We Don't Need 'Woke' TV Cops — We Need Stories of Transformative Justice

credit: NBC

Trigger warning: this article contains descriptions of police violence

Waves of protests against police brutality have occurred in the US for generations.

And yet, it wasn’t until the brutal murder of George Floyd in 2020 that the public finally started to demand real change, opening up conversations around police brutality into mainstream discourse.

As a result, Hollywood finally felt the pressure to curb the copaganda that has run on TV for decades. The Paramount Network, for example, abruptly canceled its long-running series Cops that celebrates policing amidst the 2020 protests (unfortunately, Fox Nation scooped up the show for re-air).

Soon after, the A&E Network pulled the plug on the reality series Live PD, which had been condemned for its involvement in the death of 40-year-old Javier Ambler. In 2019, Texas deputies, along with the Live PD camera crew, pursued Ambler in a car chase until he crashed. He was subsequently tased and restrained as he pleaded for help and later died in police custody at the hospital.

Canceling these shows is a good step away from celebrating policing and normalizing police violence in entertainment media. Unlike fictional police shows, there’s little room for these reality cop shows to create an image of a supposedly more “palatable” policing. Networks have to decide whether to keep running such content or publicly acknowledge the trauma and violence they are airing and drop them.

Fictional cop shows, on the other hand, can simply attempt to create a more likable, more “woke”, reformed version of the same ol’ carceral system. Consider the Charmed reboot that cast a lesbian WOC as homicide detective Niko Hamada, who is mindful of police violence. Or look at Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the show that cast a “progressive”, diverse group of NYPD detectives led by a Black gay police captain.

brooklyn 99
credit: NBC

But when the entire system of policing in the US is rooted in slave patrols, the displacement of indigenous people, and the violence against the poor, is portraying “woke” police on TV really getting to the root of the problem?

As of 2021, the U.S. currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world — 655 per 100,000 people — beating out El Salvador, Turkmenistan, Thailand, and Cuba. So perhaps the solution isn’t to make shows in which police appear more likable but to get rid of them altogether.

A popular chant during 2020 protests was “We Keep Us Safe”, a phrase rooted in the prison abolitionist idea that police inflict harm on communities, while friends and neighbors are the ones who can genuinely create community safety. And it’s not just an idea. Groups such as INCITE!, Project Nia, and Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective actively develop community-based solutions to addressing interpersonal harm without turning to the criminal (in)justice system.

And it’s not just organizations that are caring for the community, it’s also community members themselves. The story of “Dads on Duty” recently went viral when a group of dads got together to patrol a Louisiana high school. The dads decided to intervene after police arrested nearly two dozen students in response to fights on the school campus.

This is the kind of abolitionism I want to see in pop culture. Instead of shows that portray woke cops, I want to watch a series respond to calls for the defunding and abolition of police through telling narratives of friend groups and communities addressing harm without involving the carceral state. I don’t want to watch shows about hero cops, no matter who they are or how much networks try to make their police characters palatable. I want to watch shows rooted in survivor empowerment, police abolition, and transformative justice. Instead of normalizing policing in any of its forms, it’s time for on-screen storytellers to normalize transformative justice and abolition.


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