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Pop culture needs its own Michael Brown.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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’s fifth 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.
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.
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.
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.