Protests against police brutality spur reflection on TV cop shows

As more people begin to question long-held assumptions about police, that reflection is extending to the influence of TV cop shows, which have long focused on sympathetic depictions told from the perspective of law enforcement.

Television 'fantasies about policing are increasingly unviable,' says writer

TV shows about cops face criticism amid protests

3 years ago
Duration 2:01
Featured VideoRecent protests against police violence lead to criticism of television shows about police officers always painting law enforcement as inherently good.

Steven Thrasher has long been critical of the entertainment world's ubiquitous portrait of the police officer as an unassailable figure of authority.

Two years ago, the writer, editor and journalism professor posted a thread on social media calling out the police sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine as "the most effective form" of "copaganda" he'd ever seen.

Citing its diverse group of smiling cops getting into various hijinks on a weekly basis, Thrasher derided the popular show as "a way to really keep people accepting the police and to get them not to question the institution." The thread sparked a major backlash from defensive fans, as well as fellow writers.

"I've been dragged a lot of times on Twitter, but never dragged as much as I was from that thread," said Thrasher, who teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE -- "Valloweaster" Episode 711 -- Pictured: (l-r) Joe Lo Truglio as Charles Boyle, Melissa Fumero as Amy Santiago, Winston Story as Bill, Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta, Andre Braugher as Ray Holt, Stephanie Beatriz as Rosa Diaz, Joel McKinnon Miller as Scully -- (Photo by: Jordin Althaus/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images) (Jordin Althaus/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images)

Now, however, many are reconsidering his words. Following the recent killing of George Floyd in police custody and worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, many people are questioning their long-held assumptions about law enforcement.

"As we question the whole role of police and society, this sort of happy-go-lucky comedy about these cops is part of how we have grown to accept it," Thrasher said.

Steven Thrasher, a writer and journalism professor in the U.S., sparked a backlash in 2018 for a social media thread in which he criticized the show Brooklyn Nine-Nine as 'a way to really keep people accepting the police and to get them not to question the institution.' (Submitted by Steven Thrasher)

That reflection extends to the broader influence of TV, which has long focused cop shows on sympathetic depictions from the officers' perspectives, from Dragnet to Hill Street Blues, Cops to Law & Order, Flashpoint to Blue Bloods.

This week, Paramount Network cancelled Cops, a controversial TV stalwart that ran for more than three decades. A&E followed by axing its own police reality series, Live PD.

Meanwhile, actors who have played law enforcement on screen have made donations to groups aiding protesters and bail relief organizations.

"Activists have shown that this is knowledge that people want. They are tapping into that consciousness-raising about it and Hollywood is realizing that they have to keep up with that, because the CSI procedurals are not going to go down as easily as they did," said Thrasher. "People are questioning them."

A historic 'bargain' with police

There has been a deal of sorts between the entertainment world and police departments for decades, said Alyssa Rosenberg, who writes about culture and politics for the Washington Post's opinion section. 

Much of what we see today is thanks to Dragnet actor and creator Jack Webb in the 1950s, she explained. In exchange for access to police that included equipment, quickly approved permits and even off-duty officers as extras, Webb granted the Los Angeles Police Department veto rights over his scripts.

"The version of policing that the LAPD was willing to sign off on is one where there are no bad police shootings, where you know the LAPD is always on the side of right and justice and there's no unjustified brutality," Rosenberg said.

WATCH | Dragnet creator and star Jack Webb defends the integrity of police officers:

Today's entertainment industry consultations with police lean toward "determining authenticity and getting information, but it has its roots in that bargain that Webb struck with the LAPD."

The portrait of law enforcement perpetuated over the decades is unattainable and far from reality, she said. 

"In the vast majority of police shows, each episode ends with somebody getting arrested and prosecuted. But if you look at the actual rates at which major crimes are cleared in the United States, they are much lower than you might expect," Rosenberg noted.

"The second message that pop culture tends to send broadly is that police use of force, specifically police shootings, are always good and generally are justified... What's happened in recent years, as civilians have actually been able to film their interactions with the cops, is that these fantasies about policing are increasingly unviable."

LISTEN | How TV actors, writers and producers are rethinking their depictions of police:

Like other segments of society, the entertainment industry is questioning its picture of law enforcement, and while the issue won't be solved overnight, there is opportunity for creativity and balance moving forward, said Rosenberg.

"Allowing some more room for the frustrations and difficulties of police work could benefit not only civilians, who are policed by law enforcement, but could benefit police officers themselves, by opening up conversations."

Alyssa Rosenberg, a culture and politics writer for The Washington Post, said the entertainment industry's consultations with police today is rooted in a 'bargain' struck by Jack Webb, star of Dragnet, with the LAPD back in the 1950s. (Amber Wilkie)

What's also needed is a greater range of perspectives, "so that cops aren't always the main characters, but audiences spend more time with victims of crime, people who are considered suspects and people who are policed in their day-to-day lives if they're not committing crimes," she said.

She pointed to the recent Netflix series Unbelievable as a good example.

'Trying to challenge these norms of representation'

Writer and director Sudz Sutherland strives to tell complex, not-so-clear-cut stories — including about police and the justice system — with his partner Jennifer Holness. Sutherland, whose work includes the CBC series Shoot the Messenger, said they've experienced resistance in the industry.

"When we want to show something that has more nuance, that has more vulnerability or even culpability on the cops' part, we get challenged, we get pushback," he said. "It's tough being an artist and trying to challenge these norms of representation."

Canadian writer and director Sudz Sutherland aims to present more complex depictions in his stories, including that of police officers. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Sutherland is opposed to eliminating the genre of police shows, since "police brutality has been going on from day one." 

Instead, the Toronto-based creator believes increasing the number of diverse voices and leaders in the entertainment industry will help tell stories that more accurately reflect reality, and also change the messages pop culture and the media have sent about the police, and about Black people.

"We're gonna have to have more creatives of colour in the room and not just as window dressing, because a junior writer who is a creative of colour has no power," he said.

"Systemic racism is a real thing. And if we want to change the culture, we have to take real steps, with real action... We do have to look at how we represent police and agents of the state, how they suppress and oppress Black people."

With files from Zulekha Nathoo and Sharon Wu