Police TV Programs Are Neither Serving Nor Protecting

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The historically shaky relationship between citizen and police officer has become a matter of more than just mistrust, extending into the realm of normalizing anti-police sentiment. The crux of the argument against empowered public servants is that they lack accountability for mishandled fieldwork. This liability problem is predicated on the recent string of dismissals of police-instigated shootings. In fact, few police officers ever face trials for shooting deaths. Even fewer are convicted. Viral videos of unwarranted force and altercations have taken over Instagram feeds, and the New York Police Department slogan—“Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect”—comes across as hypocritical to populations exposed to the unfiltered footage of abuses of power.

In what seems to be an effort to mitigate the perception of the police as an adversary to the public, notable broadcasting networks, including Fox and CBS, have pioneered a more mainstream representation of cops through police and border agency shows. The television series “COPS,” whose earnings are nearing $400 million in revenue as it enters its third decade of airing, has an effortless production algorithm—put a cameraman in a police car and compile the video with relatively minimal polishing. As a viewer of the show myself, the appeal comes out of its raw and genuine depiction of real-world crime, an intriguing grittiness that contrasts the fabricated formulas of many other television shows. However, the deliberate organization of each episode to achieve an impression of authentic police work is only the facade. The producers allow the police officers to make the final say on what content is aired in each episode. "There is a remarkable level of control the police have over the content that is aired,” the New York Times’s Dan Taberski said in his new podcast “Running from COPS.” This gives police “the ability to craft their own policing message."

Granting the police the ability to censor their footage makes it easy for them to distort the authenticity of the policing. As viewers, we have to recognize the dynamic between the entertainment producers, who rely on police cooperation, and the police departments, which recognize the show as an opportunity to control how their officers are perceived. Moreover, the show blatantly violates the requirement that criminals legally consent to having their arrests aired. The producers of “COPS” claim that they uphold all legal standards, but in an interview with 11 of the shows many suspects, they each claimed to have been coerced into signing an agreement or simply never provided their consent at all.

In general, these shows offer a distinct take on how we should perceive police work. The take provided by the shows is that the police are conscientious people who simply “enforce the law.” Though the police do “enforce the law,” the show often appeals to the fact that the police serve a “higher purpose,” so can get away with being emotionally inconsiderate and abusive. And to say this only scratches the surface of the problems and injustices riddled throughout each episode. Beyond the police officers’ self-curation, it is also important to recognize that these shows glorify the use of excessive force as proper protocol and reinforce racial stereotypes and inaccuracies that fuel a more prejudice-driven society. In a recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, Nick Pinto wrote that “episodes emphasized African American suspects out of proportion with reality.” Through its depiction of minority communities as the focus of police precincts, the show associates these vulnerable groups with society’s worst problems. In my research in preparation for this article, the episode I happened upon embodied exactly what I feared. Five out of the six suspects apprehended were people of color and I could not help but glance away as a father of two was tased in front of his family.

The consequence of not trusting the police—the entity that also happens to be the one that must knock on your door to protect you in the event of an emergency—is threatening to personal safety, and this perception of the police as the enemy is dangerous, but that does not mean we should let injustice slide, especially under the guise of gun and badge.