Is it time to reimagine police shows and movies?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

One of America’s most popular entertainment genres is the police show. Stories about crime are exciting, dramatic and have drawn large audiences for decades. But as the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others have sparked widespread protests and the nation reckons with police brutality and systemic racism, TV shows about law enforcement have come under fresh scrutiny for their depiction of the criminal justice system.

In the past week, networks have pulled the police shows “Cops” and “Live PD.” The cancellations follow the protests over police brutality and a slew of viral videos showing cops beating, pepper spraying and teargassing peaceful protesters and journalists. Some actors who portray cops have been donating to bail funds in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and are urging their peers to match their contributions.

What we watch on TV can shape our view of reality, and millions have learned about the criminal justice system through police procedurals. Shows like “Law & Order” and “NCIS” use a well-known format: Cops and other law enforcement officials are the protagonists and investigate a new case each episode, often solving it by the episode’s end.

This structure grew out of a collaboration between the entertainment industry and police departments. For decades, law enforcement officers consulted on shows and used them to help shape their public image, steering showrunners in the direction of “good guy” portrayals. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department provided both ideas and financial support to the classic 1960s series “Dragnet” and vetted scripts before filming.

Why there’s debate

While the popularity of these shows — “Cops” ran for more than 30 years — proves that audiences love the crime drama, some critics say that the shows serve only to push an overly positive image of cops.

But supporters of police shows worry that their mass cancellation, an effect of “cancel culture,” threatens free speech. In some instances, the call has gone too far, they say, especially in the case of “Paw Patrol,” an animated children’s show about rescue dogs. Supporters also argue that it’s dangerous to censor all depictions of police, and say that there should still be room for some positive images of cops.

Advocates and most critics agree it’s unlikely that networks will cancel all shows. But critics argue it would be beneficial to reimagine the ways police are portrayed. They point to shows like “Orange Is the New Black,” where prison inmates are the protagonists, and “Watchmen,” which examines police brutality and white supremacy, as examples of what a cop shows can be.

Critics say many shows glorify cops, normalize racism and injustice in the criminal justice system and skew viewers’ perceptions of what constitutes police brutality. They point to an unfair balance in most shows, where cops are the heroes who viewers get to know over entire seasons, while victims and perpetrators are guest stars and disappear after a few episodes. Onscreen, cops have unrealistically high clearance rates and alleged criminals are quickly brought to trial. A report by the advocacy group Color of Change found that police shows failed to accurately depict interactions between police and people of color and that officers rarely face consequences for wrongdoing. Critics also argue that a lack of diversity in writers’ rooms makes it difficult to tell stories about race and police.

What’s next

The television industry is on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, but as debate around how shows depict police intensifies, there may be a shift in how entertainment programming tells stories about police and the criminal justice system.


Cops are overrepresented in media

“When we talk about representation in movies and television, we often point at the voices and faces that are missing. But we also need to look at the voices and faces that are overrepresented. Too often police are beacons of morality who never do wrong. Too often criminals are people of color, particularly black men. Too often victims are forgettable and laws optional when you carry a badge and a gun.” — Kelly Lawler, USA Today

Police shows reflect the broken criminal justice system as a whole

“‘Cops’ often made police work look like a particularly sad realm of existence. … The camera crews of ‘Cops’ regularly encountered citizens who had a long list of troubles and problems, ones that law enforcement was poorly equipped to handle: unemployment or under-employment, poverty, addiction, few or no role models or support networks.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review

Pro-police points of view are important. Canceling all cop shows is a threat to free speech.

“It’s reached the point where police officers may not be shown doing anything good. Any police action must be seen as bad. … There's no real debate, no real free speech, if even mild pro-police opinions or shows are censured.” — Stuart Varney, Fox Business.

‘Cancel culture’ is going too far

“Now the scalp-hunting has started to target ordinary and often obscure people, and the offenses in question have nothing to do with bigotry — it is simply having the unfashionable view of a public controversy, or being somehow associated, however lightly — ‘Paw Patrol’ did not kill George Floyd — with that controversy.” — Editors, National Review

Writers must expand the points of view beyond those of cops

“Instead of focusing simply on what makes our jobs easier and more convenient, real change requires hard and sometimes uncomfortable work, conversations, and consideration. Failure to do this can have real-life consequences. Ultimately, efforts to improve can and will lead to better TV shows, more nuanced cop procedurals, and, who knows, maybe even impact real-world interactions between police and community.” — Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, S.W.A.T. writer, Vanity Fair

'Cops' taught aspiring officers how to act incorrectly

"We heard over and over again how many cops who were on ‘Cops’ talk about the fact they wanted to become cops because of ‘Cops.’ There’s an endless cycle of police officers acting like the way police officers on ‘Cops’ act, which is not how they’re supposed to be acting. Once ‘Cops’ is off the air for ten, 20 years, it will be interesting to see if policing — or what replaces policing — cannot keep repeating the same crappy cycle." — Dan Taberski to Vulture

Don’t exaggerate police performance

“Audiences would have to be retrained to watch, for example, a version of “Special Victims Unit” where the characters cleared only 33.4 percent of rape cases, or to accept that in almost 40 percent of murders and manslaughters, no suspect is arrested. If storytelling focused on less-dramatic but more-common crimes such as burglary and motor-vehicle theft, the stakes would shrink — along with the case-clearance rate.” — Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post

Consider the film noir genre

“Film noir stories are usually about characters who investigate crimes, characters who are sometimes but not always police officers. The genre is defined by a sense of systemic fatalism: the realization that the crime being investigated is far more complicated, with much deeper roots, than most people could have imagined.” — Emily VanDerWerff, Vox

We need to diversify writers’ rooms

“There’s a huge amount of opportunity to rethink the way we tell police stories — without doing away with the stories or without necessarily doing away with police, but by complicating the premise. … I think to do that appropriately, you need to have people around the table who are more sensitive to those issues.” — Darnell Hunt to Washington Post

We can use TV to imagine the future of policing

“In order for policing alternatives to gain wider understanding and support, people have to be able to envision how that would even work and this is the great power of TV (and film): To imagine the things that we can’t yet imagine for ourselves.” — Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune

Altering how cops are depicted could lead to real change

“If the country is going to change its relationship to the police, that means shifting the way they’re depicted as well. That doesn’t mean every TV cop show has to be a hard-nosed exposé of misconduct on the force. … But the balance has to shift. It should reflect a world in which most people are subject to the police, and the police are not always subjects.” — Sam Adams, Slate

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Photos