TV cops shows are sending a twisted message to viewers
In ABC's new show "The Rookie," John Nolan, a 40-year-old white Los Angeles Police Department trainee, must prove himself to skeptical higher-ups — his training officer, a black woman; his sergeant, a black man; and his captain, a Latina woman. While the brass try to humiliate him into submission, his natural-born crime-fighting abilities will force his doubters to eat their words: While a terrified African-American rookie cowers behind a police car, Nolan heroically runs toward gunfire to save his fellow officers, even though it is against protocol.
"The Rookie" joins other police procedurals that position straight white men as heroic outsiders battling shortsighted women and minorities in leadership roles. In "Chicago P.D.," "Bosch" and "Training Day," to name a few, white men with a willingness to use off-the-books tactics to protect the city's most vulnerable are discounted by a system hamstrung by "political correctness."
In these shows, "political correctness" and prioritizing diversity are depicted as eroding American institutions and endangering our cities. As "Training Day's" white protagonist quips, "Political correctness doesn't stop bullets." (CBS canceled "Training Day" in 2017 after a lead actor died.)
Shows premised on white cops besting diverse higher-ups represent half the crime shows slated for the 2018 season, and they have been some of the most popular. Last season, "Chicago P.D." averaged 7 million viewers per episode and claimed the highest ranking among network television for its time slot. An Amazon original, "Bosch" is ranked among the top 10 most-streamed shows on the site. "The Rookie" is the most-watched ABC show in its time slot.
Today's crop of white, heroic men have must battle both crime and women and people of color in supervisory roles. These higher-ups are so blinded by "political correctness" that they are more concerned with destroying white men's careers than with the safety of the city. They also tend to be out of touch, naive or motivated by personal greed. On "Bosch," the black police chief dines in fancy restaurants, has a driver who holds his car door and thinks more about politics than fighting crime.
In this season's premiere of "Chicago P.D.," a batch of bad heroin” is claiming lives all over the city. Cmdr. Hank Voight, head of the intelligence unit, shows up to the scene of a mass overdose only to be stopped by Deputy Superintendent Katherine Brennan. She wants to sideline Voight because he is being investigated for shooting an unarmed suspect. He dismisses her concerns that he did anything wrong and accuses her of trying "to bury an old-school white cop" for the sake of optics. He further argues that keeping him off the case will cost lives. Voight defies her orders and investigates off the books, coercing information from a drug dealer by terrorizing his family.
This ill-begotten information gets the bad dope off the streets, saves the city and forces Brennan to apologize to Voight. Instead of disciplining him for defying her, she praises him for "saving lives" and decides to drop the investigation into the shooting.
Treating white men as outsiders in police departments run by people of color is at odds with reality. In truth, law enforcement faces a diversity crisis, especially at the leadership level. According to a 2016 report from the Department of Justice, police forces consistently fail to recruit and retain people of color, which could be contributing to a lack of trust between police and the communities they work in.
In another odd break with reality, cop shows today regularly show police acting violently— they actually depict civil rights violations in far greater numbers than reported in actual police encounters — and justifying it.
A 2015 study published in Criminal Justice and Behavior catalogued police violence on crime dramas and found that 80 percent of instances of bodily force are depicted as justified. On "Chicago P.D.," Voight interrogates suspects by pressing their faces to lit electrical ranges, shoving guns in their mouths and throwing them in "the cage," a chain-link enclosure where they are kept off the books, denied lawyers and tortured.
These tactics typically work, getting criminals off the streets and saving people in the nick of time.
No one expects television to perfectly reflect reality, but these shows have turned reality inside out, creating a world in which diverse hiring is somehow a bigger problem than police brutality, which is suddenly an asset.
Meanwhile, the bodies keep piling up on screen, as routine arrests devolve into shootouts, and revenge justifies executions in vacant lots. As of this writing, 801 people have been killed by police in real life this year, a quarter of them black. These shows urge us to ignore those statistics and just let the white guys figure this out.
Elizabeth Hoover is a writer and social critic based in Milwaukee.
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