The Intercept - June 20, 2020
“COPS,” the longest-running reality TV show in U.S. history, was recently canceled after more than 30 years on air. You’d be hard-pressed to find a TV viewer who couldn’t sing along to the show’s signature tune, “Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?” Having been nominated for an Emmy four times, “Cops” even spawned a trail of ubiquitous knockoffs, including “LAPD: Life on the Beat,” “Police POV,” and “Live PD.”
The Paramount Network announced its decision to pull the plug on the seminal reality show after protests over George Floyd’s death and police brutality. The cancellation is barely a first step, however. The entertainment industry has an insidious though unmistakable influence over how the public thinks about policing. It is necessary for people to understand how long and how thoroughly “Cops” and shows like it have habituated tens of millions of people to the police abuse of black, brown, and poor communities. Increasingly comfy in this sewer of misrepresentation, legions of viewers were numbed to the need for overdue reform.
To enjoy “Cops” is to relish seeing black, Latinx, and poor men harangued, choked, slammed, shot at, and handcuffed by police officers, with no meaningful context or resolution to any given human being’s situation, whether it be mental illness, substance addiction, or wrongful accusation. Weekly footage exhilarated viewers through jerky bodycams capturing men of color getting snared and engrossed them with narrative idolatry lavished on white cops. All of this reflected and abetted structural flaws in law enforcement, as well as racial and class bias in the criminal justice system.
Here lies a kind of gross misdemeanor. Defund the Police and Campaign Zero — two progressive, nonpartisan efforts to overhaul policing — have no parallel in entertainment. But the culture industry should be held accountable for helping consolidate the power of corrupt policing.
The popularity of “Cops” soared after its 1989 debut, alongside the documented evidence of its racism. A 2004 academic study in the Internet Journal of Criminology, for example, analyzed 16 episodes of “Cops,” examining the race and gender of the protagonists and antagonists, as well as each show’s depiction of crime. The study found that black men were largely shown as criminal perpetrators — usually of violent crimes — and that Latino men also were typically depicted as violent criminals. The police officers appearing were overwhelmingly white, and the disproportionately few white offenders portrayed were often shown committing nonviolent offenses. Subsequent studies showed that “Cops” leads white viewers to believe that crime is more prevalent than it actually is; that black people commit more crime than they actually do; that the public is more likely to be victimized than they actually are; and that police “intuitions” and biases are better at helping to catch perpetrators than they actually are. As one of the most iconic reality shows in television history, “Cops” served for three decades as a shadow advertising campaign for racist and brutal policing.
This demonstrates why entertainment activism is just as necessary and worthwhile as policy activism. The culture industry, hand in glove with the state, has for decades mobilized to surveil, assault, and cage black and brown people. The country gorged itself on brutal, racially charged reality TV as it turned its eyes from mounting evidence of police brutality in real life. Yet entertainment activism is demonstrably different than police reform, because policing is presumably a public service supposedly accountable to democracy, whereas Hollywood is a business accountable mostly to the bottom line. How do people of color confront a capitalist enterprise that, like physical white spaces, is seething with our presence?
Challenging the entertainment industry means making its leaders and general audiences aware of dangerous portrayals of policing that come at the expense of people of color. An ecosystem of artists, activists, and allied industry insiders — especially producers, directors, actors, agents, and writers — needs to be enlisted to push back against industry leaders as they make development and production decisions. This activist network would collaborate with producers and writers to offer script consultations and to advocate for fair and accurate content. ...
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