On August 10, 1938, viewers of the BBC Television Service were introduced to Telecrime, the first known television show revolving around law enforcement. This whodunit wasn’t just a landmark in media history for this reason—it was also one of the first scripted TV programs on air. Unfortunately, the 17 episodes that were broadcast live have been lost to time.
Culturally, we’re fascinated by law enforcement. Long before Telecrime and the later Telecrimes, people were ravenously consuming penny dreadfuls, procedural serials, and detective novels. The police and law enforcement genre dominates pop culture to this day, from the mystery section of the bookstore to every night on television; at any given time, some network is airing a law enforcement show.
The depiction of police officers within the proliferation of law enforcement programs reveals the disparity in the realities of the justice system. Whether on comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nineand Castle, or dramas like Rizzoli and Islesand the endlessly-growing family of CSIs, cops are positioned primarily as the heroes of the narrative. As viewers, we are acculturated and encouraged to think of their actions in a positive light, even when those actions abridge civil rights, violate ethics, or stretch the boundaries of credibility.
Law and Order, which has been airing since 1990, is the longest-running prime-time drama. Somewhere on your 500 channels, there’s a Law and Order episode, and the show has become such a part of U.S. culture that it’s permeated entire vernacular; thanks in part to Jerry Orbach, we all know what “perps” and “vics” are. Even if you’ve never seen a single episode, you know the show and its spinoffs, like Law and Order: SVU.
Police officers in this universe are forces for good, as the opening titles of SVU remind us: “In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.” What we hear less about are cases of falsely accused people of color, police brutality, and the dismissal of reports from trans and disabled victims.
The Wireis another iconic example of police dramas in the United States, though the gritty, Baltimore-based detective show only ran for five seasons. While critics favored the HBO drama, it faced middling viewer reception when it was on the air. It has since become a cult classic and is commonly cited as one of the best television shows of all time. In no small part, that’s due to the population of cops that inhabits it—and to the fact that, unlike in other police dramas, many of them are more nuanced than the average TV police officer.
They aren’t all saviors, and many are struggling with internal issues—homosexuality, a desire to move on to better careers, and family troubles—that color their experiences on the force. The Wire also delved into issues like nepotism and corruption within the ranks with an unblinking eye, tackling these subjects at every level, from beat cops to commissioners.
There’s also a heavily politicized component to these shows, with race in particular being a common component of police shows. Most police officers are white on television. Many are male. Many of the persons of interest, meanwhile, are people of color. In The Wire’s first season, for example, the (unusually) racially mixed police officers were involved in the investigation of a drug ring run by black civilians, reiterating the very same mentality that has propped up the war on drugs: Drugs are sold by black people, drugs are a menace, ergo black people are a menace.
This theme is echoed in the flagship CSI franchise, anchored by white leads and characterized by majority-white casts. Mysteriously, a huge number of their suspects and ultimate culprits are people of color, yet this is accepted as part of the criminal landscape.
The overwhelming majority of television is geared toward viewers who might tend to think of police officers as the side of right in many situations. Police officers are the ones to call during an emergency, and the ones to turn to in times of need. But for those who live on the margins, the view of the police is quite different. These communities have learned that interaction with law enforcement can have fatal consequences for young people of color, for mentally ill people, for transgender people, for disabled people, and for poor Americans who lack access to protection from the state.
TV’s cop culture is a microcosm of larger social issues in the United States, where just being alive can become a radical act.
This depiction has a very real effect on how we perceive law enforcement on a daily basis. Real-life prosecutors complain about “the CSI effect,” in which jurors believe they understand forensic science at a much higher level than they actually do and demand more forensic evidence to form a decision. On another level, viewers begin to frame their understanding of civil and human rights based on the dramatizations they see flash across their screens.
Police routinely beat suspects, manipulate evidence, and disregard their legal rights on television. These actions are often framed as an acceptable cost to pay for information—what kind of monster wouldn’t want a police officer to pursue any means possible to obtain the location of a bomb that might kill children, for example, as happened in the latest season finale of Canada’s Rookie Blue?
Americans have civil rights, handed down to them in the Constitution and in case law, and most of those rights are routinely violated in police dramas and comedies alike. The acceptance of these violations has contributed not just to societal indifference about the growing security and surveillance culture in the U.S., but also an indifference about civil rights violations and the criminal justice system. These are things that happen to someone else, someone far away, and someone deserving.
TV’s cop culture is a microcosm of larger social issues in the United States, where just being alive can become a radical act.
On August 10, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., with his hands up in the air, clearly indicating surrender. The city of Ferguson exploded into sustained protests that lasted for days. Residents and supporters were tear-gassed, beaten by police, and shot with wooden and rubber bullets. Police officers threatened to shoot reporters, who were trapped in a “media pen” they weren’t supposed to venture out of.
Ferguson, some said, began to resemble a war zone. When his killer wasn’t indicted by a grand jury, it highlighted the devaluation of black lives and the fact that police can literally get away with murder—a lesson brought home shortly thereafter when Officer Daniel Pantaleo wasn’t indicted for the murder of Eric Garner despite being caught on video, and not in a staged scene for television audiences, either.
Four days after the Michael Brown shooting, the summer comedy Let’s Be Copshit the big screen and was promoted on Twitter with #LetsBeCops, radically clashing with the trending #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter, a hashtag developed in 2012 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in response to the death of Trayvon Martin. This brought into focus the sharp contrast between pop culture and reality, between the world of buddy cop shows and actual drama on the ground.
Activists began repurposing #LetsBeCops, using the Twitter disruption strategy of taking over a hashtag as a form of commentary, political statement, or suppression. Suddenly, the tag was filled not with promotional tweets, but testimonies about police brutality, violence, and racism in the United States.
The comedy wasn’t so funny anymore, and many questioned the film’s release date, wondering if it should have been pushed back to a less volatile time. For those suffering in real-time as a result of the events in Ferguson, the decision to push through with the release of Let’s Be Cops was a reminder of the privilege of capitalism over social justice. By the end of the weekend, the film had brought in $17.8 million, coming in third in the box office standings. Some theatergoers had the luxury to fork over $12 to sit in an air-conditioned theatre while the rest of the country was burning with rage and sorrow. The commercial success of the film was a testimony to American cluelessness, as audiences clearly didn’t realize the disturbing implications of their social disconnect and in the process taught Hollywood that filmgoers wanted more buddy cop stories, and less racial politics. To date, the film has grossed more than $82 million domestically, with an additional $54 million internationally.
Our belief in law enforcement is rarely shaken by cop shows and films. When “bad cops” are depicted, they’re shown as mere bad apples, rather than embodiments of the spirit of law enforcement. Bad cops are also framed as antiheroes, those we love in spite of their flaws, people we have faith in as characters who will ultimately redeem themselves in a longer story arc.
When police officers are placed under investigation for misconduct, viewers are made to empathize with the cop. We watch, feeling frustrated, angry, and disgusted by the turn of events. On Rizzoli & Isles, for instance, Internal Affairs shows up as a routine matter to investigate the officers involved in a shooting, putting viewers in the position of feeling angry at the very idea that an officer-involved shooting would require investigation.
Tellingly, the twist of the episode is that the head of Internal Affairs is the department mole, positioning the police officers tasked with monitoring their colleagues as the enemy; thus, our beat cop heroes are redeemed while the show slams corruption at the top and implies that those who hold officers accountable are more likely to be corrupt, a theme that comes up in other series as well. For example, The Shield’sfifth season heavily featured an Internal Affairs arc intended to paint the investigators in a bad light while leaving the police officers innocent victims of humorless bureaucrats.
Even when shown the possibility of a rotten core at the heart of law enforcement, it’s primarily corruption at the top with sergeants and commissioners, rather than abuses of civilians on the part of street cops. On Gotham, Commissioner Loeb is determined to ruin James Gordon’s career; on Dukes of Hazzard, Sheriff Coltrane conveniently looks the other way on a continual basis.
Even black authorities, like Senator Clay Davis on The Wire, can’t be trusted. Higher-ups are motivated by greed and a drive for power as well as control and—in some cases—actively want to thwart the noble police officers below them by sabotaging their careers. For them, their job security is found in greasing palms, preventing promotions of their underlings, and cultivating both political and underground connections.
Meanwhile, the cops who spend their time extorting false confessions, planting evidence, and slamming people into tables during interviews—as occurs in episode seven of Gracepoint, when Detective Ellie Miller attacks Lars Piersen in the interview room, demanding information about the location of her son—are still considered the good guys. Viewers understand that their motivations are pure; while their methods may be aggressive, they are out to catch the bad guy. In true cops and robbers tradition, any means necessary is acceptable if it ends in a successful collaring.
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On TV listings packed with shows that continue to reinforce the law enforcement savior narrative, there are a few shows or episodes willing to integrate nuance on occasion. The program Life, for example, opens with the release of Officer Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis), who has been wrongfully imprisoned for 12 years, and revolves around the idea that the wrong people can end up in prison at the hands of corrupt police forces. Similarly, the Law & Order episode “Justice Denied” took on the issue of coerced confessions and false convictions.
On Top of the Lake, a tangled web of drama has to be picked apart by a detective called in from Sydney, and it’s her outside perspective—as well as her knowledge as a former resident—that allows her to expose corruption and set the force to rights, because no one within the police force was able to do so. These incidences seem more like outliers than core components of police shows, though, doing little to disrupt the hero worship of police shows, where viewers absorb the idea that the people holding the badges are the good guys.
In the world of pop culture, police officers are the face of good, and the people they send to prison are the representatives of evil—the black and white theme extends beyond the livery on their vehicles and into the very narrative of the stories told about them. Creators make the pop culture that viewers want to consume, and consumers, evidently, like to be assured that they live in a just world—a world where police officers are usually ultimately on the side of good, even if their methods are messy, and where the right person is sent to prison.
The real-world evidence to the contrary, illustrating the deep cracks within the justice system, is too troubling to contemplate.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.