Wait, let me back up.
So, think of your favorite police shows. “CSI.” “Law & Order.” “Chicago PD.” “Castle.” “Rizzoli & Isles.” “Blue Bloods.” “Rookie Blue.” “SWAT.” “The Wire.” Maybe you love some “Dragnet” and “Hawaii 90210” and “Brooklyn-99.” Consider the crime genre more broadly and you’ve got “Bones,” “NCIS” (all 3 of them), “White Collar,” “Blacklist,” and many more.
In the crime genre, you as the audience follow officers and detectives and FBI agents and their favorite zany scientist and researcher side kicks to solve crimes and see dangerous criminals put in jail. The characters are full of nuance. They’re generous, well-explored, and interesting. You watch them fall in love and deal with normal adult problems and concerns. You applaud when they use offbeat tactics to get the job done, protect others, fight to make their hometowns and cities safer.
But what are we really seeing?
We’re seeing a lot of white people. We’re seeing stereotypes about crimes, criminals, and people of color. We’re seeing a lot of guns, a lot of violence. We’re seeing high-speed chases. We’re shown fully realized, predominantly white characters as the heroes, the good ones. Even when they make mistakes or get into trouble, we see them as whole people and so are sympathetic, and so easy to excuse. If an officer steps out of line, a peer always pulls them back in. All the criminals are bad or condescendingly misguided. Basically everyone arrested in convicted, and those who are arrested for crimes they didn’t commit might be upset, but they don’t suffer anything. And the hero detectives always keep digging to get them exonerated and for the real criminals to be found. The community is also safer after every episode. Cops are depicted as a stabilizing influence. And then you have the tough ex-cop, the lone wolf sheriff, the marshal with true grit who ignores the conventions and rules. For these well-loved characters, violence is forgiven because of the justice in their hearts.
So what aren’t we seeing?
We aren’t seeing nuanced representations of people who commit crimes. We aren’t seeing the history of economic depression, forced poverty, and racist institutions that are informing these neighborhoods or the lives of the people in them. We aren’t seeing police officers held accountable by one another. We aren’t seeing what happens to the families of the person arrested. We aren’t seeing their legal fees, their job loss, the hole in their community even if the person arrested is later revealed to be innocent. We aren’t seeing that police are trained to build a case, not to discover the truth. We aren’t seeing innocent bystanders who try to share information but are accused instead.
We aren’t seeing the predatory and entirely subjective bail bond system, which disproportionately affects communities of color. We aren’t seeing the number of innocent people who plead guilty, just to get out of prison and back to their families or jobs. We aren’t seeing their children taken into state care because their parents were arrested. We don’t see racist profiling. We don’t see harassment. We don’t see roads to rehabilitation. We don’t see false reports by vindictive, racist white people. We don’t see abuses of power. How many women and children are abused by their police officer relatives? We don’t see that the rogue cop’s violence bred this violence that’s befallen the town. We don’t see innocent EMTs gunned down in their own homes. We don’t see men pinned to the ground and murdered over $20.
We don’t see George Floyds. Or Breonna Taylors. The Sandra Blands. The Philando Castiles. We don’t see the Amy Coopers either.
We do see a lot of Chauvins. And their ubiquity makes is easy to ignore or wave away the threat and shock of actual police violence, even when real violence and harassment are caught on camera.
And what does this do to us?
It teaches us to be sympathetic and trusting of police. It teaches us to criminalize the presence of people of color, especially black people, in spaces we white people consider white. It desensitizes us to violence committed by white people in uniform.
It lets the same people say “You can’t make me wear a mask to protect other people” and a week later say “If they didn’t want to be arrested they should have been home before curfew.” I’ve yet to see a single NRA member go to protest military presence deployed against civilians, which I thought was why they needed those AR-15s. And the one white person in a flack vest (wrongly sized) who did show up with an assault rifle, and was caught on camera, was politely guided away by police.
The scripted crime genre tells overly simplistic stories that lie about our world and our neighbors, who has power and why. It tells us that certain crimes are always wrong, that there’s always another, legal option that the criminals didn’t take. It teaches us that law and order is preferable to justice and fairness. It teaches us that property and conveniences are more important than human lives. It teaches us the lie of bootstrap moralism and ignores the history of violent protest in this country. It teaches us that bad things only ever happen to other people, weak people, people over there who look like them.
The rise of cop shows and movies coincided with an increase in petty crimes in the ’70s through ’90s. And, like the rest of TV, the stories were sensationalized over time. TV isn’t a representation of reality, but those stories still effect how we see the world and the people in it.
We are not wiser for having watched the crime drama for 50 years. We are not better prepared to protect ourselves against violent crimes. We are not wiser about the types of situations which require police mediation. We haven’t been prepared for the many more situations which can be resolved in ways that neither bother the police nor endanger the lives of our neighbors.
They do not teach us to be better neighbors or people. They do not teach us to question the almost unilateral authority of the person with the badge and the gun. They do not teach us to speak up when we see a coworker mistreating evidence, harassing a witness, or kneeling on an unresisting man’s neck. They do not teach us to hold those with this tremendous power over life and death to a higher standard or behavior than ordinary people. They do not teach us the empathize with a dying, begging man. They do not consider if rubber bullets and tear gas are overly aggressive responses to people throwing water bottles and rocks.
The ends do not justify the means.
The only answer to a dirty cop, or a bad cop, is not another cop. Neither is the answer a zany squad of funny detectives.
Yes, police officers, FBI agents, sheriff’s deputies are all humans. We know that. The TV shows and movies and books make that very clear. But the people they target are also human, and that’s what cop-positive media neglects, if not actively works against. And you only have to look at how armed white people who showed up at the Minnesota state house two weeks ago to protest closed barbershops were met by law enforcement, versus how unarmed and peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors were met by law enforcement to see that the policing system is unfair.
When I say the crime drama is propaganda, I mean it meets that definition. According to Merriam-Webster, propaganda is “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause of to damage an opposing cause.”
Here’s an article about how “Dragnet” was propaganda for the LAPD, inventing the idea that police are a stabilizing force in communities, despite evidence to the contrary.
This article documents the shift in public opinion about police departments from “Dragnet” on.
Here’s an immense article about the normalization of injustice because of “television’s scripted crime genre.”
This article in the Washington Post details how police censorship shaped Hollywood, with anecdotes from “The Wire.”
Here’s an article analyzing how police are always the sympathetic main characters.
If police are helpers and protectors, who are they helping? Who are they protecting? With the videos I’ve been seeing lately, it’s pretty obvious to me that white people are the only ones consistently being helped and protected. Not that police officers haven’t also been filmed in these past few days macing white children and firing at white people watching the police pass by from their porch. On the LAPD police scanner yesterday, an officer encouraged a colleague to “shoot the motherf*ckers,” referring to protestors, and was immediately admonished, not for encouraging fellow police to shoot at protestors but for saying it on the scanner.
The white driver of the semi that deliberately drove into crowds of peaceful protestors sitting on a bridge was let go without charges because he had gotten “frustrated.” Police officers are on camera shoving women, including white women, with unconscionable vehemence. We also see white people using their bodies as shields, because they are so much less likely to be treated violently than black people are.
Law enforcement has been filmed deliberately firing bullets coated in rubber, pepper bullets, tear gas, and pellets at people’s heads, which has caused an outcry in other countries. This morning, South Africa urged American law enforcement to practice restraint, reminding them of what we hope they already know: rubber bullets and pepper bullets can still be lethal. Last night, my husband and I stayed up later than we intended watching the remnants of a protest in Washington DC. While we watched, a black officer hiding behind a line of fellow officers with riot shields, intentionally maced the cameraman.
What have the police departments, by and large, done when faced with people, largely black people, protesting police brutality? They have behaved brutally.
Many of the departments photographed “taking a knee” with protestors maced the crowd 45 minutes later. They wanted a photo op to make themselves look good. Which is why I don’t trust these “good cop sightings” either.
Excessive force killed George Floyd and prompted these protests, this rebellion against authorized violence against black people, and it has largely been met with scenes of excessive force. Again and again, police escalate into violence, police meet peaceful crowds with tear gas and mace. And again and again we see that the people setting fires and destroying windows are white people, even known white supremacists trying to undermine the movement’s efforts.
I’m no longer putting those stories and stereotypes about the police into my head. They are lies. They are propaganda. They hurt people. And they hurt us all.
Black Lives Matter.