Brainwashed by TV Cop Shows

“He was a serial killer. You did your job.”


So it goes. I’ve been wrestling over the past few days with the obvious cognitive dissonance between fictional cops and the real, paramilitary thing stalking the streets of American Cities in armoured vehicles and body armour, beating up protestors and – over and over and over again – murdering unarmed black Americans.

While there are notable exceptions (Watchmen being a recent example), American TV shows present a fantasy version of policing and race relations, much in the same way as The West Wing presented a fantasy version of White House politics. (I’m focusing on US TV shows here, and not giving British TV a pass, though I’ll add a paragraph at the end.)

TV is escapism, and Cops and Docs are its staple diet. Heroic doctors saving lives and heroic cops catching criminals.

But then you see the real cops, waddling around in their bulky armour, which apparently blocks their ears so badly that they never hear their victims explain that, no, they are the owners of the store that was being robbed; or, hey, I wasn’t doing anything and I’m an actual FBI agent; or, I can’t breathe.

Whenever a TV cop like Harry Bosch, or The Rookie’s John Nolan shoots a suspect, there’s lip service paid to the subsequent officer-involved-shooting investigation. But they’re always vindicated, aren’t they?

Sure, I know there have been exceptions. Shows like The Wire, or The Shield, that portray dirty cops, corrupt cops. But here’s a quote from the Wikipedia descripton of The Shield:

Characters are portrayed with vices and virtues; Vic’s loving relationship with his children contrasts with his thuggish approach to police work, although his brutality is generally directed at those who seem well-deserving of such treatment.”


Here’s what TV shows have trained us (and most importantly, Americans) to think.

  1. Cops are mostly good people doing a dangerous job.
  2. The people in charge of them are often black (NYPD Blue, The Rookie, Brooklyn 99, Bosch…)
  3. Sometimes the cops have to shoot people.
  4. Sometimes a suspect gets rough treatment.
  5. These shootings and rough treatments are usually justified because the people on the receiving end are well-deserving of such treatment.
  6. Internal Affairs, IAD, the cops who investigate other cops, are all bastard weasels who don’t understand the realities of the job and are often following a personal vendetta against a good cop. The investigation is never justified, while the officer-involved-shooting always is.
  7. When a cop is killed or injured on duty, the entire force line up to mete out justice to the perpetrator because one of ours is involved.
  8. Cops drive around in ordinary police cars wearing ordinary uniforms or plain clothes.
  9. Good cops are fantastic shots and excellent drivers.
  10. Even when they are suspended for misconduct, they keep working “the case” obsessively and in the end are vindicated and forgiven.

So it goes.

The serious point here is that these fictional, fantasy portrayals of police and policing bear very little relationship to the reality. Stop-and-search is always portrayed as justified. Cops taking short cuts are always portrayed as justified. The people who investigate cops are the corrupt, incompetent ones, while cops themselves put their lives on the line and bring bad guys to justice.

The biggest television cop show lie concerns the nature of the criminals apprehended. Whereas US prisons are full of people of colour, with black prisoners outnumbering white by five to one (10:1 in some states), TV cop shows don’t show this reality. We see a disproportionate number of white serial killers, wealthy white drug overlords and even anti-government white supremacist paramilitaries. But you don’t see the day-to-day reality of harassment, brutality, and black men getting life in prison for their third weed possession charge or getting shot because they reached for their ID.

And we, the audience, absorb all this and these fantasies become part of our wiring. It’s like an endless recruitment film, designed to make people love cops and want to be them. Honestly, just look at the number of young people who decided they wanted to go into forensics in the 2011 heyday of CSI.

This recruitment film is also designed to make grand juries in the United States repeatedly decide that there’s no case to answer — if the case even gets that far.

Cognitive dissonance, as I said. Because it’s not just now that I know the police are bastards. I knew the police were bastards during the 1984-5 miner’s strike. And when they kettle and beat up protestors in the UK, they’re not policing by consent, are they? They’re protecting the rich and powerful from the winds of change. And – most importantly – they function to protect property (capital), which is why property damage is disproportionately emphasised by the media when reporting protests. It’s noticeable how much more moved to make a statement some people are by the toppling of a statue than they are by the murder of an unarmed black man.

I used to teach my Media Studies students that the 1% allowed certain exclusive groups within the 99% to hang around on the periphery of the club. This creates a buffer zone between the wealthy in their citadels and what they would call the mob outside. Two of those groups are the police and the media. The police are the thin blue line that protects capital from the mob. And the media are the distraction that turns the mob into an audience. And where the police and the media come together is in the cop show. Bread and circuses.

Sure, Watchmen tried to do something different concerning race and police. But it was already a fantasy comic book text.

At the moment, I’m thinking I ought to wean myself off of cop shows. I feel like watching them makes you part of the problem.

(Let me just add that in Britain, we like to set our shows in out-of-the-way or overwhelmingly white locales, so that – again – this problem is hidden. Of course there are exceptions, but Gentleman Detective show Morse/Lewis/Endeavour, set in Oxford, manages to more or less ignore the non-white population of that city . About 4% of the population of Oxford was black in the 2011 census, though of course Morse was set in the 80s and Endeavour in the 60s, when it was surely even lower. Then you’ve got your Shetlands, and your Happy Valleys, Midsommer Murders,and, back in the day, your Hamish Macbeths. Safely stashed away in those parts of the country that still look like the 1950s, when things were pleasant.)

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