Police sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is a popular television show that focuses on the inner workings of law enforcement. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.
SADIA KHATRI | OPINION COLUMNIST | email@example.com
From crushing on the “Criminal Minds” crew to idolizing the cops of New York City’s Special Victims Unit, the public’s love for cop and crime shows is unmatched. There are a litany of television shows and movies that focus on cops and policing systems, and most have dedicated and loyal fanbases. Are these cop shows just forms of harmless entertainment, or do they have the potential to have broader, more negative impacts on perceptions of policing in America?
When considering incarceration and the prison industrial complex in America, this question only becomes more complicated. The prison industrial complex is a unique system that encompasses the contributions and impacts of the government, companies, corporations and institutional organizations with respect to the criminal justice system.
Dr. Stephen Barnard, associate professor and chair of the department of sociology and criminology, characterized the prison industrial complex as a system that focuses on maximizing criminalization.
“I would say that it is an institutionalized system of perpetuating and facilitating the harsh punishment of certain actors and actions defined as criminal,” Barnard said.
Dr. Ann Savage, professor of critical communication and media studies and race, gender and sexuality studies, emphasized that the prison industrial complex and the criminal justice system in America are rooted in a history of slavery.
“[It’s] a system that is really a replacement of slavery,” Savage said. “It’s an institution, like other institutions, that works to be self-perpetuating.”
In the most simplistic terms, any form of institutional support for the criminal justice system plays a part in the prison industrial complex. One particular manifestation of this is the role that entertainment and media plays with respect to depictions of the police and criminal injustice system.
Cop shows rarely ever depict the cops and officers that grace the screens of their dedicated viewers in a negative light. More often than not, the characters themselves can be seen claiming that they are “good cops.” Crime shows are almost exclusively very positive in their depictions of cops and the criminal justice system as a whole, and the entertainment industry supporting positive notions of policing is undeniably a manifestation of the prison industrial complex.
Depictions of crime within these shows are often quite watered down as well. There is often a clear distinction drawn between the criminal versus the good cop. The real-life criminal justice system is far more complicated than this, and it exists beyond such a binary.
The narrative that “not all cops are bad” that these crime shows push is arguably a form of cop propaganda, also known as copaganda. Copaganda can often include many of these very popular police shows. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Minds” are just a few examples of shows that exist within this genre. These shows all include law enforcement as the primary protagonists.
Propaganda exists in a multitude of forms, and it goes without saying that it is often quite harmful. Barnard noted that although the motives behind propaganda are deceptive, there is still a potential for there to be some truthful matter present.
“I would say propaganda is information produced with an intention to either deceive or manipulate public perceptions,” Barnard said. “Oftentimes, propaganda is not necessarily untrue. In fact, it’s likely to be more effective if there are so-called kernels of truth sprinkled in.”
At times, propaganda can be explicit and easily spotted, but that is not always the case. Propaganda can also be much more subtle while still having a far-reaching impact.
It is evident that policing in America has had far-reaching negative impacts. The violence enacted by law enforcement has continued to pervade American society, and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests highlighted this. However, many cop shows seem to only ever show support for so-called good cops.
Gabi Mathus, a sophomore criminology-psychology major, shared that depictions of police are usually more positive, especially within cop shows that are drama-based as opposed to comedy-based.
“I truly believe that shows within this genre do depict police in a more positive light than maybe deserved,” Mathus said. “I personally hate [Chicago PD]. I think it does a really gross injustice to representing all of the issues within the Chicago Police Department, as someone who is from Illinois.”
Within cop and crime shows, law enforcement officers are typically the protagonists, which leads to increased positive sentiment towards these fictional cops. These positive feelings are demonstrated in a multitude of ways, and one particularly interesting manifestation of this is the sexualization of many characters on crime shows. Simply searching “Criminal Minds” on TikTok leads one to a plethora of edits and videos thirsting after the cast. This is an especially unique form of the positive sentiment that surrounds crime shows; the so-called good cops become so far-attached from their identities as members of law enforcement that they become objects of desire in an arguably unsettling manner. The line between finding an actor in one of these shows attractive and being apologetic and empathetic with their actions as a member of law enforcement is quite blurry.
Savage provided more context about the individualization of these characters and how that further impacts issues of police brutality and incarceration.
“It’s an overfocus on interpersonal relationships as opposed to the system,” Savage said. “We often get a clean view of prisons … [A cop show] doesn’t question the system. It just shows it as isolated incidents … When they talk about poverty, they talk about, ‘Oh, this poor family. They’re trying hard,’ but not about why, in the system, we have poor people.”
Through individualizing systemic problems, cop shows raise a few covert questions from audiences. If the alleged good cops on these television shows are able to effectively provide safety and security, without engaging in unnecessary violence or brutality, then is police brutality something that individual bad cops are responsible for? If the acts of violence committed by law enforcement in these shows are always justified, then do all cops only engage in violence when needed? Are major systemic injustices attributable to individual bad cops as opposed to the system that perpetuates these brutalities?
Through understanding and analyzing history, it is clear that many injustices of today are deeply systemic issues, and police brutality is no different.
“[Many] people think of cops as good,” Savage said. “And when they think of the police system, or the justice system, they think of it as individual bad apples and not as a systemic problem.”
Shirking the burdensome responsibility of police brutality onto individual bad cops erases the systemic impact of policing in America. While individual corrupt police officers are certainly part of the problem, they are only further enabled by the institution of policing.
Mathus shared that one of the most important aspects of interacting with any type of media is one’s perspective approaching it.
“It comes down to perspective,” Mathus said. “If you go into a show being like, ‘I know how police act in the real world. I know my perception of police in the real world,’ that is going to have some impact on the way you view those shows, regardless of their depictions.”
Recognizing that police brutality and issues of incarceration are systematic problems is critical, and most cop shows often do not acknowledge this. The role of media is to entertain, which means that not all forms of media are going to be factually accurate. However, it is important to consider alternative perspectives and interact with media through a critical lens.
“We should always be questioning media,” Savage said. “It’s tough, because people know it’s not real, but they still fall into the traps of believing that representation … [It’s tough] to not buy into the appealing image of police officers … always doing right.”
Whether it is in the form of cop shows or true crime documentaries, there is an oversaturation of content that focuses on policing, crimes and prison. Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?” raises the point that depictions of prisons within media are key features of the entertainment and media industries; it is almost unimaginable to think of a world, fictionalized or real, without prisons or policing.
Cop and crime shows should not be anyone’s primary point of information for real-world issues of policing. These are fictionalized forms of entertainment and should be treated as such.
Everyone loves Spencer Reid, Olivia Benson and Jake Peralta, but it is highly important to recognize the fact that many of these shows portray an inaccurate representation of policing in America. Watching such shows for entertainment is not the primary issue at hand. What truly matters is being critically aware about the larger social and political issues that exist outside of these shows.