The cop show is almost as old as television itself. The earliest police dramas birthed the idea of a narrative in which good (police) and bad (criminal) were clearly defined.
But fast-forward to the present and mass protests across the United States following the deaths of Black men and women including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Michael Brown Jr. at the hands of police officers, and the role that cop shows — both fictional and nonfictional — play in forming ideology and normalizing police brutality is under heightened scrutiny.
Paramount Network recently canceled the long-running series “Cops” after more than 30 years and 33 seasons. Then A&E followed suit by axing “Live PD,” one of its highest-rated shows. The cast and showrunner of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” made a very public donation of $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network on June 2, in a move condemning Floyd’s killing. That same day, Dick Wolf, king of the modern cop show, moved swiftly to fire a writer from an upcoming “Law & Order” spinoff who had posted a picture of himself on Facebook holding a gun, with a caption in which he threatened to kill potential looters.
As “Monk” writer Tom Scharpling tweeted this month, writers and actors who have worked on cop shows have “contributed to the larger acceptance that cops are implicitly the good guys.” That puts those industry professionals in an uneasy position amid nationwide pushes to defund or dismantle local police departments.
Neal Baer, who served as showrunner of “Law & Order: SVU” for 11 seasons, says that while the series did break ground in certain ways, he would change the manner in which some of the central characters were portrayed if he could turn back the clock.
“If I were back on ‘SVU,’ I would address the aspirational elements on the show,” Baer says. “I think the show is very important in depicting victims of what were once thought unspeakable crimes; now they are crimes that are talked about. It was a really important conduit for that. But on the other hand, Elliot Stabler was smacking people around, and I wouldn’t do that now.”
As Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and African American Studies at UCLA, points out, “roughing up perps” has long been part of the territory when it comes to cop shows.
Hunt carried out a study for civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change, which looked at how series deal with three specific themes, one of them being the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. He found that many shows still “promote the false idea that the police, the courts and the prison system in America operate without racial bias.”
“Police are usually the protagonists in these shows; they’re the heroes,” Hunt adds. “We’re asked to identify with them implicitly, if not explicitly, and accept their view of the world, which is that the people they’re pursuing are criminals and they deserve what they get.”
A large part of the problem, according to “Watchmen” writer Cord Jefferson, is that many cop shows fail to acknowledge or deal with the history of the police force in America and the context in which it exists to this day. The recent HBO series, which touched on the 1921 Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Okla., aimed to put things in perspective.
“We wanted to get at the fact that the police force, historically, has had a lot of white supremacists among its ranks,” Jefferson says. “We didn’t want to shy away from the fact that in many places in America, members of the police were also members of the Klan. There are absolutely many parts of America where that is still a problem today.”
And “Watchmen” is by no means the only show which has tried to frame things differently.
Everyone interviewed for this story points to HBO’s “The Wire” as a series which analyzed the social structures and constraints affecting the police and the Black community which contributed to the situation we currently find ourselves in.
“The Wire” drew clear links between policing, the education system, local politics and socioeconomic status, Hunt says, to paint a more nuanced picture of the criminal justice system in America.
With his ABC show “For Life,” which was just picked up for a second season and is inspired by the real experiences of formerly incarcerated defense attorney Isaac Wright Jr., Hank Steinberg has tried to do the same.
As the description of Wright Jr. implies, “For Life” is about the inequities in the criminal justice system and systemic racism, both conscious and unconscious. But Steinberg says he consciously didn’t want to have his main character Aaron Wallace (Nicholas Pinnock) be a “great hero.”
“It’s an underdog story, and it’s also a family drama. You root for him and you feel for him and I think, most importantly, you empathize with him. That is the sole reason that we have art and storytelling,” Steinberg says. “If we only do cop shows about the police and we only become empathetic to them, then there’s an imbalance, and that imbalance can have a strong effect on the entire culture and its perceptions.”
Hunt says one need only look at the major broadcast networks which have “flourished on a steady menu of ‘Law and Order’-type shows” and the audience to which they’re catering, to see the aforementioned imbalance manifest itself.
“CBS, has ‘CSI’ and ‘NCIS,’ NBC has ‘Law & Order’ and ‘Chicago P.D.’ All those crime shows that have repeated over the years tend to skew older, tend to skew whiter,” Hunt says. “If you’re being fed a diet of television shows, crime procedurals, movies that reinforce this idea of rampant, out-of-control crime and the need for the thin blue line to keep everything together, you’re going to watch those types of shows because they’re consistent with your worldview, and you’re probably going to vote against things that might lead to more inclusion and integration because you fear being in those types of communities. It becomes this vicious cycle.”
Cop shows are among the most-watched series on television: Of the 10 highest-rated scripted broadcast shows in primetime for the 2019-20 season, exactly half were procedurals that focus on the criminal justice system.
For that reason, the networks and studios “aren’t about to stop making them,” says Jefferson.
Yet when carrying out the Color of Change study, Hunt found that the genre of crime procedurals included disproportionately few Black voices in the writers’ rooms. Of the nine crime procedurals he studied, Hunt says not a single one had a Black showrunner, and only one had more than two Black writers in the room (that latter show is no longer on the air).
The solution is not to “abandon the idea of the cop show as a whole,” Jefferson says, but rather to have “different people writing different cop shows.”
“To the extent that we don’t have more diverse voices around the table in writers’ rooms, telling stories when it comes to police is just exacerbating the problem,” Hunt says.