This is part one of a two-part series examining how the media has shaped Americans’ perceptions of police. Read part two on Monday.
For more than 30 years—until its cancelation on June 9—Cops was considered a success story in Hollywood and an iconic piece of American pop culture. On any given Saturday night in the 1990s, as many as 8 million people watched the TV series, drawn to its gritty and thrilling content. Even those who didn’t watch could probably identify the show’s theme song, with its immediately recognizable Reggae chords.
“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do, when they come for you?”
The low-budget show became one of the longest-running television programs in the United States, and for many Americans, was their main entry point into what the life of a police officer was like. Once a week, millions of viewers went on a virtual ride along with real-life law enforcement officials as they did their job, breaking up fights, investigating drug transactions, and responding to domestic violence incidents.
But the reality series always had a darker side lying just beneath the relentless glorification of police officers and sheriff’s deputies. It embraced racial stereotypes, depicting predominantly white police officers arresting primarily Black and Brown suspects, leading viewers to believe that people of color committed more crimes than they really did. The world of Cops was quite literally, very Black and white: Police officers were the “good guys” and their suspects were depicted as the “bad guys” who deserved what they had coming to them.
The sort of tidy narrative embraced by Cops even earned its own nickname—“copaganda”—and went largely unquestioned by the broader American public for years. But in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and the waves of brutality inflicted upon largely non-violent protesters demanding racial justice, there’s been an enormous shift in public perception of police officers and racism in the United States. In less than a month, millions of Americans’ views have changed and a majority now support major reforms to policing. No longer are Americans blindly accepting the story that programs like Cops told them.
But this raises a question: What took so long? Police officers have been disproportionately killing and harassing Black people for decades. Why did it take until George Floyd for a majority of the country to accept what Black Americans have been talking about for more than 50 years? Why are widespread calls for reform only happening now?
There’s no one answer to that question. Elected officials and police unions have played a huge role in opposing or slowing down reform and the nation’s culture of policing is one that makes accountability virtually impossible. But there’s another hugely influential entity that has played a critical role in perpetuating systemic racism and shaping America’s deferential relationship to police: Hollywood.
Cops premiered on Fox on March 11, 1989, and almost immediately became a huge hit. The show felt “real,” and for many viewers, it was. Americans largely accepted such portrayals of police officers—and suspects—without a second thought and held overwhelmingly positive views of law enforcement.
“It’s important to recognize that most [people] in the United States have never had an actual encounter with the criminal justice system, especially the police,” said Dr. Franklin T. Wilson, professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Indiana State University.
Only 21% of Americans ages 16 or older experienced some type of contact with the police in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available
“Therefore, their sole source for understanding policing and what is considered proper behavior rests in media portrayals,” Wilson said.
But those media depictions are often misleading and divorced from reality. Research has found that Cops depicted drug crimes, prostitution, and violent crime as being far more common than in real life, showed cops as being more effective at making arrests and solving crimes than in real life, and presented the use of excessive force as good policing. A 2007 analysis of the show also found that the series typically depicted men of color—who made up 62% of offenders on-screen—as violent criminals and white men as non-violent criminals.
More than nine in 10 police officers shown on Cops were also white men (92%), reinforcing the stereotypes of white men protecting society from Black and Latino men. While playing into harmful tropes of Black men, the show also celebrated police officers, delivering them a publicity coup. The show lionized police officers to such a degree that it was once described as “the best recruiting tool for policing ever.”
While Cops disproportionately depicted actual Black Americans as criminals, Hollywood’s fictional stories took a different, yet similarly problematic approach. Wilson, who also teaches African and African American Studies, has conducted extensive research on the depiction of police and crime in pop culture. In film, those portrayals have most often puffed up cops as the heroes, depicting them in the sort of “white knight” role, Wilson said. At the same time, Hollywood’s long-running issues with diversity meant that Black people were often excluded from the narrative altogether.
In one study, Wilson and his colleagues examined the depiction of police use of force in 112 cop films across 40 years, beginning with Dirty Harry in 1971 and ending in 2011, a year prior to the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager who was shot and killed by a vigilante neighborhood watch member.
“In the end we examined 468 police use of force scenes,” Wilson said. “We have found that the vast majority of those who are on the receiving end in depictions of police use of force are white males. Therefore, if the common person rarely sees the depiction of African Americans as the recipient of police use of force, the concept is symbolically removed from their conscience.”
Americans saw real, living, breathing Black people as criminals worthy of arrest in Cops, but rarely saw Black people being harmed by police in movies, making it more difficult for them to conceptualize the reality in which police officers actually are using excessive force against innocent Black people.
“These entertainment media depictions of police use of force have helped to cultivate a sense of reality that does not really exist when it comes to police use of force, often resulting in a belief that certain uses of force cases are rare,” Wilson said.
“We know through cultivation theory research that unless a person has a personal experience with an issue, the more one consumes specific messaging, be it imagery or statements of information, the more they are likely to adopt it as fact,” Wilson said. “If you couple all of this with the fact that law enforcement related programs have accounted for 20-30% of programming since the 1970s, it’s hard to imagine it has not had an impact.”
In other words: If one of the main narratives Americans are being shown on TV and in movies is the message of “cops are good and use force only when necessary” and “Black people are violent criminals,” then it’s hard for it not to seep into Americans’ actual perception of law enforcement.
A 2015 study from professors Kathleen Donovan and Charles Klahm IV came to a similar conclusion. “We find that viewers of crime dramas are more likely to believe the police are successful at lowering crime” and “use force only when necessary,” Donovan and Klahm wrote.
“The police have definitely been glorified in the media,” said Stephanie Nichol Whitehead, Criminal Justice professor at Indiana University East. More often than not, the vision of cops is “good guy vs. the bad guy” and the police are on the good side. That’s problematic, Whitehead explained, “because they don’t necessarily always do great things.”
Those portrayals have become more nuanced and diverse over the past two decades, with programs like The Shield and The Wire and films like End of Watch and Rampart, which depict cops as occasionally corrupt, violent, and contemptful of those they police. But those sorts of narratives remain the exception and have still been far outnumbered by the CSI and Law & Order franchises and the dozens of other police programs on the air.
In order to create these cozy fictional depictions, Hollywood has frequently partnered with real-life law enforcement officials on these projects. Beginning with Dragnet in 1951, Hollywood developed a close relationship with the police, relying on them to consult on projects, provide real cop cars and real cops as extras, approve filming locations, and even check scripts for authenticity.
But this often came at the cost of censorship. The Los Angeles Police Department reportedly received every script of Dragnet before it aired and if they disapproved of a single element, it was cut from the scripts. Predictably, Dragnet was very much a form of “copaganda.”
As Vox pointed out earlier this month, the same year that Dragnet premiered, a group of LAPD officers assaulted seven civilians, leaving five Latino men and two white men hospitalized with broken bones and ruptured organs. That incident, needless to say, was not depicted on Dragnet, which instead helped launder the image of the LAPD into something much less fraught.
“Any shooting that was done on the shows was squeaky clean,” former detective sergeant Joseph Wambaugh, who worked briefly in the LAPD’s public information office, where the scripts were reviewed, told the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg in 2016. “Any officer would have to be in total control.”
As violence in American cities increased in the 1970s and 1980s, many programs justified and sometimes even celebrated officers who engaged in brutality or killed suspects, while almost never telling stories from the perspective of those who were on the other side of police officers’ guns and batons. Officers were also depicted longing for an escape from cities that they viewed as rife with crime, and Hollywood frequently depicted cops as being contemptuous of civilian authorities, courts, and any other figures or institutions that dared provide oversight.
Decades later, those attitudes are reflected in the actual, real-life police officers who “protect and serve.” Most police officers do not live in the cities they work in and police departments, and especially police unions, have fiercely resisted oversight and accountability.
“Movies, television and novels have trained audiences to excuse almost any police shooting,” Rosenberg wrote in her five-part series on police and pop culture in 2016.
The partnership between Hollywood and law enforcement has continued to this very day, and the entertainment industry has spent decades whitewashing the behavior of police officers.
But then a Minneapolis police officer suffocated George Floyd on camera, for all the world to see. And in the month since Floyd’s killing ignited a global movement for racial justice, Hollywood has begun its own long-overdue reckoning, as writers, actors, producers, and studios reflect on their role in creating “copaganda” and perpetuating systemic racism.
It’s not just Cops; police reality show Live PD was also ended by A&E, after a revelation that the series’ producers deleted footage documenting the police killing of a Black man in Austin, Texas. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, an NBC sitcom about a team of NYPD detectives, reportedly scrapped their scripts for the show’s upcoming eighth season.
Not only have police reality shows been canceled, but many in and out of the industry are calling on Hollywood to go even further and completely re-evaluate its ties to law enforcement.
In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg called out the efforts of studios and networks who have claimed themselves allies of the Black Lives Matter movement and demanded they go further.
“There’s something Hollywood can do to put its money where its social media posts are: immediately halt production on cop shows and movies and rethink the stories it tells about policing in America,” she wrote. “If the entertainment industry truly believes change can no longer wait, it should start with its own storytelling.”
More than 300 Black artists and executives have also signed a letter to the entertainment industry, asking Hollywood to divest from the police and invest in the Black community. The letter, organized by actors Kendrick Sampson and Tessa Thompson and developed alongside Black Lives Matter co-founders Patrisse Cullors and Melina Abdullah, has earned the signatures of big name stars such as Chadwick Boseman, Idris Elba, Issa Rae, and Octavia Spencer.
“Hollywood encourages the epidemic of police violence and culture of anti-Blackness. The way that Hollywood and mainstream media have contributed to the criminalization of Black people, the misrepresentation of the legal system, and the glorification of police corruption and violence have had dire consequences on Black lives,” the letter reads. “We must end the exaltation of officers and agents that are brutal and act outside of the law as heroes. These portrayals encourage cops like Derek Chauvin, the murderer of George Floyd.”
Dr. Wilson believes that the current moment will lead to more nuanced, honest depictions of police officers, but whether Hollywood truly changes remains to be seen. Canceling Cops and Live PD is easy, but structural change is much harder. And if past is prologue, tangible change may be a pipe dream. Sixty years ago, writer and activist James Baldwin commented on Hollywood’s films and their influence on real life issues.
“These movies are designed not to trouble, but to reassure; they do not reflect reality, they merely rearrange its elements into something we can bear,” Baldwin wrote. “They also weaken our ability to deal with the world as it is, ourselves as we are.”
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