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The Romanticization of Police in Television

Photo Credit: NBC News.

Everyone has their own go-to guilty pleasure or binge-worthy TV show, be it on a streaming service or on late night cable. For many, this show is something police-related—either a cutting-edge, dramatic detective show, or a more realistic depiction of cop-related incidents. But in our current climate of protests against police violence and calls for police reform, it seems problematic to continue to praise and encourage these shows—or even to be a bystander to their effects.

There has always been a demand, and therefore, a supply of police-related shows, especially those that dramatize police activity. The seminal Cops took depictions a step further. Released by Fox Network only two months after the 1989 Miami Riots, which resulted from the murder of Clement Lloyd by police officer William Lonzano, Cops followed city police in pursuit of a call, arrest, or bust. With its iconic intro theme “Bad Boys”, Cops featured police departments located throughout the country as well as the wider world—departments in Russia, Hong Kong, and the U.K. were also covered. The show was not narrated, did not contain any added sound effects, and seemed very much like watching a cop at their job, just with various cuts and edits as any reality show would have. Cops became one of the longest-running programs in the U.S., reaching 32 seasons earlier this year. The show even took home a Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Unstructured Reality Show recently in 2016. The program’s success led to numerous “Best Of” DVDs and special features to give buyers a home media experience of the thrilling show. Inspired by the show, Atari even created an interactive arcade game named Cops, where players act as police officers, shooting armed criminals and chasing after escaping criminals.

Accordingly, the show caught its fair share of heavy criticism. In 1999, LA Times television critic Howard Rosenberg called shows like Cops “invasive” and “uniting the police and the media'' in their agendas. He specifically emphasized how the show invades people’s sense of privacy during home invasions, and how the show tackles “social and moral crises without context” in a very narrow and emotional way. And it does: the show often features prostitution and drug (usually narcotics) “busts,” with very little context about the individuals, where they come from and reason for the crime they commit. It is very much a snippet of the entire situation, the only part that shows off the “hero” police officer stopping crime and getting people off the streets.

In the 2000s, critics also investigated the show’s insistence on filming crime in lower income neighborhoods while ignoring “white collar crimes,” finding that it presented these crimes irrational, as director Michael Moore notes in his movie Bowling for Columbine. The show is thus a breeding ground for generalizations and stereotypes towards low-income neighborhoods and minorities living in them. The show’s producers seemed to finally realize that they no longer aided the discussion about the hundreds of cases of police violence leading up to 2020, and Paramount Network aired Cops’ last episode in May, cancelling the show just days after the killing of George Floyd.

In the late 1990s, writer and producer Dick Wolf created Law and Order, a new show based more on the legal side of crime, the persecution of criminals, and the processes to which detectives and district attorneys adhere. The show takes place in New York City, home to one of the most notorious relationships between police and civilians. The show was another huge success, with over 420 episodes over the course of 20 seasons. What is even more intriguing is its most famous spinoff, Law and Order Special Victims Unit. SVU takes a deep dive into the “especially heinous” crimes that take place in New York City, including crimes of sexual and domestic violence, where the detectives attempt to avoid the crimes’ effect on their psyche. SVU has achieved great success; currently in their 21st season, the show remains very popular today.

As someone who has spent time watching both of these shows, as well as many other over-dramatized police/detective shows, it is very easy to become enthralled by their stories and to continue watching. In both shows, depictions of victims are very personal to all who watch; in most cases, the shows depict one’s reputation, their record, or even their life as being on the line. There is a positive feedback loop caused by those who enjoy these shows, as the success a show receives from showing tabooed, violent, personal issues on television entices more people to watch, encouraging more spinoffs, more dramatic representations.

Yet it is very dangerous to dramatize and romanticize the police and the work they engage in, regardless of political agenda, because of the way they affect lives. The work police do often leads to very real, life-altering consequences for both perpetrators and victims that oftentimes cannot truly be shown by an actor’s portrayal or clips of an arrest. But television is attempting to do just this, and watchers seem to be content with what is on the screen, unconcerned with how it compares to what is really happening outside their homes.

So where do we go from here? If there is a growing movement away from praising the violent work of police departments, replaced with a concern for the police being more accountable, the television industry may choose not to engage in a television genre that really should not have ever been entertaining in the first place. But there is a variable necessary in that; accountability for the acts police officers commit. Perhaps the industry will move to a more realistic approach in its coverage of the justice system of our country, or maybe even transition to work done outside of police departments that directly affects everyday people. As the people of our country come together to stand for justice and to protest unjust killings, perhaps the entertainment industry will follow suit.


Anthony Bonavita is a freshman in the SFS.


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