The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

TV shows shape how law enforcement is viewed. Where will they go from here?

From left, “S.W.A.T.” cast members Shemar Moore, Alex Russell, David Lim and Jay Harrington shoot a recent episode of the CBS series. (Sonja Flemming/CBS)

At the end of May, as American corporations continued to issue statements on nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, CBS released its own: “Black Lives Matter. Black Culture Matters. Black Communities Matter,” the company stated, adding that it stands in solidarity with black employees and viewers, and condemns acts of racism, discrimination and senseless violence.

The irony of that statement, as several people pointed out, is that the unnamed law enforcement entities committing the acts protested against are often the protagonists of CBS dramas. While also known for its family sitcoms, CBS relies on crime series to make up a hefty portion of its prime-time lineup, whether with long-running institutions such as “NCIS” and “Blue Bloods” or newer shows like “FBI: Most Wanted.”

It’s not just CBS, though its lineup might be especially notable considering the network was again deemed television’s most-watched. It’s also silver medalist NBC, which produces “Law and Order: SVU,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and all the “Chicago” series. It’s the cable channels and streaming series. It’s all the television entering American homes with compelling depictions of good and bad, told through lenses that vary in terms of law enforcement branch, department, gender and, increasingly, race.

With such a volume of crime series on air, one wonders what messages they’re disseminating.

“We end up with people thinking the system is working fine because of all the images coming into their homes,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change. “If you look at these shows, the on-air talent is quite diverse. Black people exist. But racism doesn’t.”

Color of Change published a report titled “Normalizing Injustice” that analyzed 26 broadcast and streaming crime series from the 2017-18 season, 19 of which continued into the next year. (The Washington Post reached out to the top networks to ask why they greenlight so many shows of this genre. A representative of CBS declined to speak on the record, while NBC did not return the inquiry.)

The organization looked at the makeup of writers’ rooms, finding that a vast majority were dominated by white writers. A majority also depicted the “good guy” officers committing more wrongful actions than the “bad guys” — ranging from racial profiling to denying access to a lawyer, according to the report — framing those actions “as relatable, forgivable, acceptable and ultimately good.”

Dream Hampton, the executive producer of “Surviving R. Kelly” who serves on the Color of Change board, acknowledged that reports like this can sometimes “read like ‘water is wet’ to black people.” But there was room to be surprised about the writers’ rooms demographics, she said, and to reflect on how often those wrongful actions depicted on-screen are normalized when they occur in real life.

“Breonna [Taylor], for instance, was just killed with a no-knock warrant. No-knock warrants, going around the rules — the rules being bad to begin with — are something you see on television dramas all the time,” Hampton continued. “It’s justified. There’s a clock ticking, a bomb that’s about to go off. Of course Kiefer Sutherland doesn’t have time to knock on the door and get a freaking warrant.”

Not every show plays this way, of course. Some make a point of exposing the harmful perceptions and behaviors pervading police departments. Others like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” portray officers rather benignly. There isn’t a single way law enforcement is depicted, Hampton said, but rather that they’re “just constantly depicted.” Often regardless of the character’s behavior, the more time an audience spends with a protagonist, the more likely they are to empathize with them. As Kathryn VanArendonk recently wrote for Vulture, “TV has long had a police’s-eye perspective that helps shape the way viewers see the world, prioritizing the victories and struggles of police over communities being policed.”

Americans have been protesting the systemic racism leading to Floyd’s death at the hands of police — as well as the deaths of Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many black Americans before them — for two weeks. The Black Lives Matter movement goes back to George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal on all charges related to the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the sentiment that propels it stretching far beyond. But until on-screen depictions change, Hampton argued, the narratives perpetuated will not.

“We get these narratives from television, that police work is inherently dangerous,” she said. “They have a militaristic mind-set. They’re watching the same TV shows we are, before they even join the force, that tell them they are basically joining an army, and they are at war with black and brown folks."

Recognizing television’s cultural power, Griffin Newman, an actor who appeared in a couple episodes of “Blue Bloods” nearly a decade ago, called on peers who have also played officers to donate to the National Bail Fund Network. Stephanie Beatriz, who stars on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” matched Newman’s $11,000 donation and announced the cast and showrunner of her series had sent $100,000 altogether.

Some in Hollywood have tried to make waves from within — diversifying writers’ rooms is a start. Hampton and Robinson also pointed to the widespread practice of hiring law enforcement as consultants as something that could be addressed. To retain these consultants, Hampton said, writers might be persuaded to paint officers in a more positive light. Robinson added that if writers don’t also consult activists and the families of victims, their shows risk acting as “PR arms for the criminal justice system.”

Color of Change works to connect writers with these groups, working with projects such as “Seven Seconds,” which earned star Regina King her third Emmy. The Netflix series explores the coverup that ensues after a white police officer in Jersey City accidentally hits and critically injures the teenage son of King’s character. With each episode, The Post’s Hank Stuever wrote in his review, showrunner Veena Sud and her writers “demonstrate a sharpened skill for pace and revelation, along with gracefully subtle ruminations on corruption, racial profiling and — more profoundly — the very nature of morality.”

Robinson and his team visited the writers’ room early on, connecting King with a mother whose son was killed by police and providing the writers with videotapes of bail hearings. In a parallel to police procedurals’ “ripped from the headlines” plots, Robinson said he can point to an episode that pulls from one of the tapes. The series spends time with a young black assistant prosecutor (Clare-Hope Ashitey), but Sud said she also made a concerted effort to flesh out the teenage victim’s family.

“I really wanted to humanize the people who are getting murdered by the police,” Sud said. “I wanted the victim in my story, the young child who is murdered by a cop, to have a full life and to have been deeply loved, and portrayed as such. … The police genre unfortunately seems to be incredibly one-sided in portraying police as heroes and people who speak for the dead.”

Writers’ room hiring practices were briefly scrutinized last week when Dick Wolf fired Craig Gore, a writer with credits on CBS’s “S.W.A.T.” and NBC’s “Chicago P.D.,” from an upcoming “Law and Order” spinoff after Gore posted on Facebook threatening to “light up” people breaking curfew near his home. Wolf stated he would “not tolerate this conduct, especially during our hour of national grief.”

Wolf’s own approach to storytelling is worth examining, given his prolific output of police and courtroom dramas. Robinson recalled a moment at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour in 2018 when Wolf insisted his upcoming series “F.B.I.” would be apolitical. Conversely, on a recent Hollywood Reporter podcast, “Law and Order: SVU” showrunner Warren Leight told the hosts that shows like his are collectively “miscontributing to society.”

“You’d have to be living under a rock for the past seven years — from Trayvon to now — to think that you could do a piece of content about crime and punishment and city politics and black and brown communities in cities, and have it be apolitical,” Robinson said. “You know, that in and of itself is not only disingenuous, but it speaks to how someone with so much power could be so disconnected."

“S. W. A. T.” executive producer Aaron Rahsaan Thomas said he embraces the political, as his team aims to “take what would normally be a ‘very special episode’ on another show and make that our status quo.” The show challenges the images Thomas encountered as a child, where “good is represented by a square-jawed white man and evil is represented by people of color.” He noted that he grew up next door to a 12-year-old who was shot and killed by police.

The series, which stars Shemar Moore as a SWAT sergeant from South Los Angeles, focuses on a black member of law enforcement straddling two worlds. At first, Thomas worried the network would push back on story lines dealing more heavily with race, class or sexuality, “knowing that’s not necessarily where CBS shows, especially CBS cop shows, tend to go very often.” He said he was pleasantly surprised by the freedom he and his writers have been granted. (When asked about Gore, the writer fired from Wolf’s show who previously wrote for “S.W.A.T.,” Thomas clarified that while appreciative of Gore’s contributions to the show, he and the remaining writers “do not support the judgment that [Gore] showed.”)

“I still see us as more of an anomaly than a norm,” Thomas said. “And I would hope that there’s more room for cop shows and procedurals to take chances, you know? To me, the scariest bad guy is not the fictional bad guy that gets apprehended within 43 minutes, it’s the reality you see outside your window, that you’re dealing with every day. We’re a show that is built to tell stories about what’s going on right now."

But in the end, varying approaches to depicting law enforcement doesn’t negate the sheer volume of series that exist. Hampton wishes networks would “put a moratorium on cop shows.” Given the inventive storytelling that comes out of Hollywood, Robinson wondered whether writers could “imagine a world in which black people can experience safety and joy and hope and aspiration.”

“The power of the narrative that comes out of Hollywood — that not only travels to this country but travels globally; that creates a worldview, a mental model of black people and black communities as undeserving of empathy, as weak and damaged, as violent and as operating against society — is killing us,” he said. “These narratives are killing us. And folks in Hollywood have the power to change that.”

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