The movement for media reparations must include the entertainment industry
NEW YORK, NY - AUG. 29: The skate is seen on the film set of 'Law & Order: Organized Crime' TV Series on Aug. 29, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

I’ve watched a lot of “Law and Order” in my lifetime, particularly the “Special Victims Unit” spin-off, which premiered just five years after I was born. By high school and college, the series had become the stuff of Sunday night binge-watches. The backdrop of most episodes—Central Park, a college campus on the Upper West Side, a popular restaurant in lower Manhattan—could easily have been scenes from my own life. My mom actually stopped watching the show once she realized it was heightening existing fears about my safety in the city and placing them at the forefront of her mind. 

But when I watched these shows, I never thought of the detectives on my screen as police because their work was vastly different from what I knew to be true about officers in real life, especially the NYPD. When characters on the show used illegal tactics to get a confession, they were reprimanded by internal affairs; the elite squad almost always found the perpetrator and secured at least some semblance of justice for victims; and when we peeked into the problems they were having at home, it made sense why they were a bit more aggressive than usual in the interrogation room. 

That’s the strange power of the media—it seeps into your mind, and while it can mirror parts of your reality, it can also stand at stark odds with what you know to be true. Those distortions require us to take entertainment media seriously and demand more when the harms outweigh fun. 

The ubiquity of TV shows and films about police that excuse the harm they cause and skirt over their failure to keep people safe from most violence means that the entertainment industry should be incorporated into larger calls for media reparations. As advocates demand that news media reckon with how they have benefited from and further perpetuate anti-Black violence, the world of TV and film can’t ignore its own culpability in doing the same. Media critics and researchers have long discussed how entertainment media can shape our views, such as who deserves justice and empathy, whether or not our laws and policies are fair, and the actual utility of policing and incarceration. But the belief that shows like “Law and Order” are “just entertainment” obscures their immense power and acts as a barrier to instituting meaningful accountability measures.

As I wrote in 2020, the way that shows like “Law and Order: SVU” focus on detectives instead of street patrol officers can blur the lines between the fictionalized police glorified on screen and the police critiqued in real life for wielding their power in violent, abusive ways. My experiences as a Black woman living in New York have always made that gulf crystal clear. But for many people, that’s far from the case, and the impact is far from negligible. As Ava DuVernay noted in a podcast interview with Color of Change, “These are going into our bloodstream, these stories. They go into our DNA. They become a part of our mind, our memory. So we really have to be more rigorous in our examination of what we accept.” 

The “copaganda” that we must reckon with was birthed from a mutually beneficial relationship Hollywood cultivated with the police over the last century.

According to data collected in 2015, only 21% of Americans over 16 have experienced any type of contact with the police. In the absence of that real-life experience, what people see in the media fills the gap and plays an outsized role in shaping public perceptions of the police. Research from professors Kathleen Donovan and Charles Klahm found that viewers of crime dramas are more likely to believe that police are successful at lowering crime and only use force when necessary. 

Those perceptions aren’t entirely coincidental. The “copaganda” that we must reckon with was birthed from a mutually beneficial relationship Hollywood cultivated with the police over the last century. As detailed in Alyssa Rosenberg’s Washington Post series on police portrayals, in the early 1900s, police were largely depicted as inept, easily foiled, and often narrative punchlines. But by the mid-20th century, Hollywood studios and police departments began forming a symbiotic relationship—departments lending real-life cop cars on set, permitting their officers to work as extras, and granting shooting permits needed to film. In exchange, depictions of officers on-screen were more favorable toward police, with departments even overseeing scripts for shows such as “Dragnet” and censoring any unsavory material that reflected the department poorly. 

Further, police departments caught in controversy or dealing with incidents particularly detrimental to their public image used the media as an incredibly effective salve. Shows like “Adam-12,” which depicted the cops as professionals and kind, were co-produced by the LAPD and used directly as PR for the department. Throughout the series’ run between 1968 and 1975, episodes were used as training videos for police departments across the country.

“Like all major police departments throughout the country, the LAPD’s two biggest problems are recruitment and community relations,” wrote show creator Bob Cinader to an ad agency. “They feel that a series about the uniformed police officer would be of even greater help to them in particular and the cause of law and order in general.” 

In recent decades, some writers’ rooms began to question how stories about police were being told and what responsibility they had to redress the consequences of some of these most troubling depictions. Some studios entered into highly publicized partnerships with racial justice organizations with the stated goal of creating more racially diverse writers’ rooms and shows helmed by BIPOC. 

Police brutality and violence targeting Black communities, however, continued regardless. Following the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing uprisings, it briefly seemed like the entertainment industry was finally having its feet held to the fire through more robust and public critiques of police shows. In June 2020 both “Live: PD” and the long-running “Cops” were canceled in the wake of protests—until reemerging in 2022 and 2021, respectively, in rebranded versions for new stations. The sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” rewrote episodes in the wake of Floyd’s murder and ended its popular run in 2021. Other shows tried incorporating storylines about community policing, reform efforts, and the Movement for Black Lives, most often by exploring some internal conflict held by Black members of the force. It seemed that some producers of cop-centric shows felt, as “East New York” co-creator and executive producer William Finkelstein put it in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “a desire to see where the cop show can live in the post-George Floyd era. You can’t ignore the moment in time.”

But the idea that writers and showrunners can (and must) use the “cop show” format to meet the current moment almost ensures that such an endeavor will fail. The unavoidable truth is that the entertainment industry and the police are deeply, perhaps inextricably, entwined to a degree that makes it near impossible for any police-centric show to ever critique the system in a way that might cause audiences to see the people impacted by law enforcement abuse as the central, most empathetic figures in any given storyline.

However they take shape, media reparations for how the entertainment industry has and continues to profit from its cozy relationship with police departments must look radically different from merely trying to reform the genre.

As Constance Grady poignantly wrote in her 2021 essay for Vox, “regardless of whether a police show codes itself as conservative or progressive, the police officer is always the protagonist. He might be troubled, she might be working within a corrupt system and trying to change it from within, but it is always through their eyes that we see the world. And that’s because the police built the genre that we use to talk about them.” 

Such constraints mean that even despite what feels like shifts made in the industry around 2020 (shifts that Black actors and storytellers say have been largely abandoned), police shows will always tell stories through the lens of the police themselves, conflating our faith in characters that we grow to love with trust in the institution that they represent.

However they take shape, media reparations for how the entertainment industry has and continues to profit from its cozy relationship with police departments must look radically different from merely trying to reform the genre. A start in the right direction might include studios, actors, writers, producers, and directors who have been involved with crime procedurals to donate time, money, and resources to non-police public safety initiatives. At the height of the 2020 uprising, a handful of actors and writers working on police shows donated substantial amounts to local bail funds, such as “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” actress Stephanie Beatriz and “Law and Order SVU” and “Criminal Intent” showrunner Warren Leight. Even still, true reparations and accountability can’t come from just the sporadic actions of a few individuals.

The most transformative abolitionist intervention the industry can make is also the most daring. While some police procedurals have incorporated storylines to “meet the moment” in the wake of 2020, there have yet to be mainstream shows that center a community actively working to abolish the police or what it would look like to live in a world post-police. Television and film are opportunities ripe for exploring these alternate realities, and many writers are already creating just such stories in books, comics, and other media. Studios could invest in Black creators and stories—new or adapted—exploring a world without police or how a neighborhood resettles after their police department has been defunded. 

Nothing exemplifies the entertainment industry’s lack of courage and creativity so much as its half-hearted attempts to change the way it creates glorified and expensive “copaganda” for our consumption, despite knowing the impact. Truly rising to “meet the moment” would involve daring to invite audiences to empathize with those impacted by police violence, to de-center police perspectives, and to present stories that might inspire them to imagine the possibilities of a post-police world and how they can make it happen.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.