There they are: arms crossed, brooding stares, leather jackets, framed with caution tape and blue and red lights, enveloped in an ominous dark background. What is it? The promotional shot for every cop show ever — so basically every show that is still running. They’re bad—ses and take no s—t; at least, that’s what the tagline usually says. They’re heroes, right? More importantly, these law enforcement shows (from ones about the NYPD to the FBI and beyond) are everywhere you look: on every TV channel, across all streaming platforms, and even in box sets. With calls to defund the police and more awareness about copaganda — propaganda aimed at creating a purely positive image for police to erase negative narratives — what is the entertainment industry’s role in addressing how (and how much) they portray cops?
Some diagnose cop shows in entertainment as a case of overrepresentation; what does it mean when the longest running TV drama, Law & Order: SVU, centers around police? Law enforcement narratives come in many shapes and sizes. They can center police departments (Blue Bloods, Brooklyn 99), special agents (Bones, various NCIS’s), private detectives (or psychic detectives), or even fantasy plots (when a show about the literal devil (Lucifer) centers around police, perhaps it has gone too far). However, all law enforcement shows have one plot point in common: violent crime, where the victim is generally a woman. There are no cop shows about tax evasion or traffic violations (although the case of Philando Castile showed that cops can turn traffic stops deadly), even though handling violent crime only makes up about four percent of police officer’s duties.
The combination of the history of police censorship in Hollywood and the disproportionate portrayal of cops solving violent crimes has led to entertainment painting people law enforcement as heroic figures. How much of this is true, or how much of it can be true, without acknowledging police misconduct and brutality? USA Today published records of police misconduct within the last decade, revealing at least 200,000 cases of misconduct, which — assuming each incident regards an individual officer — would amount to a quarter of sworn law enforcement officers. Additionally, studies have found the chance of police killing Black men is disproportionately high, 3.5 percent higher than that of white people, and one in 1000 Black men can expect to die at the hands of police (not to minimize police violence against Black women).
Law enforcement shows have already made announcements about addressing police brutality and its connection with systemic violence in upcoming seasons. “To a Black writer, [police brutality] is not a fad that can and will be conveniently forgotten in a few weeks. The pain is always there,” Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, the showrunner of S.W.A.T. and one of few Black showrunners of police shows, writes in Vanity Fair. “When I hear Hollywood colleagues playfully pondering whether or not we’re doing enough to address the image of the hero cop that has been entrenched as a procedural staple, the answer is clear: hell f—king no.”
Thomas lists examples of shows, such as Shield and NYPD Blue, that focus on white cops who often bend the rules (generally at the detriment of BIPOC). These shows don’t feature this rule-breaking as an example of a negative aspect of police narratives, but as a joke or a bit. The audience is supposed to laugh at cops intimidating “suspects.” One clear example of this is Brooklyn 99 Season 5, Episode 14, “The Box,” in which Detective Jake Peralta holds a suspect as long as legally possible using unique methods (aka screaming) to try to coerce a confession out of the suspect. Yes, technically everything is above board, and the suspect turns out to be guilty, but it shows how normalized manipulation at the hands of police in shows has become. It also demonstrates that shows that don’t shy away from conversations on race and discrimination still use problematic tropes as comedy. Can law enforcement shows undo the glossy narrative of police they have created and supported?
“. . . I, too, have fallen prey to the mythology that’s been built up,” Andre Braugher, who plays Captain Holt on Brooklyn 99, said in an interview with Vanity Fair. “. . . But because there are so many cop shows on television, that’s where the public gets its information about the state of policing.” Brooklyn 99 covered the topic of police racial profiling in Season 4, Episode 16, “MooMoo,” where Lieutenant Terry Jeffords, a Black man, is arrested while searching for his daughters’ stuffed animal because a police officer assumes he does not belong in the neighborhood. Lucifer also addresses the topic of police racially profiling Black people, the characters Amenadiel and Calab in this episode, and escalating situations with Black suspects (which sounds familiar when thinking of recent cases of police brutality, such as George Floyd and Jacob Blake ). “There’s absolutely nothing new in this episode or nothing new in the country that we don’t live with every day since the day of our birth. It’s sad, but true,” said D.B. Woodside, the actor who plays Amenadiel, in a conversation with Entertainment Weekly regarding this episode.
Most recently, who can forget the million vague titles of ‘[Insert cop show here] covers police brutality in the upcoming season.’ These articles rarely tackle how the show will address police brutality and how it interacts with the content of previous seasons. Based on previous examples, this will likely mean featuring an episode or two focusing on police violence and racial profiling. However, who does it serve to portray police violence or racial profiling? Certainly not the communities that already face this violence and targeting. It is too early to say whether these vague moves to address police brutality will simply be an effort to save face or completely change the way law enforcement are represented in the media (although the former would not be surprising).
That is not to say that there hasn’t been a shift in how the entertainment industry is regarding law enforcement shows. Reality shows Live P.D. and Cops were cancelled “in the wake of protests on police brutality,” with the filming of and subsequent destruction of the footage of the police killing of a Black man over a traffic stop partially responsible for the Live P.D.’s cancellation. The cast of Brooklyn 99 donated 100,000 dollars to the National Bail Fund Network, with others calling for actors portraying law enforcement to donate portions of their earnings to mutual funds. Will this work on and off set be enough to separate law enforcement shows from copaganda? Law enforcement has long controlled and shaped U.S. social order; as long as police exist, so will the glamorization of law enforcement in entertainment.
The recent announcement that none of the involved officers were charged with Breonna Taylor’s killing shows that the law enforcement system certainly isn’t changing. If shows are going to continue to portray law enforcement, then they owe it to audiences to give an honest portrayal. There is no telling if these amorphous claims of addressing police violence in entertainment will stick and if they will change the entertainment narrative of the hero cop. It then becomes a question of all or nothing: if law enforcement shows can’t break this mold of copaganda, are they worth keeping? To put it simply: no.
Feature image: Courtesy of Sage Amdahl.