TV Police Under the Microscope: ‘We Need Different People Writing Different Cop Shows’

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The cop show is almost as old as television. The earliest police dramas brought up the idea of ​​a narrative that clearly defined good (police) and bad (criminal).
But quickly move forward to the current and mass protests in the United States after the death of black men and women, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Michael Brown Jr. by police officers, and the role the policeman plays - both fictional and non-fictional - The game in forming ideology and normalizing police brutality is being examined more closely.
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Paramount Network recently canceled the long-running "Cops" series after more than 30 years and 33 seasons. Then A&E followed with the suspension of “Live PD”, one of the highest rated shows. The Brooklyn Nine-Nine cast and showrunner donated a very public $ 100,000 donation to the National Bail Fund Network on June 2 to condemn Floyd's murder. On the same day, Dick Wolf, the king of the modern cop show, quickly released a writer from an upcoming "Law & Order" spin-off who posted a picture of himself with a gun on Facebook, with a caption that said he threatened to kill potential looters.
When "Monk" writer Tom Scharpling tweeted this month, writers and actors who have worked on cop shows have "contributed to the increased acceptance that cops are implicitly the good guys". This places these industry professionals in a troubled position as they have tried to devalue or dismantle local police departments across the country.
Neal Baer, ​​who acted as Law & Order: SVU's showrunner for eleven seasons, said that although the series had somewhat broken new ground, it would change the way some of the main characters are portrayed were when he could return the watch.
"If I were back at" SVU ", I would address the elements of the show I wanted," says Baer. “I think the show is very important to portray victims of once unspeakable crimes. Now it's crimes that are being talked about. It was a really important channel for that. On the other hand, Elliot Stabler kicked people around, and I wouldn't do that now. "
As Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and African American studies at UCLA, emphasizes, “roughing up perpetrators” has long been part of the territory when it comes to cop shows.
Hunt conducted a study for the civil rights organization Color of Change, which looked at how series deal with three specific issues, one of which is the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. He found that many shows still "promote the misconception that the police, courts, and prison system in America work without racial bias."
“The police are usually the protagonist on these shows. They are the heroes, ”Hunt adds. "We are asked to implicitly, if not explicitly, identify with them and accept their view of the world. That means the people who persecute them are criminals and they deserve what they get."
Much of the problem, according to Watchmen author Cord Jefferson, is that many cop shows fail to recognize or treat the history of the police force in America and the context in which it still exists. The latest HBO series, which touched the Greenwood massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, aimed to put things in perspective.
"We wanted to find out that historically, the police had a lot of white supremacists in their ranks," says Jefferson. "We didn't want to be afraid that police officers were also members of the clan in many places in America. There are absolutely many parts of America where this is still a problem today."
And “Watchmen” is by no means the only show that has tried to do things differently.
Everyone interviewed for this story refers to HBO's "The Wire" as a series that analyzed the social structures and constraints that affect the police and black community and that contributed to the situation in which we are are currently.
The Wire has made clear connections between the police, education system, local politics and socio-economic status to provide a more differentiated picture of the criminal justice system in America.
Hank Steinberg tried to do the same with his ABC show "For Life", which had just been recorded for a second season and was inspired by the real experience of the formerly imprisoned defense lawyer Isaac Wright Jr.
As Wright Jr.'s description implies, "For Life" deals with inequalities in criminal justice and systemic racism, both consciously and unconsciously. But Steinberg says he deliberately didn't want his main character Aaron Wallace (Nicholas Pinnock) to be a "great hero".
"It is an underdog story and it is also a family drama. You are rooted for him and you feel for him and I think the most important thing is that you empathize with him. That is the only reason why we tell art and stories Steinberg says, "If we just make cop shows about and empathize with the police, there is an imbalance, and this imbalance can have a strong impact on the whole culture and its perceptions."
Hunt says all you have to do is look at the major broadcast networks that "thrive on a steady menu of Law and Order shows" and the audience they serve to see the above-mentioned imbalance manifest.
"CBS has" CSI "and" NCIS ", NBC has" Law & Order "and" Chicago P.D. "All of these crime series, which have been repeated over the years, tend to get older, tend to get whiter," says Hunt. "If you go on a diet with TV shows, criminal cases, films that reinforce this notion of rampant, out of control crime and the need for the thin blue line to hold it all together, you will be watching these types of shows because of your worldview agree, and you will likely vote against things that could lead to more inclusion and inclusion because you fear you will be in such communities. It becomes this vicious cycle. "
Cop shows are one of the most watched series on TV: Of the 10 top-rated scripted programs in prime time for the 2019-20 season, exactly half were procedures that focus on the criminal justice system.
For this reason, the networks and studios "will not stop producing them," says Jefferson.
However, when conducting the Color of Change study, Hunt found that the criminal genre contained a disproportionate number of black voices in the authors' rooms. Of the nine criminal cases he investigated, according to Hunt, none had a black show runner, and only one had more than two black writers in the room (the latter show is no longer in the air).
The solution is not to "give up the idea of ​​the cop show as a whole," says Jefferson, but "to have different people who write different cop shows."
"To the extent that we don't have more diverse voices at the table in the writers' rooms, telling stories about the police only aggravates the problem," says Hunt.
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