Join or donate to Color of Change, a racial justice organization that piloted the landmark research study, Normalizing Injustice, which shows how crime TV shows distort the reality of police systems and race and police brutality.
Watch films such as Fruitvale Station (2013) that portray the realities of police brutality.
The next time you’re watching a show that involves law enforcement, consider: how does the narrative unfolding support or detract from abolition work? What is being reinforced through this narrative? What is being dismantled?
Law and Order. CSI. Hawaii-Five-Oh. American Sniper. TV shows and movies about law enforcement and the police permeate the screens of Americans across the country. Media portrayals about police officers, detectives, judges, crime fighters, and more firmly implemented into the cultural lexicon. Just because they are on TV does not mean that these shows exclusively exist for entertainment. Many shows actively depict criminal justice without showcasing the many ways it harms the lives of communities of color. These shows often work to bolster law enforcement in the eyes of white supremacy while simultaneously reducing compassion for the disproportionately Black victims of its system.
Hollywood often creates law enforcement and military programming with the direct help of these industries. During the beginning of modern cinema in the 1900s, movies often depicted cops as incompetent fools (Vox). This mirrored general American dissatisfaction with police officers in the early 20th century. Decades of police reform followed earlier policing scandals, and in their wake emerged shows such as 1951’s Dragnet that started the hero cop narrative in pop culture (Vox). A close relationship between the police industry, military industry, and Hollywood has survived long term. The United States Department of Defense has collaborated on Hollywood Military movies for over 100 years (US Dept. of Defense). Shows such as CBS’ Blue Bloods and Netflix’s Mindhunter hire police officers to consult the scripts for their shows (The Hollywood Reporter). These institutions play a direct role in crafting the image of these industrial complexes. This leaves little room for objective depictions of the reality of policing or the military, misrepresenting how police officers mistreat Black people or how the military affects people from the Middle East.
Law enforcement TV shows tend to dramatize the nature of crimes discussed on the shows, often centering on gruesome rape and murder crimes. This does not reflect the reality of crimes in the U.S. The majority of arrests in the U.S. occur for non-violent crimes. Violent crimes have rapidly decreased over the years. According to FBI-reported crime data, the violent crime rate dropped by 40% between 1993 and 2019 (Pew Research). Conversely, since 1993, the rate of American perceiving crime to increase has increased to 78% in 2019 (Pew Research). This perception helps drive Americans to ask for harsher and more stringent policing, even though crime has been steadily decreasing over the past few decades.
Criminal justice programming also depicts most criminals as violent criminals. This distorts the reality that many people are in prison for non-violent and petty crimes. In 2020, 1 in 5 individuals were incarcerated for a drug-related offense. That amounts to about 450,000 people in jail for non-violent drug offenses (Prison Policy Initiative). This could potentially lead to less support for dismantling policing policies and incarceration facilities. Suppose a person thinks every person is in jail because of a violent offense instead of incarcerated for things like smoking marijuana. In that case, they may have less sympathy for human rights violations. This helps obscure the reality that many people get treated brutally by police for minor consequences.
Another insidious aspect of policing shows involves the high representation of Black and Brown actors and actresses as criminals and law enforcement. Representation matters. People of color often tune into shows of people who look like us. Many Black characters on television are depicted as violent criminals. Shows like Orange is The New Black has astonishing diversity but are set in the confines of a jail setting.
When people watch negative portrayals of Black and Brown people in the context of police and military television, they could potentially internalize the racist messaging. A public health study by Rutgers School of Public Health found that negative media portrayals about the criminality of Black men are correlated with higher rates of policing and police brutality (The Philadelphia Tribune). The negative image of Black and Brown folks across TV screens in America can also affect the way Black and Brown viewers, particularly children, view themselves. Despite the diversity of criminals selected, the showrunners are not. Across crime series, 81% of showrunners are white men, 81% of writers are white, and 9% are Black (Color of Change).
We need to have honest conversations about how mainstream media acts as propaganda for policing and military institutions. We also need to promote media that show realistic and nuances presentations of police officers in the States. Cop shows such as Chicago P.D. recently aired episodes dealing with cops dealing with police reform efforts (The Wrap). Denzel Washington recently starred in The Little Things (2021), which offered a look at how police officers and detectives can make serious, sometimes life-threatening errors in the name of solving crime.
For abolition to occur, Americans need to have an honest, objective, and critical view of the state of American policing. If millions of Americans continuously tune into television shows that position cops as heroes who can do no wrong, then this can not happen. Fighting for a fairer justice system will require us to have a serious conversation about the messages from our favorite law enforcement shows.