Police are a permanent fixture in the media. There are tons of movies, tv shows, and even some video games that lionize policing. They are so prevalent that it has become normalized; whether it’s procedurals or reality shows the image of cops are heroes of justice is firmly cemented.
With the death of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, there has been a stronger pushback against heroic and sympathetic portrayals of police. Rightly so; these shows normalize an “us vs them” mentality by portraying police as heroes and the communities they serve (usually lower income and multi-racial) as violent or evil. Law & Order (which the name itself implies a firm viewpoint) shows police officers cracking down on their district in order to solve violent crimes. Civilians often act indifferent, unwilling to help our heroes in their search for justice. In the end, the police are usually right and problems are solved by “good” police work. This is all done in a “ripped from the headlines” approach, meaning that it’s meant to mirror real world events even when it’s only showing the sensationalist parts of police work (they certainly aren’t handing out parking tickets). This formula has proven immensely successful; the original show ran for 20 seasons and had 5 spinoff shows, one which is the longest running live-action primetime series (Law & Order: SVU).
Sympathetic television portrayals aren’t relegated to the drama genre either. Brooklyn Nine-Nine casts police officers as sitcom caricatures, lovable goofballs cast in the “Parks and Rec” mold. They go through ticketing and arrests like it’s a normal day job, while engaging in regular sitcom shenanigans (friendly rivalries, not wanting to divulge secrets, etc). Police officers are people too, but their job is far from normal. Casting police officers as regular office workers removes the important differentiator between civilians and cops. There’s also a general dismissal of the internal departments militarization. Normalizing their job as “just another 9-5” asks viewers to think uncritically about their job structure, that they are just trying to get by like everyone else and not the civil servants that they actually are. Arrests, investigations, and use of force become “just part of the job” like sending emails or sorting spreadsheets. Make no mistake; they are the ones with the power.
There would be no problem with these portrayals of police if they actually represented the reality. Police also have a severe effect on their communities that goes beyond “catching the bad guys.” We’ve seen over policing and police violence reinforce systemic racism, the prison industrial complex, and kill Black people. Media portrayals soften this image; when they’re shown as the last line of defense against evil their tactics become justified. We see police fire their guns all the time in film and television, usually because the character’s life is on the line. Police in other words embody the “warrior cop” stereotype, going to war against violent communities. In real life, warrior cops kill innocent minorities. I say all this not as someone who is immune to this genre; some of my favorites have been exactly the kinds of portrayals I’m speaking about. All the movies I’m about to list have been favorites of mine, but I’ve given them all passes. I think it’s about time I held myself accountable as well.
Most police centered media normalize use of force. Dirty Harry is a prime example of this; the character is a good cop held back by bureaucracy. He’s held back by the fact that he doesn’t get to dictate when he can use force. Dirty Harry’s most famous line is an egregious example of him wielding power.
This is often seen as a win, a badass line to end all badass lines. An officer nowadays threatening to blow off a suspect’s head should lead to a suspension and criminal charge. Dirty Harry also emphasizes that individual discretion, when it comes to enacting justice, can be used. Harry Callahan fails to convict the psychopathic Scorpio after he obtains evidence through torturing him. He storms off pissed, a serious blow to get a killer off the streets. The movie’s reprehensible viewpoint comes to fruition when Scorpio hires a man to beat him, so as to appear that he was a victim of police brutality. The message from the film is clear; police should dictate the response needed to save us civilians when villains would abuse the system. Fascism, in other words, is ok when the police deem the threat large enough. The idea that Dirty Harry is a fascistic movie is nothing new, there were protests at the Academy Awards the year it came out. That nasty identifier has done little to curtail its place as a classic however.
Modern films are not immune. The Raid, an Indonesian action movie, is one of my favorite movies of all time and one of the best action movies of the past decade. It’s politics however are thoroughly awful. The story is thin but revolves around an elite team of police officers storming a low income housing project to take down the crime lord who lives on the top level. There’s an uncomfortable dissonance between the movie’s text and imagery; namely armed police attacking a poor housing project. The mission goes sideways and the remaining police officers are forced to physically defend themselves against all of the building’s residents. Don’t worry though; this project is full of criminals who serve said crime boss so the excessive violence throughout is justified. The movie’s imagery, whether intentional or not, equates lower income housing residents as criminals and degenerates, something Fox News does o so regularly. Yes the martial arts action is second to none, but it is privileged cops from good neighborhoods breaking peoples’ limbs. We see as much at the beginning of the film, as our hero Rama trains for his mission and kisses his wife goodbye in their beautiful home. The well dressed and civilized police are thus forced to contend with the monstrous criminals. Even Dredd, the 2012 movie that takes a similar premise and transplants it into the source comic book’s bleak futurism, depicted white cops fighting back against evil and multi-racial civilians. It doesn’t help that the main bads of the movie are a Black man and white woman specifically. Judge Dredd usually traffics in some satire about its main characters fascist authority (he is a cop with the power to sentence people on the spot), but this is mostly stripped away in the film.
Even children’s movies are tailored cop propaganda. Zootopia is a recent problematic fave (of mine), taking what seems like a good hearted attempt to make an allegory about race in a wrong headed direction. The world of Zootopia has “predators” and “non-predators” living together but in segregated communities. Don’t expect class discussion though; economic disparity is not one of the film’s talking points. Predators have learned to suppress their carnivorous tendencies and now live side by side with their former meals. This of course leads to worries amongst the prey population that any day predators could rise up and eat them. The story attempts to impart a lesson of treating everyone equally and looking past differences which on the surface semi works. The fact that predators are genetically predisposed to violent tendencies works strongly against that. The police in the film learn to look past this; predators have reformed their criminal ways and are ready to live in polite society. This has very negative connotations when you extrapolate out that predators are supposed to represent minorities in Zootopia’s analogy. Predators in other words must conform to their prey communities if they want to be “one of the good ones.” There may be bad actors, but these predators are ready to be nice and polite now. Add in that police departments literally use the movie as diversity training and it paints a bleak picture of our current justice system.
I don’t say this to point fingers at viewers who loved these movies (I am one of them after all), but we need to be more critical of portrayals of police in the media. We should interrogate the way police interactions are shown especially against poor and minority communities. We should pushback at portrayals of excessive use of force and warrior cops working outside the law. The show “Cops” only just canceled, as people are starting to understand the dehumanizing aspects of this long running program. Police are not equal to civilians; they hold all the power.