The TV Shield: How Policing on TV Needs to Evolve

Crime procedural have long been a staple of prime time television. In a crowded TV landscape like the Peak TV we’re in now, crime shows remain a familiar draw for viewers. There is an easy-to-tweak formula that networks can replicate over and over again. This formula is how we end up with so many TV police tropes, including ripped-from-the-headlines police, psychic police, detectives in a certain location, crime scene unit officers, law enforcement teaming up with mathematicians, federal agencies enlisting cutting edge technology, and goofball police all crowding the TV Guide with their antics.

But as the political climate shifts more and more divisively, show runners need to start being more aware of the moral predicaments their heroes are thrown into — and what that means as a reflection (or not) of modern policing.

Law enforcement procedural have always walked a fine line. They’re bizarrely close to the front lines of political demagoguery even as they shrug off any affiliation. What results is often a quixotic look at crime enforcement, always dipping its toe but never diving into the intricate place law enforcement has in our society. “24” famously blossomed under the Bush administration, only to finally swear off torture techniques when Obama took office. “The Fall” delves into questions of consent and sexual assault, while sometimes indulging viewers’ dark sides by portraying them on screen.

However with criminal justice as hot-button an issue as it is now (not to mention another monumental shift in presidential administrations), “police officer” is no longer just a simple occupation to give characters. The U.S. — though always working through some aspect of our relationship with law enforcement — has seen more and more high-profile shootings by and demonstrations against militarized police presence. For many, sadly, it’s the first time they’ve had to face the truth that “protect and serve” has never been a universal slogan.

With the state of police and the state of Hollywood in 2017 we are left with a weird dichotomy. In 2017, citizens take to the streets to protest police brutality, only to turn on TVs and be swarmed with narratives that center on law enforcement’s goodness (as well as, frequently, their high-tech tracking gadgets that would be terrifying in real life).

Don’t get me wrong; any narrative has two sides, and cops can be just as deserving of humanizing as anyone else. The difficulty is that these staples of prime time have a plethora of shows that inherently frame the audience’s sympathies around the struggle of the average officer. A show like “The Wire” remains the heavyweight champ for weaving social issues into both sides of the narrative. Its peers are few and far between.

What’s more, studies have shown that watching TV crime dramas affects public perception of how effective the police are. 

“A lot of the shows were showing police officers engaging in force and the way that force was portrayed was such that it was necessary: the suspect is a bad guy, we just need to beat it out of him,” Kathleen Donovan, professor of political science at St. John Fisher College and co-author of the study called “The Role of Entertainment Media in Perceptions of Police Use of Force,” said in an interview. “It’s almost always portrayed in a justified light. Again, not to say that the police department is not doing that, but that they’re engaging in force a lot more in these fictional shows and it’s shown as an appropriate approach.”

That doesn’t mean that police procedural will or have to shrivel up and vanish. But it does call for some decorum around the matter. Shows like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which situate crime-fighting and policing in a workplace comedy set-up, will have to step more carefully.

On the whole, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” usually eschews easy punchlines of old — prison rape and rough treatment by police — for smarter narratives. Perhaps the closest the ensemble comedy came to acknowledging that despite all the lovable antics of the fictional precinct there were serious law enforcement issues was in season three’s “Boyle’s Hunch.” In the episode, Captain Holt endeavors to design a new publicity campaign for the NYPD, featuring exemplary officers (like Amy Santiago) as poster-children for the good they can do. After receiving negative feedback (in the form of Hitler-mustache graffiti) Holt and his team rethink the campaign and come out with a new slogan. “We know we can do better,” the new poster reads. “Tell us how.”

The episode isn’t the strongest, from either the expert comedic minds that write or act the show. But it does manage to get real with the complicated place in society these goofballs hold. And it’s a quietly revolutionary moment for the sitcom to take. They’re not just another workplace comedy; they’re no full-blown anti-hero drama. And “very special episodes” and social commentary hasn’t been the style of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” either. But “Boyle’s Hunch” demonstrates that the writers aren’t ignorant of the complexities of police public image, and they’re able to call upon it when they feel they can do so responsibly.

It’s that kind of attitude we’ll need more of going forward. Something that reflects cops as humans, but also as a fallible institution that has room to grow. We can no longer afford to pretend law enforcement has an easy place in society, and it’s time TV really started thinking about how to reflect that. 

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