In the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders, Hollywood is finally being forced to re-examine the morally superior law enforcement archetype that it created.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one police-centric show reconsidering how it will move forward in today’s climate.
Actor Terry Crews, who plays Lieutenant Terry Jeffords, revealed to Access Daily that the Brooklyn Nine-Nine showrunner scrapped several upcoming episodes, noting that he “had four episodes all ready to go and just threw them in the trash.”
“This is an opportunity right now for us all to unite and get together and understand what this is and that we have to battle this together.”
The Brooklyn Nine-Nine employees aren’t the only ones pushing to evolve the current policing narrative. Other small steps have been taken across the media landscape in recent weeks: for one, long-running shows Cops and Live PD were finally canceled after concerns were raised about their valorization of ethically questionable policing and the emphasis on arresting people of color. (Not to mention that the officers’ department in Cops had the contractual right to change anything they wanted within the context of the show and what aired, literally controlling the narrative.)
Additionally, Tom Scharpling, an executive producer of Monk, criticized his own show on Twitter, saying,
“If you — as I have — worked on a TV show or movie in which police are portrayed as lovable goofballs, you have contributed to the larger acceptance that cops are the implicitly the good guys. Most shows don’t portray the brutal shit — much less the racism — that goes on daily.”
But that hardly makes a dent in the lasting legacy of fictional law enforcement. For decades, law enforcement characters on television and in the movies have been depicted as dependable, benevolent heroes, the height of morality and goodness. Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show was always quick with a smile and a levelheaded solution. The CSI gang could fit even the most complicated forensic puzzle pieces together to solve the latest case. Even the most bumbling of law enforcement characters, e.g. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street, saved the day in the end, locking up the bad guys for good.
Fictional police officers have long been spoon-fed to us as larger-than-life good guys, the stars of the summer blockbuster with the cool guns, explosive car chases, and the emanating masculinity that makes women fawn all over them.
Or, conversely, they’ve just as often been painted as the everyday heroes, the blandly “good” citizens whose appetite for justice and righteousness is packaged into an hour of comfort-food courtroom drama.
Take Law & Order: SVU for example. Viewers find the formulaic story arc soothing — there are memes abound about its predictability. Even when dealing with the most grotesque subject matter, the show manages to sort the world into a less complicated dichotomy: the criminals/rapists/monsters and the officers who work tirelessly to protect the world from them. There’s no gray area, no middle ground. There’s just a one-dimensional criminal, a silent, uncomplicated victim, and a justice system that works exactly as it’s supposed to. Our seasons-long hero Olivia Benson might be tired, but she’ll still show up the next day as promised, unwavering in her mission to fight for the next disenfranchised victim to walk through the doors. Wash, rinse, repeat. Yes, Netflix, we’re still watching.
But as we know, policing and the criminal justice system is far more complicated than Olivia Benson will have you believe. In police-centric television and movies, law enforcement officers’ motives are always pure. Police brutality is a myth. Racial bias doesn’t exist. (With the exception of a few episodes here and there, like one on Family Matters and another on Brooklyn Nine-Nine). But even when police violence or corruption is shown, it’s spun as “one bad apple” on the force rather than an indication of a larger issue at hand.
This depiction of the police has had real-life consequences. Multiple studies have shown that the saturation of pro-police entertainment reflects real-life public opinion. A 2015 study from St. John Fisher College concluded that “viewers of crime dramas are more likely to believe that the police are successful at lowering crime, use force only when necessary, and that misconduct does not typically lead to false confessions.”
And, perhaps even more concerning, another study highlights how this glorified portrayal of police in the media can even harm real-life attempts at reform, which, as we’ve seen in recent weeks after the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and countless others, is so desperately needed.
It’s natural to seek comfort in your media consumption, to enjoy the simplified version of the world that’s put before you. We might be reluctant to see our favorite procedural dramas shift to a new approach or to have to bid them farewell entirely. But the reality is, policing is complex and ever-changing and needs a massive, widespread overhaul. So the programming that depicts it needs it as well.
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Michelle Vincent is a project manager and freelance writer. She enjoys traveling, is worried she won’t love her future children as much as she loves her dogs, and is actively recruiting podcast recommendations.