Last month, I heard the news – pretty unfortunate news to me – that the reality TV show Cops was being cancelled due to the claims that it was glorifying the police. I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment. But, lowkey, I thought the show was actually pretty entertaining. I mean, where else could I see a real-life account of a Spanish-speaking redneck assaulting his wife by sticking a block of cheese in her dentures?
This classic episode aside, I can see the problem with the show and shows like it. Far too often, the negative side of policing is ignored in favor of deifying them.
For decades, researchers have examined the representation of cops on television and in movies. These police characters are often viewed as intrepid heroes with only minor (if any) flaws. They may occasionally cross a legal and ethical line or two – like suspending suspects’ rights, using excessive force, and circumventing the rules – in a justified effort to bring the bad guy to justice. There have been a few exceptions to that noble representation; namely in special-episode sitcoms when a beloved character has faced an incident of racial profiling or harassment. But, by and large, police are predominately depicted as virtuous and wholesome heroes who always operate in the name of truth, justice and fairness. The unfortunate consequence of this distorted view of law enforcement is that it generally creates a warped sense of the criminal justice system to its audience. That, then, informs how they view law enforcement in real life. To them, the idea that a police officer can actually be a bad person is unfathomable.
I suspect one of the reasons why police are glorified so much on television is because the writers telling the stories have often not had bad encounters with the police themselves. Those most sensitive to actual police encounters (directly or indirectly) are usually not in the room when these shows are being created. Research supports this. In a fascinating study by Color of Change, over 230 TV shows were examined to determine the number of black writers who made up the staff. Two-thirds of these shows had no black writers at all. Of the nine police shows examined, only three had a black writer. So, it stands to reason that the white people writing these shows – who have likely never had a negative encounter with the police – would present these glamorized takes.
One very obvious exception would be in The Wire, the HBO crime drama about the Baltimore drug trade. The Wire doesn’t pull any punches in its depiction of law enforcement (while intertwining politics, education, commerce, and the media), making it one of the greatest show of all time.
It doesn’t hurt that The Wire also represented a major achievement for black artistry. Unlike other critically-acclaimed shows during that era (Friends, Seinfeld, or even fellow HBO shows like The Sopranos, and Sex and the City), The Wire’s cast featured a large number of black performers. Amazing actors like Michael B Jordan, Idris Elba, and Michael K. Williams all got their start on the show.
But I think the most significant aspect of The Wire is something that is often overlooked, but has come to my attention more and more in the face of this country-wide protest of police departments. The Wire is one of the only crime dramas which doesn’t glorify the police. Instead, the police are unflatteringly portrayed as flawed, incompetent, dishonest people; obsessed with power and promotion, with a compunction for “juking stats” (downgrading or under reporting crime to make police departments look like they’re doing a good job). There are only a handful of cops on the show who aren’t completely reprehensible, and even those cops toe the line. The “good” agents are stuck in the middle of a broken system and have to compromise themselves in order to successfully navigate said system. If we’re being honest, the genius of the show is that it points out the glaring similarities between the police, lawyers, judges, the media, local bureaucracy, etc. and the criminals on the ‘other side.’
Of course, it helps that show creator David Simon was a former police reporter. His first-hand, ground-level experience allowed him to offer an incredibly accurate and robust account of actual policing.
For far too long, TV has been afraid to tackle the touchy subject of bad police. But the Wire was never afraid to go down that rabbit hole (we can throw The Shield on FX into the mix, also. But that show didn’t match the nuance of The Wire). That refreshing take is just the thing that we need right now.