by Daniel A. Rosen |
The theme song is catchy and instantly recognizable – and it’s part of the problem. The criminals are the “bad boys,” and the hero cops are coming for them.
After 33 seasons, “Cops” was temporarily pulled off the air in late May when protests about George Floyd’s death gained momentum. A couple weeks later, it was finally cancelled for good. A&E’s “Live PD” is now a casualty too, though it got cable TV’s top-ratings. Good riddance to both. If you’re a fan, surely you can catch them in reruns and syndication – those deals are too lucrative to really be terminated.
And these shows have made massive profits by glorifying police brutality and heavy-handedness. They’ve normalized the viewing public’s expectation that minorities make up the vast majority of police stops, and that criminals usually have darker skin.
“Cops” sold itself as an unapologetic look at the ‘reality’ of law enforcement, but a more insidious influence on our culture is the scripted “Law and Order” franchise, in its many iterations. As anyone who has ever turned on a TV in the last few decades knows, it’s very straightforward: the police solve the crimes and the district attorneys prosecute them. Perps are locked up, because they’re guilty, and righteousness usually prevails. Thunk-thunk, go the sound effects. Another terrible person behind bars.
Some will respond that the franchise presents cops and prosecutors as complex and flawed, that nuances aren’t ignored. That isn’t the issue. The real problem is that the scripts never bother to give alleged lawbreakers the same empathic treatment – to treat them as fully human and worthy of the same acknowledgement of their complexity and humanity.
On these shows, the criminals are their crime, nothing more. They deserve punishment, and they get it, almost without exception. Police never plant drugs or weapons or arrest the wrong guy – and they certainly never join white nationalist groups on social media. Prosecutors never withhold exculpatory evidence or stack charges to intimidate defendants, and confidential informants never lie to get themselves better deals. And public defenders never drop the ball or push defendants into ill-advised plea deals.
These are things that happen every day in the world of criminal “justice,” but you’d never know it from a “Law and Order” marathon. Just like you’d never know from watching “Cops” that the police sometimes turn off their body camera, kick a man who’s already on the ground, or kneel on someone’s neck for nine minutes.
More dishonest is the demographic makeup of the perpetrators on this show; watching “Law and Order” would actually lead you to believe that the authorities police and incarcerate 30ish year-old white guys just as heavily as minorities. It’s a malicious fiction, but it makes us feel better.
Walk into any jail or prison in a large American city – the purported locale of all the various franchises – and you’ll find very few Caucasians behind bars. Black people disproportionately bear the brunt of the militarized, zero-tolerance over-policing that plagues low-income communities, but you won’t see that on “Law and Order.”
And the cumulative effect of all this always-in-reruns authority-worship? We become inured to the idea that those arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced must be guilty. We fail to even question whether they’ve actually done what they’re accused of – and then we fail them when we neglect to ask whether a prison cell is the right way to handle their alleged transgression.
A mental health crisis that led to a supposed assault on an officer; a drug addict boosting cosmetics and electronics to support his habit; an alcoholic who crashed into an empty police cruiser; a grandfather who took a few hotel vouchers from his church when he had nowhere to stay; guys with unpaid court fines and child support, or who failed to report an address change to their PO on time; these are real people I’ve met in jail and prison.
None of them really belonged behind bars, and it wasn’t doing their communities any good either. Taxpayers were blithely paying the salaries of the cops and prosecutors and public defenders that put them there, and then paying another thirty thousand or so a year to keep these supposed menaces to society off the streets.
Mental health and addiction counselors, drug courts and residential treatment programs: these all might be more effective uses for those public monies than more cops and prosecutors and prisons. Or restorative justice initiatives, or trade schools. But we are so in love with our hackneyed TV-inspired ideas of bad-boy criminals and hero cops and so-called justice that we turn a blind eye and shrug at the slow-motion disaster our system has become. After all, it doesn’t look like that on TV.