Amid Cops cancellation, police portrayals on TV need an overhaul, says activist
Police reality shows 'served as sort of a PR arm for police departments,' says Color of Change's Arisha Hatch
For Arisha Hatch, cancelling the TV show Cops was a long time coming — and it should be followed by a reexamination of how police forces are portrayed in popular media.
As vice-president of the U.S.-based organization Color of Change, Hatch has been pushing for Cops to be taken off the air for the past seven years.
The show was dropped by Paramount Network as protests condemning police brutality, particularly against the Black community, spread around the world.
Paramount acquired Cops in 2013, but it was started in 1989 by Fox, where it flourished as a popular and cheap-to-produce program during U.S. President George H. W. Bush's War on Drugs.
Here is part of Hatch's conversation with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
Cops has been on the air for a long time. Its run is even longer than The Simpsons. But despite its popularity, you're not a fan. Why not?
I'm not a fan of Cops because I think it gives an inaccurate representation of what the criminal justice system looks like. For decades, the show Cops, and many other so-called policing reality shows, have served as sort of a PR arm for police departments, and has led to a lot of abuses of civil liberties, and encourages this sort of tough-on-crime, law-and-order mentality that has pervaded the United States for so many decades.
Cops was very popular in the 30 years that it was on the air. And you spent seven of those years trying to get it cancelled. What kind of pushback did you experience along the way?
We've experienced a lot of pushback. The most difficult part of these sorts of shows, like Cops, is that they're so cheaply produced. There are millions of episodes. They're shown around the globe.
Six years ago, we were able to get Fox to cancel first-round or new episodes of the show. [But] they were still showing Cops in syndication. And so it's been a bit like whack-a-mole.
Why do you think it's been so popular? Why have so many people tuned in to watch it over the years?
I think people tune in because they feel like it's entertainment. Because [if] they're able to sort of laugh [at] the folks that are getting in trouble — people that are probably having one of the worst days of their lives — others are able to laugh.
And I think because so many of the folks that watch these types of shows aren't policed in this way, they are able to sort of separate out the abusive nature of this show.
This show began during the War on Drugs, which we know has disproportionately affected the Black community. How did Cops influence the narrative in the wider society on the War on Drugs?
Cops influenced and enabled and reiterated the narrative that Black communities, poor communities, [and] brown communities needed to be policed at a higher rate.
There could have been a show, for example, about how people came in to help people that were struggling with addiction or mental health issues. But instead, we got a show in which a camera is placed in the back of a police car and the police are sort of encouraged to take on these scenarios and these victims in very violent ways.
Can you tell us a little bit about how police departments use this show as a PR tool?
What we've seen not only on Cops, but on other shows like this, is that the police departments have a veto over footage. They can literally say: "No, this doesn't look appealing. We're not going to air that."
It's part of the reason that the portrayals become so inaccurate. The police departments only want to show the police in a positive light. They only want to show them as heroes.
There's a wider discussion now about network television — the fictionalized, dramatized police shows like Law and Order and others — in that network TV should stop producing shows like that. What's your view on those?
We released a report at Color of Change called Normalizing Injustice. We worked with researchers at [the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center], and we looked through a number of crime procedural shows, which are very popular across the networks.
And we found a lot of troubling things. We found writers' rooms that were completely white and male, despite the fact that the representations on the screen were people of colour.
We found that people of colour are sometimes overrepresented in positions of power. There's this recurring trope of a Black woman judge, yet oftentimes this is a flat character. We don't know if she has a husband or kids. We know nothing about our life, but for the fact that she is in power and making decisions. And that's inaccurate.
Could you argue that the answer then is not to cancel those programs, but to reform them, to create a writers' room that's more equitable and therefore get narratives that are more equitable and closer to the theme of social justice?
Absolutely. We're not saying that the criminal justice system shouldn't be represented on television or in the movies. What we're saying is that the ways in which we have glamorized some of the abusive, unconstitutional behaviour in the past shouldn't be happening.
The way that we are not properly showing the terror that often law enforcement has inflicted on communities of colour is problematic. And the fact that so many of these storylines include people of colour, it is troubling that there aren't those same representations in those writers' rooms.
Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Laurie Allan. Q&A edited for length and clarity.
To hear more, download our podcast or click Listen above.