Police procedurals have been a staple of the entertainment industry since the inception of TV, from America’s longest-running prime time television show Cops, to contemporary takes on the genre like Criminal Minds and Brooklyn 99. But recently, police violence towards Black and Latinx communities has been recorded and broadcasted across social media like never before. Distrust for the police is finally beginning to enter the mainstream media. And along with this distrust, many are noticing the ways in which prominent cop dramas promote a propagandized view of the police.
There is no more clear example of police propaganda than Cops, a TV series that follows real police officers as they combat crime across America. Cops garnered immense popularity for its air of authenticity and gripping realness, but the show, although “real,” tells far from the complete story. The show, which is overseen and approved by police, was used to reinforce and restore the black and white narrative of cop vs. criminal in communities where mistrust and fear of the police had rightfully spread. Cops was invited to film in LA following the infamous beating of Rodney King, and decades later they filmed in Omaha after scandals involving police violence. In Salinas, Cops began working with law enforcement after protests against police shootings in the area. In all of these cases, police departments used the show as an opportunity to shape their reputation under the guise of displaying an authentic view of police work.
Though often not as overtly, many entirely fictional police procedurals or crime dramas cause a similar effect on the perception of the police and their actions. Tropes like officers going rogue and breaking the law to catch a criminal, the use of gratuitous violence to beat a confession out of the suspect, and the ‘good guy’ portrayal of the police all work to glorify and justify the actions of the police no matter how violent, illegal, or immoral. Additionally, these shows rarely portray or address the nuanced morals of real crimes and their perpetrators, instead opting to portray all criminals as terrible people with evil motives and intent. Moreover, they tend to ignore the racial injustice that is all too present in real police departments, instead using tokenism and symbolic diversity to dodge criticism.
The fact that the vast majority of cop procedurals are fiction will invariably lead many to believe that their impact on public perception doesn’t transfer to the real world, but unfortunately that’s not the case. For many, cop dramas and shows of similar nature are the main sources with which people shape their feelings towards police. In 2015, just 21 percent of Americans over the age of 16 experienced any type of contact with the police in an entire year, which leaves the vast majority basing their opinions and biases of police upon their portrayal in the media.
Overall, police procedurals, whether real or fiction, are characterized by their disconnect from reality and the underlying message of police infallibility.