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Bingeing on Cop Propaganda

A new study breaks down the ubiquitous television cop drama and America's strange obsession with police.

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Watching cop shows always requires a certain suspension of disbelief: the detective who, armed with a few vague details, sifts through tens of thousands of records in a matter of seconds to pinpoint a single car to her team. The bartender who remembers every person she’s ever served a drink. The fact that virtually every case is even solved in the first place.

By now, it’s become a running joke. But beyond the familiar tropes, every episode of Law & Order: SVU or NCIS mindlessly consumed after work or on a weekend afternoon is also a vehicle for a particular understanding of law enforcement: a police-know-best mind-set that takes all of the mess and violence of our criminal legal system and packages it for tidy consumption. Given the ubiquity of these shows, it’s jarring to consider the scale of it.

A new study by Color of Change and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, “Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre,” sought to quantify the impact of this mass representation of law enforcement on television. Reviewing 353 episodes from 26 different shows focused on crime from the 2017–18 season, the study provides a fascinatingly detailed look at the ways the creative forces behind these shows are essentially functioning as propagandists for American cops.

Television didn’t start the trend of white Americans’ obsession with the supposed valor of the police, but it is one of the more powerful means of transmitting and reinscribing it to the nation: More crime shows cracked the top 100 watched programs than any other genre, and Color of Change found that in the fall 2019 lineup, 21 of the 34 prime-time dramas broadcast on the four main networks were about law enforcement.

There’s a wealth of information in the report, but among the more intriguing facets is its breakdown of how these shows justify police misconduct. Whereas people accused of crimes are rarely granted the necessary screen time for the audience to develop empathy with them or an understanding of the social and political contexts they’re coming from, the opposite is true for the cops: They are the central characters in these shows, and there’s nothing but room to explore their inner lives, whether as the now-saturated role of the anti-hero or the otherwise good cop making one bad decision.

That is, most of these series depict wrongful actions by law enforcement as “routine, harmless, or necessary—or even noble,” Color of Change found. In fact, 18 of the 26 shows chose to justify the misconduct of their police characters so that audiences continue to root for them.

“The narratives that are coming out of Hollywood—for profit—are fueling some of the incentives that we’re seeing in our country, fueling people’s understanding of what they think justice should look like. It also makes it harder for us to push back against injustice,” Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, told Shadow and Act. “Police on these shows are constantly doing bad things but are either being rewarded or are able to give a speech about why they had to do it.”

This point is especially muddled in shows like SVU. In every episode, we follow the now legendary New York crew, each story bringing a victim to avenge, a new perp to lock up, and a new set of moral quandaries for its detectives. Every once in a while, our detectives lose their cool. But these outbursts are just as often justified. When Olivia Benson or Elliot Stabler strong-arm—or just straight-up beat the shit out of—a “perp,” it’s presented as a necessary means to an ends. After all, the people they’re abusing have committed an “especially heinous” crime, as the opening of the show reminds us. In fact, watching the detectives enforce this violent sense of justice is meant to be humanizing—to draw the viewer into complicity: Who wouldn’t whale on someone this vile if they had the license to do so?

Even shows that try to present police abuse or misconduct in a critical light rarely hit the mark. The study found that in 353 episodes, there were just six examples of law enforcement officials being charged with crimes stemming from their misconduct. Conversely, the people the cops are regularly tasked with locking away are overrepresented by stereotypical Black or Latinx characters, with white men being written and cast as the primary victims of the crimes. Black women were cast as victims in just 6 percent of the episodes’ primary crimes. (In some respects, this is an honest depiction of how skewed policing really is—take the recent decision by New York City police to target fare evaders at subway stations servicing predominately Black neighborhoods or the city’s arrest rates for weed, which are nearly entirely reserved for Black and Latinx citizens. But too often these shows decide to simply reinforce these stereotypes rather than challenge them.)

As usual, a uniformity in viewpoint is traceable back to a uniformity in the writers’ room: Colors of Change also broke down the behind-the-scenes staff makeup of these shows and found that 81 percent of all showrunners and writers on the 26 shows were white men; nine of the shows had no black writers; and the two shows that had a writers’ room made up by more than 50 percent writers of color—Luke Cage and Seven Seconds—have already been canceled by Netflix. Also, on the whole, women made up just 37 percent of writers. (Even on SVU, they’re just 40 percent of the room.)

It’s also hard to separate these shows from other forms of police propaganda, from recent state and local legislative attempts to classify the murder of police as hate crimes to President Trump’s rallying call last October that his administration would continue “condemning anti-police bias in all forms.” This is in addition to the explicit cultural work police produce to endear themselves to the public.

In 2016, Pew found that despite the fact that the national crime rate has plummeted in the past two decades, over half of Americans polled believed there was “more crime in the U.S.” than in 2008. As Normalizing Injustice’s authors point out, this misguided line of thinking is only further enabled when the country’s most popular television shows depict “a system that does not actually have serious problems related to race, gender, violence and the abuse of power.”

Television isn’t real life, and Dick Wolf isn’t Donald Trump. But it’s clear the market and appetite for these shows means something and that the model works for a reason. So the next time you’re hit with the “Are you still watching?” message after the fourth straight episode of white victimhood and cop ass-kicking, it might be worth thinking about why shows like this have become a kind of comfort food.