is especially important in that I’m behind in delivering a conference paper draft at the moment).

    @Jim Brown 32:

    Lots of Police want to be Punisher—-until it’s time to do Punisher-type shit.

    Mr Brown, as always your TL;DRs are on point.

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:
    As others far more learnered on the subject have pointed out, this embrace of pure aesthetic fantasy–in particular in the face of a reality that flys against it, is a hallmark of fascist movements.

    Thanks for that feedback.

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Not until Americans are confronted with images of the carnage of these mass-murder events, or in this case the screams of the children being massacred, will anything happen about gun violence.
    Americans need to be shown the truth, not an abstraction that makes it easy for the gun industry to manipulate reality.

    I am honestly not sure if this would work. While folks like to cite uncensored Vietnam War footage as playing a major role in ending our participation in the conflict, there are a lot of counterfactuals. In the 1920’s newspapers were far more graphic in the crime scene photos they showed and in many countries have high levels of violence and also post graphic crime photos. While the name escapes me at the moment, Kathy can probably talk about the graphic subgenre of crime papers in Mexico as an example.

  23. Kathy says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    Kathy can probably talk about the graphic subgenre of crime papers in Mexico as an example.

    All I can tell you is I know such rags exist and I don’t read them.

  24. Matt Bernius says:

    Since I wrote this last night, more context about this photo has come out that points out the multilayered aspects of this tragedy. As of an hour ago the Texas Tribune is reporting that the police officer captured in this image was the husband of one of the victims. Details here:


    I’m right now working on updating the post with this additional context.

  25. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    I think I read that 90% of Uvalde is Hispanic.

  26. Han says:

    @CSK: I wonder if they’re worried about retaliation, that they’re safer in the club than out. I just can’t imagine how one would deal with that.

  27. Han says:

    @Han: never mind. I see y’all have suggested that to me.

  28. CSK says:

    I would find it impossible to deal with my colleagues preventing me from rescuing one of my loved ones.

    Rubio and Ruiz must be beyond deranged with grief.

  29. dazedandconfused says:

    However badly the police performed I am uncomfortable with the media’s rush to judge them on this.

    There was a possible explanations which do not involve cowardice. There was early reporting a barricade-situation had been called by the chief and we don’t know what the cops in the hall were hearing on their radios. In that condition the goal is containment and evacuation of adjoining areas. This report was overwhelmed by the media showing scenes of people in the area being outraged by not being allowed in….as if police are not supposed to establish and enforce a cordon around the area of an active shooter.

    I see these cops are being damned for being vicious thugs who ran in a real fight. The notion these are cruel cops stems not from any reports of those officers being so, it stems from an assumption that since there have been such elsewhere, these cops must be the same. Prejudice.

    I believe first responders deserve the benefit of the doubt until the reports are in, and in this one the first report is still pending. It’s a tough job and wrong calls will be made, as time may not permit the person making the calls to wait for complete information.

    The media seems driven into a rage at all the false information they were given initially…and sometimes not so initially. This may not be a cover-up, it may be simply a podunk police force unprepared to deal with a major event. Pretty sure every podunk PD in the nation is absorbing a lesson: Give Barney Fife a mic on the podium at your peril.

  30. Matt Bernius says:


    The media seems driven into a rage at all the false information they were given initially…and sometimes not so initially.

    All the false information they were given by whom…?

    This may not be a cover-up, it may be simply a podunk police force unprepared to deal with a major event.

    This is without a doubt part of the issue. However, it’s also fair to state that there is a larger pattern of repeated sharing of misinformation by this department… not to mention many others (see numerous other cases where bodycam and other video significantly diverges from the official police accounts).

    And part of this is a media issue as well–and primarily relying on police for the sourcing of facts in these cases.

    Given the extreme power, financing, resources, and legal protections that are given to even podunk police departments, I think it’s fair to hold them to a higher level of expectation (especially when compared to the far lower thresholds of expectations that are placed on average citizens).

  31. Mu Yixiao says:


    There was a possible explanations which do not involve cowardice.


    I’ve spent hours talking to training officers, and even shadowed two different training exercises (actually done in an empty school), and I know how things are supposed to go. Standing around is the last thing you do.

    The phrase is “Stop the killing, then stop the bleeding”. This is repeated over and over in the training. “Stop the killing, then stop the bleeding”. They failed to stop the killing. They didn’t even try.

  32. dazedandconfused says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Ask them about the barricade situation call.

  33. dazedandconfused says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    It’s a force with a grand total of 30 people in it, and it should shock no one they didn’t have the sort of professional, designated spokesperson the big town/city depts have and the media is accustomed to having.

    All that notwithstanding, most small town cops are smart enough to not indulge in public speculation. This was exceptional.

  34. Gustopher says:


    However badly the police performed I am uncomfortable with the media’s rush to judge them on this.

    It turns out that when you start out with a bunch of self-serving lies, people don’t give you the benefit of the doubt. Go figure.

    This is not a police department unprepared for handling questions and overwhelmed. If that was the case, it would have been corrected relatively — initial reports can be wrong, or incomplete and filled in conjecture, etc. We are at months here, aren’t we?

    (Time is a blur. Weeks at least)

  35. Mu Yixiao says:


    After the Columbine shootings, law enforcement changed their approach. The standard policy shifted from “wait for the TAC team” to “wait for enough backup and go in together”. The definition of “enough backup” then evolved from “a team of 4” to “one other officer”. The standard policy now is for the first officer on the scene to enter the building and attempt to eliminate the threat. The failure of both the School Resource Officer (SRO) and the Broward County deputies to do this was a significant criticism in the wake of the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

    [emphasis added]

  36. Matt Bernius says:

    Can you help me understand why you appear to be very committed to infantilizing this department to explain how they failed to not only follow standard procedure but then over the course of multiple days continue to lie to everyone (including apparently other law enforcement officials) about those failings? Then there is the blaming of other local civic folks (like a teacher for leaving a door open)?

    That’s before we get to all of the quasi-military resources that have been poured into that department. Not to mention the difficulty in legally holding the department accountable for all these actions?

    Put a different way, if we accept that this is a Podunk Department full of Barney Fifes, why in gods name are we giving them miliary grade weapons and letting them cosplay SWAT?

    I’m really willing to understand you perspective, but there seems to be a lot of contradictions in it paper over by “first responders have a hard job.”

  37. dazedandconfused says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    You’re begging questions by the bushel and my statements are as plain as I can make them. Do not confuse believing the judgement rendered in the press was unfairly, even ridiculously, hasty with saying that force acted well.

    Consider the possibility not liking my points is the reason you can’t understand them.

  38. dazedandconfused says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Yes, in Columbine they failed to even enter the building so everybody changed after that.

    The barackade-situation call brings a very different set of procedures into play. Download this https://www.tcole.texas.gov/content/active-shooter-response-school-based-law-enforcement and read 2.2.

  39. dazedandconfused says:


    IMO the initial press conferences by the police may not have been self serving lies, they sound much more like the passing of unconfirmed rumors to me. Very unprofessional. I see no reason in the first hours they had reason to believe they had anything to cover up.

  40. BugManDan says:

    I have seen a number of “back the blue” types saying that everyone who attacked this guy for checking his phone needs to apologize. And I feel terrible for the guy because his wife is dead and he was held back from doing anything. Having said that, when was the last time a cop apologized after shooting someone because they misunderstood their actions?

  41. dazedandconfused says:


    And read 1.3…forgot to mention that.

  42. Matt Bernius says:


    Consider the possibility not liking my points is the reason you can’t understand them.

    Sure. I hope you would extend me the same courtesy.

    And perhaps, to this point, this is where we get off the merry-go-round for this particular pass.

    As we have learned time and time again from this particular case, the best, albeit most frustrating approach, is to wait for the official reports that are ongoing to be made public.

    Also thanks for the link to the training file, I’ll definitely review.

  43. dazedandconfused says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    Sorry about the tone. I wanted to edit that down so it didn’t sound quite as harsh but the God of Edit wasn’t in…

    Their SWAT was fairly typical for such tiny forces, about a third of their total had a bit of special weapons and tactical training, primarily for serving warrants. At any given time only one or two of them would be on duty as normal officers, they can’t afford to have a team of a dozen people all geared up and ready to go. Assembling them in a hurry? No way. Have to track the off-duty ones down and call them in.

  44. Matt Bernius says:


    Sorry about the tone. I wanted to edit that down so it didn’t sound quite as harsh but the God of Edit wasn’t in…

    AFK but wanted to respond… absolutley no worries. I really appreciate the clarification. I have definitely been there in the past.

    I also think this is a conversation that would go much better offline for a variety of reasons.

  45. Thomm says:

    @dazedandconfused: maybe if they included the audio of kids getting shot and crying out in pain while officer Chumlee is scrolling on his phone you will give up on the ‘barricade’ situation your shitty take relies on. You have been bending over backwards on multiple occasions to excuse this failure.

  46. dazedandconfused says:


    Multiple occasions?

    I want to see all the information before judgement, and you sir, like most everybody else, have already determined what those officers were hearing without the audio. Think about it.