From Dragnet to Brooklyn 99: How Cop Shows Excuse, Exalt and Erase Police Brutality
Routledge Handbook of Police Brutality in America (Thomas Aiello ed.) Forthcoming 2022.
26 Pages Posted: 30 Apr 2021
Date Written: April 27, 2021
Cop shows originated as a literal “copoganda” effort: explicit partnerships with law enforcement agencies to transform the image of bumbling Keystone Cops into straight arrow Sergeant Joe Friday and lovable Andy Griffith. Though the explicit partnerships have faded away, the template they established has flourished, in part by adapting to changed times without challenging certain basic cop show verities — principally, the centrality of the police point of view. Police use of force, even when mistaken, is framed as essential, understandable, or forgivable: an act taken in the righteous pursuit of justice. These depictions matter. Portrayals of policing on tv — including fictional portrayals — exert enormous influence on public perceptions of how policing works and help shape both law and public policy. Part I traces the origins of the cop show. Part II illustrates how cop shows construct and transmit social norms that humanize and valorize law enforcement — both the job and those who do it. Part III considers the question of what constitutes police brutality. It concludes that cop shows fall short in depicting police brutality both in its narrower definition: action taken to degrade and dehumanize, and in its broader definition: the use of excessive force. Part IV explores the mechanisms by which police brutality and the harms it visits on people and communities are erased. Finally, Part V asks whether cop shows can do better. The chapter concludes that the failures of the genre to grapple with accountability and reform are not baked into the medium. The field is rife with possibilities for expanding the universe of empathic engagement, and for illustrating both the harms of police violence and the difficult tradeoffs inherent in the effort to reimagine public safety.
Keywords: criminal law, criminal procedure, police brutality, police violence, excessive force, law and culture, media studies, fourth amendment
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