"For a century, Hollywood has been collaborating with police departments, telling stories that whitewash police shootings and valorizing an action-hero style of policing over the harder, less dramatic work of building relationships with the communities cops are meant to serve and protect," says Alyssa Rosenberg, amid the George Floyd protests, of Hollywood's role in glamorizing police. "There’s a reason for that beyond a reactionary streak hiding below the industry’s surface liberalism. Purely from a dramatic perspective, crime makes a story seem consequential, investigating crime generates action, and solving crime provides for a morally and emotionally satisfying conclusion. The result is an addiction to stories that portray police departments as more effective than they actually are; crime as more prevalent than it actually is; and police use of force as consistently justified. There are always gaps between reality and fiction, but given what policing in America has too often become, Hollywood’s version of it looks less like fantasy and more like complicity. There’s no question that it would be costly for networks and studios to walk away from the police genre entirely. Canceling Dick Wolf’s Chicago franchise of shows would wipe out an entire night of NBC’s prime-time programming; dropping Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and a planned spinoff would cut even further into the lineup...Simply canceling cop shows and movies would be easier than uprooting the assumptions at the heart of the problem."
How 70 years of cop shows taught us to valorize the police: Before Jack Webb's Dragnet premiered in 1951, there were plenty of negative movie portrayals showing cops as either corrupt and/or or inept buffons. "Decades of reform helped change the public’s perception of the police," says Constance Grady. "But it also helped that the movie industry, eager to escape police censorship, began to police itself. Studios needed police cooperation to cover up their stars’ misdeeds. They also needed to get shooting permits. They had plenty of motivation to play nicely with the police. So the policeman as incompetent bumbler began to fade away from the movies. But what cemented the idea of the hero cop in the American imagination was the modern cop show, starting with 1951’s Dragnet. And as many critics have already shown ... the modern cop show was the result of a close relationship between Hollywood and the police. The premise of Dragnet was that it was revealing to the world the authentic truth of what it is like to be a police officer, fighting crime. 'Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true,' showrunner, star, and narrator Jack Webb promised at the beginning of every episode. And as Webb’s character, the stalwart LAPD detective Joe Friday, went about his work, he was surrounded by real cop cars and real cops acting as extras in the background of his scenes. Famously, the LAPD checked Webb’s scripts for authenticity."
The Wire showed a lot of police brutality, but police misconduct is usually portrayed in one-off episodes in other shows: "In the first season of The Wire, just about every on-the-ground cop participates in police brutality — often as a kind of professional prerogative," says Inkoo Kang. But as Daniel Fienberg points out, "what's more disturbing to me about how police violence is depicted on The Wire is how often it's treated as a piece of the character arc for the officers involved and not anything related to the victims, the community or the profession." Fienberg adds that "all too frequently police brutality is a thing TV deals with best (and by 'best' I mean 'most comfortably') in one-off episodic storylines. Those episodes let our main characters confront brutality and protest in ways that allow them to appear noble, dedicated and able to move along to something completely different the following week. The Good Wife (and The Good Fight) are as good as it gets when it comes to topicality, but in a season six episode written by creators Robert King and Michelle King, a threat of a police-violence protest mostly becomes something for our heroes — Alicia (Julianna Margulies), Peter (Chris Noth) and Eli (Alan Cumming) — to white knight in a tertiary story. Scandal did much better with its Ferguson-adjacent one-off 'The Lawn Chair,' but even in that context, with a black female protagonist leading the way, police violence becomes just another thing for Olivia Pope to fix — like if one Olivia could get sent to every city in America, our curfew problem would be over and Olivia could move on to a novel coronavirus vaccine next."
TV shows glamorize police who break the rules: "If a cop does anything wrong, it’s always for the greater good," says Kelly Lawler. "TNT’s The Closer saw Kyra Sedgwick’s deputy police chief Brenda Leigh Johnson bend the rules of Miranda rights to get her suspects to confess, while villainizing an Internal Affairs investigator. On CBS’s Elementary, 'police consultants' Sherlock (Johnny Lee Miller) and Watson (Lucy Liu) conduct warrantless searches and hand over fruit of the poisonous tree to detectives who make arrests using illegally obtained evidence. The network’s Blue Bloods, perhaps the most pro-police series on TV, is rife with this kind of misbehavior among cop characters and baffling decisions by suspects, and even aired an episode where a black man threw himself out a window to fake police brutality. When we talk about representation in movies and television, we often point at the voices and faces that are missing. But we also need to look at the voices and faces that are overrepresented. Too often police are beacons of morality who never do wrong. Too often criminals are people of color, particularly black men. Too often victims are forgettable and laws optional when you carry a badge and a gun."