By Olivia Montes
Throughout the last four months, as the world witnessed the police-related deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Lorenzo Dean, and countless other Black Americans and the sight of officers violently beating and subduing those marching in responding nationwide Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, we have also watched a related upheaval concerning our television sets.
Specifically, concerning the cops within them.
From the formulaic loner cop flick “Die Hard”(1988) to the law-abiding drama series and spin-offs of “Law & Order”(1990-) to precinct comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (2013-), films and TV shows that center their focus around police officers are everywhere, immersed in our popular culture as courageous individuals dedicated to not only upholding the law, but actively defending citizens in the name of preserving liberty and justice for all.
“From a storytelling standpoint, cop fiction pushes all the right buttons [where] police forces have a unique license to gather evidence, identify suspects, and pursue leads—a combination of skills that makes them narrative machines,” D.C.-based writer Stephen Kearse wrote for The Atlantic in July. “A cop’s workplace is the case; their duties take them everywhere. That mobility offers an infinite range of settings, characters, and twists.”
For decades, shows featuring persons in blue have enticed viewers with a variety of different programs, characters, and situations, often resulting in another crime solved and another criminal apprehended by the time the credits roll.
However, while our culture has been dedicated to providing stories predominantly featuring the “right” side of the law, we continue to witness actual officers, both in and out of uniform, enact violence against people exhibiting their own rights to assemble and protest, it raises the question as to how we should portray the police—or if we should even be depicting their lives at all.
“We live in a world in which police are responding to peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets,” Constance Grady of Vox Media said in June. “[But] we also live in a world in which the heroic police officer is one of our culture’s default protagonists.”
Looking back on the officers the nation has grown up watching, viewers can see how the shows themselves justify the methods these enforcers use to pressure unsuspecting individuals because, in the eyes of the viewer, they are somehow guilty—without providing another possible counter-perspective to emerge.
Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic wrote a June 12th 2020 piece “The ‘Dragnet’ Effect: How TV Has Obscured Police Brutality” discusses on-screen cops continuing to merely accept the examples of fellow officers’ actions towards perpetrators rather than question their integrity, especially towards those that have knowingly and unknowingly sworn to protect. He argues that those who call themselves “good cops” based within and beyond the program, are still often those “who fail to see, acknowledge, and fight the abuses around them…are inadequate to their jobs as they rise through the ranks and render police departments unable to quash all manner of dysfunction.”
With this interpretation being broadcasted across the nation and the globe, our initial instinct as the audience is to sympathize with their decisions rather than challenge their authority during the program itself—and, for those on the force, to support their own actions upon those who seem to be stepping out of line, a large majority being people of color.
“Today, there are still some defenders of law enforcement who go so far in refusing to acknowledge its problems that they may as well be engaged in propaganda,” Friedersdorf said, stating that, “to many modern viewers, raised with a painful awareness of the racism and brutality of policing 50 years ago”, seeing how unaware current-day departments are towards these ongoing systematic issues is disheartening.
The cancellation of the long-running series “Cops”and “Live PD” this past June, as well as the announcement of the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”cast and crew reevaluating future episodes to address these events in their upcoming eighth season, marks a stepping stone as to bridging that gap, to not only accept the reality of actual police violence, but to also to transfer the same amount of dedication towards making their fictional counterparts the focus towards the other side, with shows such as “Orange is the New Black” (2013-2019), “Marvel’s Jessica Jones”(2015-2019), and “Watchmen”(2019-).
“It’s a shift that many activists say is long overdue, in a film and TV landscape still dominated by procedural dramas that, gritty as they are, often focus on the case and its resolution — and not the deeper, more complicated issues of race and a more nuanced consideration of proper police use of force,” Ricardo Lopez and Ted Johnson said in Variety. “Just as the news media has woken up to the problems of police shootings, thanks largely to the proliferation of smartphone and dashboard cameras, so too have content creators become cognizant of the realities of the justice system.”
While these and similar efforts are being made to properly address police brutality, as well as how we should see those involved within these incidents, this and future transitions towards providing on-screen officers while acknowledging the reality of policing itself will grant viewers not a “good” nor “bad” interpretation, but rather how to apply this viewpoint into how they see the world around them.
“We all grew up on cop shows. And we all reflexively know that when we are presented with a cop story, the cop is the hero,” Grady said. “What all of us have to decide right now is whether we want to continue looking at the world through the framework of that story while outside our houses, police officers are brutalizing civilians in the street.”
Featured Photo caption: This past summer, our culture is revisiting not only police violence in our country, but also in the shows we watch.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash