How shows like ‘Cops’ and ‘Law & Order’ affect our views of the police
Amid protests over police brutality, shows about police officers have come under fire for their portrayals of law enforcement and the legal system.
New York Times critic Amanda Hess recently wrote that the popular children’s show, which features Chase the police dog as one of its heroes, was among the television series that have come under fire for their portrayal of police officers.
As Hess wrote, “It’s a joke, but it’s also not.”
Shows like “Cops” have faced criticism for years. “Cops” was originally canceled by Fox in 2013, after mounting pressure from activist groups, before getting picked up by SpikeTV soon after. But with protests over the death of George Floyd and calls to “defund the police” continuing to grow, that criticism seems to be spreading to the entire police show genre.
Much of the criticism has to do with the influence that shows about police officers — from “Law & Order” to “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” to, yes, “Paw Patrol” — have on the way that the public views law enforcement.
“‘Cops’ (and other reality policing shows like it) has a huge impact on how Americans view policing, and how police officers view themselves,” Henry Molofsky, who spent 18 months analyzing 846 episodes of “Cops” for the documentary podcast “Running From the Cops,” wrote for The Guardian. “Just ask any of the dozens of officers on the show who profess that watching ‘Cops’ is what made them want to become a cop in the first place.”
So how exactly do shows about police officers shape public opinion? And is the influence that these shows wield over viewers really a problem?
How crime shows affect viewers
Television shows about the police are popular. In the fall of 2019, “more than 60% of prime-time dramas on the four main broadcast network — NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX — were shows about crime, the police and the legal system,” according to Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color Of Change, who wrote about the data (which was provided by Variety and analyzed in a report by Color of Change) for CNN.
The number of shows on the air, and the way that they choose to portray police officers and the legal system, has an impact on how they’re viewed by the public, experts said.
“We end up with people thinking the system is working fine because of all the images coming into their homes,” Robinson told the Washington Post. “If you look at these shows, the on-air talent is quite diverse. Black people exist. But racism doesn’t.”
“Law & Order” is one show in particular that has contributed to this problem, according to Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.
The show’s structure typically features a self-contained story in every episode, with the episode’s first half showing the police as they solve a crime and make an arrest. The second half features the legal and courtroom proceedings of the case.
“The very thing that keeps ‘Law & Order’ going ... is the idea that they keep showing this efficient process over and over again,” Thompson told the Deseret News in an interview. “‘Law & Order’ gives — at least in part — some feel for this being an efficiently well-oiled machine.”
But reality is not always so clean-cut. No suspect is arrested in nearly 40% of murders and manslaughters in the U.S., according to The Washington Post. And the number is even lower in cases of rape, according to the Post. And because the stakes are lower, crime shows often don’t focus on more common types of crime, like burglary and car thefts.
Although these “lower-stakes” crimes might make for less compelling TV, they would give a more accurate idea to viewers of what crime rates are like in the U.S. Despite the fact that violent crime has steadily declined over the last 20 years, most Americans believe that crime is going up, Robinson told the Los Angeles Times.
“So there is a gap between perception and reality, and the gap between perception and reality is definitely related to the images they’re getting in their homes every day,” Robinson said.
Hollywood’s connection to the police
The popularity of crime shows did not begin with “Law & Order” — stories about the police have been part of the media landscape for decades.
“The relationship between law enforcement and the community is a central story, deep in the heart of the American soul,” said Thompson. “And it includes really important issues about power and about race.”
One of the first major television shows about law enforcement — and one of the most influential — was “Dragnet,” which started as a radio show before moving to TV in 1951, according to the Washington Post.
Jack Webb, the creator and star of “Dragnet,” partnered with the LAPD in order to give the show a more authentic feel. The LAPD allowed the show to film wherever it wanted, granted them access to police vehicles and equipment, and even allowed real cops to be extras on the show, the Post reported.
In exchange, all of the show’s scripts had to be approved by the LAPD’s Public Information Division before producers could begin filming, which meant that sometimes entire episodes were thrown out if the department objected to something, according to the Post.
Following in the footsteps of “Dragnet,” most crime shows still partner with police departments in order to get fuller access to equipment and consultants.
“We had wonderful consultants — truly good and kind people within the NYPD,” said David Slack, a television writer and producer who wrote several episodes of “Law & Order,” according to the New York Times. “But there was also always the sense that if we told stories that reflected too badly on the police, the NYPD could make it very difficult for us to shoot in New York.”
The series “Deputy” — which aired for one season on Fox before it was cancelled earlier this year — was inspired by Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who asked the show’s producer to “depict the department in a manner which is accurate and help him show young people that becoming a deputy is a good thing, and all the negative publicity around being a police officer or a sheriff’s deputy are those bad apples (that) don’t wreck the entire batch,” according to USA Today.
Shows that partner with police departments may be limited in the types of stories that they can tell about police. Even shows that do attempt to critique law enforcement and the legal system are limited in the ways that they can do so, which means that viewers are essentially getting one side of the story when it comes to the police, according to experts.
“The police officer is always our protagonist,” culture writer Constance Grady for wrote for Vox. “He might be troubled, she might be working within a corrupt system and trying to change it from within, but it is always through their eyes that we see the world. And that’s because the police built the genre that we use to talk about them.”
What role does race play in crime shows?
Color Of Change released a report in January — based on a study of 26 scripted crime series from 2017-2018 — that found that “these shows rendered racism invisible and dismissed any need for police accountability. They made illegal, destructive and racist practices within the criminal justice system seem acceptable, justifiable and necessary —even heroic.”
Part of the problem is the lack of diversity among the writers of these shows. Color Of Change found that 81% of writers of television shows in the crime genre were white men and 9% of the writers were black.
“A genre that influences the public’s thinking about the criminal justice system perhaps more than any other source — a system that affects black people disproportionately — must include the voices and stories from those communities,” Robinson, president of Color Of Change, wrote for CNN.
Unfortunately, racism is often dismissed in crime shows, according to USA Today’s TV critic Kelly Lawler, who points to scenes like one from the CBS series “Blue Bloods,” where a black man attempted to fake police brutality by throwing himself out of a window.
Another issue is the common trope of police officers who “bend the rules” for “the greater good,” according to Lawler. For example, Kyra Sedgwick’s character on TNT’s “The Closer” bends “the rules of Miranda rights to get her suspects to confess, while villainizing an Internal Affairs investigator.”
This trope can have real world consequences, according to Dream Hampton, executive producer of “Surviving R. Kelly” and a member of the board for Color of Change.
“Breonna [Taylor], for instance, was just killed with a no-knock warrant,” Hampton told the Washington Post. “No-knock warrants, going around the rules — the rules being bad to begin with — are something you see on television dramas all the time. It’s justified. There’s a clock ticking, a bomb that’s about to go off. Of course Kiefer Sutherland doesn’t have time to knock on the door and get a freaking warrant.”
What could shows about cops look like in the future?
Some shows are already grappling with how to move forward in a world where calls to “defund the police” are growing.
The cast and crew of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” donated $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network in support of protesters.
The decision was spurred on by actress Stephanie Beatriz, who wrote on Twitter, “I’m an actor who plays a detective on tv. If you currently play a cop? If you make tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in residuals from playing a cop? I’ll let you do the math.”
And actor Terry Crews told Seth Meyers that the show’s upcoming eighth season (which is not yet in production due to the COVID-19 pandemic) will tackle current events, according to Entertainment Tonight.
Meanwhile, an executive producer of the reboot of “S.W.A.T.,” Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, wrote recently about the need to “address the image of the hero cop,” according to the The New York Times.
But it remains to be seen what sort of changes can be made to a genre that is so reliant on formula — and whether the changes will be for the long-term.
The “big question” for police shows, according to the Syracuse professor Thompson, is “will this period that we’re going through right now change the very nature of how we deal with law enforcement in fictional television? Or will programs that deal with law enforcement simply do some episodes that give a nod to this and then go back to the formula?”
The answer to that question depends on what happens in the real world, and what (if any) changes come to police departments around the country in response to protests, Thompson said.
Washington Post TV critic Alyssa Rosenberg made a case for shutting down all police television shows.
But Thompson doesn’t believe that is the answer.
“The complaint now is that so many of these shows have failed to deal head on frequently with these kinds of issues,” Thompson said. “But that doesn’t mean we should not ever tell stories about the police. To me, good fiction about the police is more needed now than ever before.”