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'Copaganda' and the portrayal of good cops in pop culture

Experts worry aspirational portrayals of police in Hollywood ignore real life issues.
Posted at 5:48 PM, Oct 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-06 17:49:07-04

Crime shows, cop dramas, and even sitcoms about detectives can be pretty aspirational for law enforcement.

In serious shows like "NCIS-Los Angeles," characters like LL Cool J and Chris O'Donnell represent devoted public servants. And when cops are funny, like Andy Samberg's detective Peralta in "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," they're endearing.

But amid the growing criticisms about police brutality and racial injustice in real life, some critics want audiences to think more critically about what they're watching.

Writer and Northwestern journalism professor Steven Thrasher has covered police violence, racial injustice, and the Black Lives Matter movement since 2014.

"You could say that it's a fantasy of what a police department is, but it's depicting itself as the real thing, and it gives cover for the violence that the real this is doing," Thrasher said. "I have been pepper-sprayed and threatened by police many times. So I don't find police particularly funny."

He's referring specifically to "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" – a favorite fan comedy about the hunks and relationships of a fictional New York City precinct. After eight seasons, it aired its series finale last month.

Created by the same writers behind upbeat comedies like "Parks And Rec" and "The Good Place," "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" was praised for its diverse cast and its handling of topics like racism, homophobia, and sexism within policing.

In 2018, the show even won the award for best comedy series from GLAAD – an organization that recognized achievements in LGBTQ media.

However, when it comes to diversity and inclusion within the show, Thrasher worries it can skew viewers' perceptions of whether real-life progress is being made.

"Diversity can be a catch-all word that doesn't necessarily mean better conditions for quote-unquote diverse people or equity for quote-unquote diverse people," Thrasher said. "And in fiction and nonfiction, I think seeing people of color as soldiers, as police officers, is supposed to give the idea that things are better for people of color."

Beyond "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," other television shows like "S.W.A.T." or movies like "Monsters And Men" have centered their narratives around Black law enforcement professionals.

In real life, over 15% of law enforcement professionals are Black, which is slightly higher than the percentage of the Black U.S. population as a whole but less than most major American cities.

More diversity in the profession doesn't necessarily mean less harmful interactions between Black civilians and police. However, the idea that representation and diversity can help solve racism and police misconduct is still a common theme in pop culture.

The CBS drama "S.W.A.T." centers its story on a Black sergeant in Los Angeles, and show creator Aaron Rahsaan Thomas rode along with real-life professionals to develop the series.

"It allowed me to have some insight on the real lingo, the terminology, and more of a sense on humanizing the people behind the badge," Thomas said.

Actor Denzel Washington – who has played law enforcement professional 13 different times on screen – has also spoken on the importance of respecting and humanizing law enforcement after working with them to research his roles.

From an artist's perspective, it's essential to do this research, but critics like Thrasher say viewers should still be mindful when the portrayals lean aspirational.

"From a viewer's perspective, it can make people think that something better is happening," he said. "When in fact, the mere act of representation is covering up and encouraging people not to ask more questions about the perpetuation of violence."