How America’s obsession with TV cop shows like “Law and Order SVU” enables police brutality in real life

A seductive fiction.
A seductive fiction.
Image: YouTube/NBC
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“I’ve got no problem with stop and frisk tonight,” the comfortingly humane desk sergeant declares in season 17, episode 5 of Law & Order: SVU. His message is clear: Searching without probable cause is not okay in most situations—but this is a special case. A violent home invader and rapist is on the loose, and the police are determined to catch him before he strikes again. Emergency situations call for emergency measures.

As on every episode of the popular, long-running series, which is starting its eighteenth season Sept. 21, the police have vital work to do. Pop culture doesn’t always glorify the police. But the job of policing, for good or ill, is always represented as exciting and important. Which means that even when police decide to cross ethical and even legal lines, as in that SVU episode, the screw-ups are contextualized as a tragic necessity. Police for the most part aren’t catching serial killers or rapists. Pretending that they are validates police violence and obscures the tedious, day-to-day of petty injustice.

Following the shootings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, many civilians on the right have decried what they say is the public demonization of police. “[L]aw enforcement across the country face hatred and mistreatment,” one popular pro-gun website declared. William Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said in July that political leaders no longer support police as they have in the past, and condemned Obama’s (imaginary) failure to praise law enforcement for “the climate that allows these attacks to happen.” In the public sphere, some insist, police are despised.

On movie and TV screens though, police aren’t despised. They’re generally heroes. Case in point: The upcoming season of SVU will include a cameo from US vice president Joe Biden. It makes sense, in some ways: Biden’s been involved in a high-profile campaign against sexual assault, and the police on SVU often fight perpetrators of sexual assault. Government and law enforcement—they’re working together to protect you. It makes it a show that both liberals and conservatives can love.

Week after week, on SVU or True Detective or Chicago PD or Blue Bloods or the new CBS series Training Day, law enforcement officers will track down serial killers, rapists, robbers, gangsters, and thugs, risking their lives for the common good. “Although I am but one man, I have thousands of brothers and sisters who are the same as me,” patrol officer Bryan (Jake Gyllanhaal) fulsomely declares in the 2012 film End of Watch. “We stand watch together. A thin blue line, protecting the prey from the predators. We are the police.”

Director David Ayer’s End of Watch is unusual in its unabashed police boosterism; the movie is practically a recruitment film. But many media portayals are more nuanced. In the previously mentioned SVU episode, in which police are chasing a dangerous rapist, cops accidentally shoot and kill the wrong man, allowing the show to engage with the Black Lives Matter movement. (The district attorney and grand jury are shockingly eager to prosecute the cops—because this is fiction.) Some shows like Chicago PD or True Detective go even further, presenting the police as violent, unstable, and unaccountable.

But whether the police are noble, error-prone, or actively malevolent, one thing is consistent in Hollywood: Police do things that need to be done. The police in the first season of True Detective may be awful people in many respects, but they are battling a serious threat—a ritual serial killer who has hideously murdered countless women and children. “The world needs bad men,” Rust (Matthew McConaughey) says on True Detective. “We keep the other bad men from the door.”

Even on The Wire, a show much-celebrated for its realism and insight, the importance of police is a given. The detectives on the show are no paragons of morality; McNulty (Dominic West) is a philandering jerk, motivated by egotism and insecurity, but he still spends his days going after mass murderers and dangerous gangs. You don’t see cops on The Wire harassing folks for smoking marijuanaor for selling loose cigarettes. 

The narrative incentives here are clear—if you’re creating mass pulp entertainment, you want drama. You’re not going to tune in to a television show where the police write traffic tickets hour after hour or spend the bulk of their time doing paperwork. Serial killers and sex crimes are stimulating. They make people pay attention.

But this need for incident and excitement fundamentally misrepresents the nature of policing in most communities, with very unfortunate consequences. In Ferguson, Missouri, the Justice Department found that police disproportionately targeted black residents for infractions: traffic stops, jaywalking, “failure to comply.” In these cases, police weren’t bad men fighting other bad men. Instead, as Jamelle Bouie writes, ”Officers weren’t protecting citizens as much as they were corralling potential offenders and sources of revenue, with a huge assist from the city municipal court.” Imagine a True Detective season in which Rust and Marty wander around the bayou issuing traffic tickets to fill a quota. “The Yellow King says that’ll be $100 for going 60 in a 55mph zone, ma’am.” Rust thinks he’s got a bleak worldview, but he doesn’t know the half of it.

Along the same lines, most high-profile police shootings haven’t involved police accidentally mistaking an innocent person for a violent criminal, a la SVU. Police killed Eric Garner after hassling him for selling loose cigarettes. Philando Castile was pulled over for having a busted headlight. John Crawford III was shot while holding a toy BB gun in a Wal-Mart. In these instances, police didn’t make tragic errors in pursuit of protecting the public, nor did they make a grim decision to use evil against evil. They just escalated situations for no reason, resulting in unnecessary suffering and injustice.

Black Lives Matter has highlighted the extent to which police interventions are petty, unhelpful, and often dangerous. But that perspective is hardly ever represented in film or television, even in the most jaded portrayals of police. Films sometimes present police corruption, as in 1997’s Cop Land or 2014’s Sabotage. But the corruption isn’t everyday harassment and plunder—it’s hyperbolic mob connections or complex heists.

Television and movies don’t inherently present cops as good. But the narrative demand for excitement and urgency means that they almost always present cops as necessary. In these fictions, there are bad men out there, and police have the exciting, dramatic job of fighting and defeating them. In America today, we can’t imagine a world without police—which is part of the reason why, in the real world, it’s so hard to hold them accountable.