The police procedural is possibly the television genre par excellence, ever since Dragnet debuted in 1951 and spawned a wave of imitators. Though the sitcom may be the most perfect televisual form, the police procedural is the one best suited to the rhythm of broadcast, each twist and turn toward the mystery of the crime’s resolution keeping the viewer engaged through ad breaks. No other genre has endured so long and changed so little, with some shifts in style, sure, but virtually none in the basic formula.
On just the Big Four networks (plus the CW), in the current television season, there are some fifteen or so police procedurals on the air, including Blue Bloods (in its 9th season), NCIS (in its 16th season) and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (in its 20th season). Note my count excludes three superhero shows (Gotham, The Flash, Arrow) whose protagonists are police officers of some kind, as well as any shows about people investigating crimes who aren’t cops. And those are just the ones still in production. The most cursory channel surfing will lead you to a hundred different channels who almost exclusively broadcast reruns of old police shows, from Kojak to NYPD Blue to the lately departed CSI franchise.
Cops shows are popular, ubiquitous and seemingly infinite. When one falls, another rises to take its place. They’re incredibly long-lived compared to other genres: NCIS started during the first term of George Bush’s presidency and it was the most-watched television show in the entire world in 2014 and 2015. They’re beloved by people of all ages, but particularly the middle-aged and elderly. This makes it all the more concerning that cop shows are, intentionally or not, mass propaganda for the carceral state.
The carceral state is an academic and political term for those state institutions who use prisons and the threat of prisons to achieve their objectives. This obviously includes the police, though it covers the courts, prosecutors, prisons, etc. and other state actors within the criminal justice system. It is, in principle, a neutral term, but, in practice, the logic of incarceration – that we can solve problems by putting people in cages – is so often taken as such a natural and unquestionable part of the political order that to identify it as a peculiar aspect of institutions is inherently loaded. When you talk about the conventions of criminal justice as if they’re noteworthy, you start to raise some uncomfortable questions, like: could things be different? Could we find other solutions to the problem of crime than locking people up? Is it even morally permissible to lock up human beings in worse conditions than animals? These questions are unthinkable to many people, and that’s in no small part because one of the most persistent and popular forms of entertainment in the world presents the status quo as the most natural and necessary thing in the world.
But cop shows aren’t propaganda because they just passively portray the world as it is. In fact, they don’t portray reality at all, but most people don’t realise because they have little to no knowledge of the carceral state. Most people don’t interact with the police all that much outside getting forms stamped. Most people are never arrested, charged, prosecuted or imprisoned. The main sources of our “knowledge” of the carceral state are second-hand: news, documentaries, reality shows, and especially fiction. Of course, people know fiction isn’t real, but without first-hand knowledge of what is real, people have no frame of reference for how it isn’t real. Cop shows aren’t fantasy, some of the things that happen in them are real or at least realistic. But lots of it is horseshit that we have no real capacity to separate from the truth.
For example, no serial killer has ever targeted the police officers hunting them. This is a trope I come back to a lot, because it’s so common in cop shows – almost every cast member in Criminal Minds has been targeted separately by a serial killer they were hunting – but has literally never occurred in the real world. Never! The first time it happens in a given cop show, the characters should have their minds blown, because they are the first police officers in history to ever be targeted by the serial killer they were pursuing, but it’s never portrayed that way. It’s a serious escalation, sure, but it’s just part and parcel of the constant danger of their career. And it happens over and over, to multiple characters in multiple shows, and if you don’t know the truth, if you can’t separate fact from fiction, you’re naturally inclined to think well, sure, this probably doesn’t happen as often in life as it does in television, but it does actually happen. Police really are in that much danger, all the time, from all the serial killers, of which there are many.
Never mind that murders committed by serial killers account for less than one percent of total annual murders in the United States, or that the BAU team from Criminal Minds alone have caught significantly more serial killers than are estimated to be active in the whole country. Never mind that police are far less likely to die on the job than loggers, fishermen, roofers, air pilots, truck drivers, farmers, construction workers or binmen. Never mind that police officers kill themselves at far higher rates than they are killed by others, and are actually murdered way less frequently than the general population. The impression one gets from cop shows is of a police force constantly under siege from wave after wave of ruthless, well-armed criminals, their lives on the line at any given moment. And that has real-world consequences. When police are able to respond to basically any criticism of their conduct by insinuating that anti-police sentiment puts them at even greater risk, those who nod their heads in agreement are doing so in part because how they imagine the daily life of a cop is based almost entirely on cop shows, which present the life of a police officer as one of constant danger.
This is a perfect example of how cop shows don’t even have to try to be police propaganda: simply following the rules of dramatic writing will do the trick. Of course, some cop shows are actual propaganda. The LAPD had final approval on scripts for Dragnet, and the 1967 colour revival was designed by creator-star Jack Webb as a rebuke of anti-police sentiment. The FBI was a similar show of the same era. “The show was based on real FBI files and presented the G-Men as emotionless, efficient, and very effective crime-fighters,” Ken Dowler writes. “The Bureau dominated every aspect of this show, from script approval to screening of cast members, to guarantee that that the FBI was always seen in flattering light.” But the direct creative involvement of law enforcement is clearly not necessary for cop shows to promote a pro-police point of view.
CBS’s Blue Bloods, about a family of police officers called the Reagans, is one of the more grotesque contemporary police procedurals in this regard. It has repeatedly portrayed accusations of police brutality as dishonest. One episode features a black reverend who coerced an intellectually disabled man into calling in a false report of a man with a gun in his church so that police would storm it and he could get attention for his crusade against police mistreatment of black citizens. The same reverend recurs in a later episode in which a black suspect throws himself out of a window, then accuses protagonist Danny Regan of police brutality. The reverend bribes a family of illegal immigrants with an apartment so their child will falsely testify she saw Reagan throw the man out the window. An episode in the fourth season is about the police killing of a young black man, shot in the back by an officer who claims he had a gun, though no gun is found on his body. Instead of the more realistic scenario – that the man had no gun – family patriarch Frank Reagan is able to wring a confession from a bodega owner who admits she stole and hid the gun because of her anti-police views. Police in Baltimore were exposed in 2016 for carrying BB guns to plant them on the bodies of people they shot, but in the world of Blue Bloods, it’s the police who are constantly getting framed for crimes they didn’t commit.
Cop shows distort our perception of the police in dozens of ways, some barely noticeable. Much has been made of the so-called CSI effect, and whether the show and others like it have created false expectations of the availability and conclusiveness of forensic evidence. But while CSI has a lot to answer for, it’s hardly alone in misrepresenting the reality of police work, and its impact on public perceptions of forensic science are just the tip of the iceberg. (Though it is worth noting that a whole lot of forensic science is complete and total bullshit.) Kathleen Donovan, a political science professor at St. John Fisher College, researches the impact of media portrayals of the police on public attitudes towards them. In an interview with The Frame, she describes how cop shows grossly overstate the effectiveness of police, even by their own metrics:
“The clearance rate is the official statistic used by police departments, which is that you make an arrest for a crime. These police departments in these shows are having clearance rates of 90 percent and above. The reality is that it’s nowhere near that. It’s no fault of the police department, it’s just that crime is complicated. Murder, which tends to be the most popular crime committed on these shows, the police departments do have pretty good clearance rates on that 50-60 percent. If you’re looking across all crimes, you’re looking more like 25 percent. So people who watch these shows tend to think that police are a lot better at their job in terms of clearing crimes than they are in reality.”
She also highlights how cop shows portray police brutality and even torture as not just effective, but morally justified. Chicago PD literally opens with the protagonist kidnapping a drug dealer and beating information out of him. Police on TV slam handcuffed suspects into walls and cars so often it’s more surprising when it doesn’t happen. Even Brooklyn Nine-Nine, that alleged fantasy of how the police should be, plays Rosa brutalising or threatening to brutalise suspects for laughs. Police brutality in cop shows is always okay, and even if a character might question it, it always gets results. The efficacy of using physical violence to coerce people into telling the truth – of torture, essentially – is one of the most pernicious myths that cop shows promote. I happen to believe torture would be an unconscionable evil even if it was a good way to extract information from people, but it is also basically useless as an interrogation method. Torture advocates need people to believe otherwise, to see torture as a necessary evil, because basically no one would support something both morally repugnant and ineffective. They have to manufacture a moral question that someone could possibly answer in favour of torture. Oh, sure, torture is awful, but what if there was a timebomb set to demolish a children’s hospital in one hour and only one person in the whole world knows how to disable it. Wouldn’t you be willing to go to any lengths to save all the poor, sick children? The reality is that ticking timebomb scenarios are not a real problem and that torture wouldn’t resolve them if they did. Torture advocates as much as admit this is the case when they literally never have real-world examples of ticking timebomb scenarios to offer as proof of their position. But luckily for them, fiction of all stripes constantly portrays such scenarios, and just like the false impression of police in constant danger, the idea naturally adheres in the audience’s mind, convincing them that even if they’re not this common or dramatic, surely this does happen, and therefore there is an unresolved moral question around torture.
Cop shows have their fair share of ticking timebomb scenarios. Sometimes it’s a literal ticking timebomb, but there are other ways to make characters race against the clock. Half of the serial killers in Criminal Minds kill on a perfect schedule, so of course the team needs to take extreme measures to stop the imminent murder of a child at exactly midnight on the third Saturday of each month. CSI often contrives to put some sort of time constraint on evidence gathering, like the evidence turns out to have been illegally obtained, so the squad only has twenty-four hours to find new evidence, for some reason. Law & Order was built on the premise that “we can only hold him for forty-eight hours without charge and then he’s in the wind!” The ticking clock is a great way to make brutal violence seem urgent and necessary, but honestly, cop shows have made it such a core part of their vernacular that they barely feel the need to prop it up with a narrative device. The police in cop shows are always roughing up suspects, beating them in interrogation rooms and occasionally straight-up murdering them extrajudicially, and it’s almost always portrayed as morally justified or, at least, effective. I would wager good money that Elliot Stabler from Law & Order: SVU assaults someone in a good fifty percent of the episodes in which he appears, and that it works eighty percent of the time. He is, by any reasonable definition, a dangerous and unstable man who shouldn’t be allowed to work as a police officer, let alone as a detective on a special task force dealing with sexual crimes. But Elliot always comes off looking like a hero, because he doesn’t hurt people out of cruelty or blood lust or just because he can. No, Elliot Stabler kicks handcuffed people in the stomach because he just cares too damn much.
And that might be the most propagandic thing about cop shows. The police in cop shows are almost always portrayed as people who took the job because they sincerely care about protecting people, helping the community and putting away bad guys. (Except the Cop Who Became A Cop Because His Dad Was A Cop And He Just Wanted To Make His Old Man Proud.) No one is a police officer just because it seemed like a steady career, or because it’s a job with prestige and social status, or because they’re literal white nationalists who like getting paid to beat and torture and murder black people. Cop shows might feature officers who make mistakes or lose their way or get ground down by the demands of the job. But their heart is always in the right place. They always care about getting justice for the victims of crime and making sure the perpetrators are put away so they’ll never be able to do this to anyone else, damn it! Police work isn’t a job, it’s a calling, a noble vocation for decent people. How dare anyone impugn the integrity of these humble servants of the people by suggesting they not murder so many black people, or stop shaking down poor people with frivolous charges, or hey, maybe we should look into this whole “police officers abuse their partners at way higher rates than the general population” thing?
The military-industrial complex has put years of time and millions of dollars into developing video games that serve as propaganda for their interests. The police don’t need to. NCIS is the most-watched TV show in the world. Networks have been churning out police propaganda for free for decades, and we just sit on our couch and drink it up. None of this is to say that we need to stop watching cop shows, or indeed any art that promotes values we disagree with. But we do need to be more sceptical of them. Even Columbo, the one good cop on television, that working-class hero who uses his wits, not violence, to expose the misdeeds of the rich, plays his part in the great tapestry of cop show propaganda. He shows us an ideal image of how a policeman should behave. But maybe we should aspire to more than a world with better cops.
Maybe we should dream of a world without them.