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Second Take: It’s time for Hollywood to scrap simplistic, idealized TV portrayals of police

(Left: Courtesy of CBS Television / Right: Courtesy of NBCUniversal Television)

By Olivia Mazzucato

June 22, 2020 3:43 p.m.

Hollywood has helped craft a particular cultural image of the police – just, diligent and trustworthy – but it’s overdue for a rewrite.

The recent Black Lives Matter protests have brought about a necessary reckoning with institutional racism and policing in every corner of our culture. It’s time for Hollywood to consider the part they’ve played in valorizing the police through the decades. The range of police shows, from the obviously problematic “Blue Bloods” to the more innocuous “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” have warped public perception of justice in our society and insulated a harmful institution from scrutiny.

The relationship between the film industry and the police began in the 1920s when the industry quickly realized a partnership with the latter could be beneficial for securing filming permits and ensuring leniency and discretion for law-breaking movie stars.

(Courtesy of ViacomCBS Domestic Media)
'Cops,' a police reality show, has been on air since 1989, running for 33 seasons until it was recently canceled amidst the protests against police brutality. (Courtesy of ViacomCBS Domestic Media)

Such friendly dynamics served as the backdrop for the creation of “Dragnet,” a 1950s procedural that began each episode with the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true.” Though “Dragnet” emphasized its supposed authenticity, each script had to be approved or altered for objectionable content by the LAPD’s Public Information Division in exchange for story ideas and logistical resources.

The censorship resulted in a specific vision of law and order where police were community stabilizers – good people fighting criminals with measured and precise investigative tactics. But the same year “Dragnet” debuted on television, the real LAPD beat seven civilians in custody in an event called Bloody Christmas which left seven men, at least five of whom were Latino, with broken bones and ruptured organs. By projecting a positive image of police without the brutal realities and injustices, “Dragnet” effectively functioned as a public relations arm for the LAPD.

Though modern-day police procedurals aren’t as enmeshed with law enforcement, the majority of them still portray law enforcement in a largely uncritical manner. The best example of this is CBS’s “Blue Bloods,” a show about a multigenerational law enforcement dynasty that frequently depicts and justifies brutality. Protagonist detective Danny Reagan (Donnie Wahlberg) seems incapable of making it through an episode without roughing up a suspect, but is rarely questioned by his colleagues or superiors and always rationalized by a ticking clock.

“Blue Bloods” isn’t just at fault for legitimizing extreme violence, but also for its biased and demeaning portrayal of Black activists and movements. In one specific episode, a Black man is vilified when he throws himself out a window and falsely claims that Danny pushed him. In the aftermath, a prominent Black reverend leads a community campaign to get Danny fired and goes as far as encouraging a young witness to lie in his testimony.

Such convenient plot twists in “Blue Bloods” actively undermine the reality of the situation – that Black Americans are routinely subjected to police brutality and are oftentimes murdered because of it. It’s particularly galling and irresponsible to see a show actively take steps to discredit the very real systemic violence in the country.

And while “Blue Bloods” normalizes police brutality and suspicion of Black people, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” renders them invisible through a veneer of diversity and cheerful optimism. The squad is a family of loveable, relatable dorks led by two Black men, but those features are what make the show sneakily problematic.

In the critically acclaimed episode “Moo Moo,” Sergeant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) is stopped in his own neighborhood by another police officer, leading to a conversation about racial profiling. While the episode is certainly thoughtful and moving, it presents racism as a bug in policing rather than a feature.

The criminal justice and law enforcement systems are fundamentally broken, and no number of ‘good’ officers like Terry can mitigate that.

For their part, the cast of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” did collectively donate $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network, but while the action is meaningful, it doesn’t change the fact that optimistic feel-good TV utopias have dangerously skewed public perceptions of real-world police functionality and violence. A 2015 study found that people who watched crime dramas were more likely to believe that the police only used force when necessary and that police misconduct doesn’t lead to false confessions.

On top of that, a 2020 study looking specifically at police shows in the 2017-18 TV season found that many normalized and justified police misconduct, often depicting police officers of color performing such actions while also failing to accurately depict the impact of race on the system. Together, the studies troublingly demonstrate how police TV shows simultaneously drive public perception while overwhelmingly portraying a whitewashed, idealized version of reality.

There are no easy solutions, but with so much at stake, the responsible move would be to phase out police procedurals in media and find fresh ways to tell stories and uplift new heroes. The process has already begun with the cancellations of controversial reality police shows “Cops” and “Live PD.” That kind of change will be slow to come, and in the interim, shows must do more to bring writers of color into writers rooms and approach law and order stories with a critical eye. At the very least, they can no longer glorify cops who break the law in the name of justice.

With purposeful change, the film industry could and must become a crucial ally for activists and scholars by helping audiences imagine what a world looks like without police. Rather than creating shows that actively feed into misleading narratives about law enforcement, the film industry could help illustrate the end goals of the movements – seeking to defund or abolish the police – by showing teams of social workers approaching challenging situations with the training and restraint police officers lack.

Hollywood doesn’t hold the magical answer to solve the issues of police brutality and racial inequality in America. But media can be a crucial piece to undo the cultural entrenchment of law enforcement and help envision a more just future.

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Olivia Mazzucato
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