As police face a public grilling, so do iconic cop shows

Why We Wrote This

Television can be a tool for building social awareness, but recent protests against police brutality have some cop-show fans wondering if their favorite prime-time detectives are actually part of the problem.

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Ja'Siah Young and Ice-T perform in "The Things We Have to Lose" in Season 21 of "Law & Order: SVU." Police officers are ubiquitous in American media. but police procedurals are facing new heat, amid protests and calls to "defund the police."

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Police officers are ubiquitous in American media, with crime shows pulling in more viewers than any other genre. But amid the surge of protests and calls to “defund the police,” these programs are facing heat.

Paramount canceled the reality series “Cops” in early June. A&E has ceased production on its hit series “Live PD.” A subsequent report released Wednesday by The Marshall Project reveals that “Live PD” producers routinely accommodated requests from the Los Angeles Police Department to edit out footage of officers using violence and bad language. And some viewers have even called for the cancellation of Nickelodeon’s cartoon series “Paw Patrol,” which features a canine officer named Chase.

But many fans of the genre feel torn.

“I feel guilty because I still do want to watch the next season of ‘Law and Order: SVU,’” says Katherine Singh of Toronto. “If I do watch, I’ll just try to be more aware of how I approach the show and just do a little bit more work independent of the show to educate myself on violence and police brutality. I will try really hard not to just go so blindly into it.”

When Katherine Singh started watching “Law & Order: SVU” as an undergrad, she was fascinated by the “ripped from the headlines” stories, strong female leads, and the way the series validated victims of sexual assault. She quickly became a die-hard fan.

“I tried to get everyone I knew to watch it,” says Ms. Singh, who works in Toronto as an assistant editor at Flare magazine. 

But recent protests against police brutality have made her reconsider her love of the long-running procedural and its effect on her perception of law enforcement.

As a woman of color, Ms. Singh is not unfamiliar with racism, “but I’m not a Black woman; I’m not an Indigenous woman,” she says. “So I’ve never had to worry personally about my interactions with police. ... I think of them as like characters on my TV screen, as opposed to real people actually out there that can sometimes cause people harm.”

Police officers are ubiquitous in American media, with crime shows pulling in more viewers than any other television genre. Of the top 10 longest-running prime-time dramas, half are police procedurals. Now those programs are facing heat.

Paramount canceled the reality series “Cops” in early June. A&E ceased production on its hit series “Live PD” around the same time. A subsequent report released Wednesday by The Marshall Project reveals that “Live PD” producers routinely accommodated requests from the Los Angeles Police Department to edit out footage of officers using violence and bad language. “Law & Order” writer Craig Gore was fired for threatening protesters who were breaking curfew on Facebook, and people have even called for the cancellation of Nickelodeon’s cartoon series “Paw Patrol,” which features a canine officer named Chase. 

“There’s been a real shift in the consciousness about what policing does and how it operates in society,” says Steven Thrasher, a professor at Northwestern University’s journalism school who has studied marginalized communities as a reporter and an academic. “I think [the George Floyd video has] made people realize they’re not so comfortable glorifying police all the time.”

History of bad behavior

The alphabet soup of crime procedurals popular today can be traced back to “Dragnet,” a radio show turned TV series that portrayed LA detectives as level-headed heroes who kept city streets safe. The real LAPD loved it – they were also deeply involved in the production of every episode. As his department faced accusations of brutality and racism, Chief William H. Parker held veto power on “Dragnet” scripts, ensuring that the show’s 16.5 million viewers saw officers who were calm, honest, and acting by the book.

Since “Dragnet,” TV officers have become more nuanced. Adisa Iwa, a professor of television and film at Morehouse College, remembers watching “Hill Street Blues” in the 1980s. “That was the first time on the television when you had cops who were regulars on the show who were flawed, who were not paradigms of virtue all the time,” he says.

“Hill Street Blues,” in part, inspired him to become a screenwriter. He ended up writing episodes of “Law & Order: SVU” and “NYPD Blue” about 20 years later. “Back then, the concern primarily was telling an interesting story,” he says. “Now people are taking a much more critical eye.”

It’s not necessarily the officers’ flaws that viewers are taking issue with – it’s the lack of accountability when those flaws turn into abuses of power.  

A recent Color of Change study of 26 scripted crime series found that in the 2017-18 season, most shows normalized bad behavior – coercion, lying and tampering, overt racism, etc. – by criminal justice professionals. The frequency of the protagonists’ violations makes such behavior seem natural or necessary in the pursuit of justice, say researchers, and the characters rarely receive any formal punishment for the offenses.

It’s a theme that’s bothered TV critic LaToya Ferguson throughout her career. “Internal affairs is always seen as the bad guy, which is insane to me,” she says. “I’ve never understood it. ... If you’re all afraid of IA, even if you’re a good cop, that says a lot.” 

In “Law & Order: SVU,” it was Detective Elliot Stabler who had the most to fear. He was a boundaryless, short-tempered cop who regularly abused suspects with little to no repercussions. But instead of condemnation, viewers are offered glances into his challenging family life as a way to explain his baggage.

20TH CENTURY FOX TV/Album/Newscom
Jimmy Smits, Dennis Franz, and James McDaniels perform in a scene from "NYPD Blue."

The character left the show in 2011, but will return in a new series, “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” debuting this fall. Christine Zimmer, who runs the popular fan blog “All Things Law & Order,” says that’s been concerning for some SVU fans. 

“As we haven’t even seen one episode of the new series yet, it’s unfair to pass judgment on what kind of person Stabler, or others working with him, will be,” she said in an email to the Monitor, adding, “Characters like this may not be tolerated much longer, unless they come to justice or change their ways.”

What can be saved?

Mrs. Zimmer says there’s still a strong desire for crime dramas, but “they will have to do something more substantial than covering the issues with law enforcement and racial injustice over just an episode or two. It’s great to have TV shows that highlight the ideal image of law enforcement, but that can’t be done without showing how we can get there.”

Tackling police brutality has been a challenge for many cop shows, including “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a precinct sitcom that has been celebrated for challenging stereotypes.

In the fourth-season episode titled “Moo Moo,” Sgt. Terry Jeffords, played by Terry Crews, is racially profiled by another officer while searching for his child’s lost blanket. He’s released, but must decide whether to risk political backlash by filing a complaint. 

“It just didn’t work for me,” says Ms. Ferguson. “My biggest issue with the show is that it lives in this magical world where it will acknowledge there are a lot of bad cops, but our cops are the only good ones.”

It looks like the series will try again. In addition to donating $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network, the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” team is rethinking its next season. Four episodes have already been scrapped after some “solemn conversations” about Mr. Floyd’s death, Mr. Crews told Access Hollywood last week. “We have an opportunity and we plan to use it in the best way possible,” he said.

Diverse writers’ room

Ms. Ferguson, meanwhile, references “Person of Interest,” which featured Taraji P. Henson as an NYPD detective, as one of her favorite shows. She says it’s “a very good story about an actual good cop in a sea of bad cops” who is killed while trying to “uncover and dismantle the very corrupt organization within the NYPD.”

She’s killed, she says, “because the rot is just from the top down, pretty much. It’s just an unflinchingly honest story about this. But a lot of cop shows aren’t going to do that.”

Mr. Iwa says if shows are going to wade into this subject matter, a diverse writers’ room is essential. According to the Color of Change report, 88% of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” writers during the 2017–18 season were white and “Law & Order: SVU” had no writers of color. To hit the right tone, Mr. Iwa says that needs to change. Long term, Ms. Ferguson thinks that we may also see more procedurals centered on private investigators and consultants to make “the cop of it all” more palatable.

But in the meantime, many fans will have a personal decision to make about how they engage with their favorite fictional cops.

“I feel guilty because I still do want to watch the next season of ‘Law and Order: SVU,’” says Ms. Singh. “If I do watch, I’ll just try to be more aware of how I approach the show and just do a little bit more work independent of the show to educate myself on violence and police brutality. I will try really hard not to just go so blindly into it.”

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