From Law and Order to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, police procedurals and cop comedies have been a staple in the entertainment industry since the successful debut of the 1981 police drama Cagney & Lacey. These shows have a lengthy history of eulogizing law enforcement, often presenting an unchallenged view of their work in a way that doesn’t reflect the reality of the criminal justice system. But after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement as a response to the ongoing problem of police brutality against African Americans, increased public scrutiny surrounding police has called into question the necessity of cop shows–which are now popularly referred to as “copaganda”. But I think the answer to everyone’s question regarding their relevance has already been answered by the American people at large: cop shows have officially run their course.
In June 2020, a poll ran by Morning Consult, and The Hollywood Reporter found that 56% of all respondents and 59% of Black respondents said that cop shows “should change to better represent the criminal justice system.” Such calls for change have caused TV networks to retool their programming, attempting to address systemic issues in policing in their shows. Some shows, such as Live PD, were even canceled.
However, I find the media’s attempts to soften the police’s image disingenuous at best; if you were to look at a few cops shows airing right now, you’ll find that little has actually changed for the better. While references are made to racism, police brutality, and “serving the community,” these show’s formats and premises have ultimately remained the same–and still, they’re influencing Americans into adopting the belief that law enforcement, and the dangerous tactics they use, are wholly good and necessary in upholding morality.
“These entertainment media depictions of police use of force have helped to cultivate a sense of reality that does not really exist when it comes to police use of force, often resulting in a belief that certain uses of force cases are rare,” says Dr. Franklin T Wilson, a Criminology and Criminal Justice professor at Indiana State University. “We know through cultivation theory research that unless a person has a personal experience with an issue, the more one consumes specific messaging, be it imagery or statements of information, the more they are likely to adopt it as fact […] If you couple all of this with the fact that law enforcement related programs have accounted for 20-30% of programming since the 1970s, it’s hard to imagine it has not had an impact.”
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder why many have now moved on from police-themed media. And as police departments around the country resist defunding efforts and double down on the attitudes that have made them more of an enemy than a protector in the eyes of millions, I think it’s irresponsible for the media to continue championing them until a substantial change is made.