“Do What You Gotta Do?” Police, Media and Cultural Violence

imagesCA4SW2MDThis is post number TWO HUNDRED!

And why not present an eternal question: does art portray reality or is it the other way around?

When it comes to depicting police and their work, I have a sneaking suspicion that what folks see on television and in the movies may influence how they think about them and expect them to act. And if that’s the case, we’re in big trouble.

The new NBC series “Chicago PD,” for example, opens with a steel-eyed Detective interrogating a battered suspect in ways no police department today would ever condone. But don’t get  worry — it’s only done to bad guys and the end justifies the means.

Or does it? Because the message here is that the illegal use of force by police works for the common good by removing drug dealers, rapists, and murders from our nation’s streets.

Aaron Cantu tackles this issue in a recent posting on Truthout,”Within a minute and a half of the first episode,” notes journalist Aaron Cantu, “the show has summed up its central message: Police violence works. This is relayed again and again throughout the series… In every episode, these methods achieve the desired ends…”

Is this the message we want Americans to hear and accept?

I think not. Since the early days of police television (“Dragnet,” “Adam-12,” “Homicide,” and even “Hill Street Blues”) cops were portrayed as good guys. Sure, some had problems, but the overall message was clear: cops obey the law and protect the innocent. The Rule of Law always trumps even if a bad guy occasionally gets away.

Cantu goes on, “What sets “Chicago PD” apart from others in the genre is that police violence isn’t just presented as an exciting feature of the job; rather, its producers have made it the primary point of appeal to its growing audience of 8 million. What does it mean that a TV show so sympathetic to police abuse has become the most popular evening program among NBC’s 18-49 demographic?”

“To understand its appeal,” Cantu explains, “it’s necessary to couch recent trends in cop media within historical transformations of public opinion toward police and federal support for local policing. In the past 40 years, the militarization of police forces occurred concurrently with an increased emphasis on ‘law and order’…  This induced a broad call for ‘law and order’ among the white American majority by the end of the decade, and race-baiting politicians used the mandate to launch an unprecedented militarization of police forces that continues today. The threat of crime soon embedded itself at the forefront of national consciousness, and in response to that reality, Hollywood started pumping out a slew of films and TV shows centered on the lives of police officers…”

But Cantu reminds us that public policy not only influences media but that media (in turn) can have a profound effect on policy. And that is unfortunate because those of us in the police world know that the public’s general knowledge of crime and justice often comes from television! He goes on to say that these violence-wins cop shows “reproduce a narrative that that not only shields real life police forces from the scrutiny of public accountability but also engenders millions of people’s assumptions about criminality — assumptions that help keep the gears of the prison-industrial complex spinning.” [You can read the rest of his article HERE.]

So what’s the message for a police leader? While you need not be a cultural curmudgeon you should be able to articulate to your community in a rational and sane voice the existing gap between art and reality — between entertainment and fact. While, yes, some police do make mistakes of this kind, the overwhelming actions of police are positive, lawful, and with good intention.

A modern police leader today emphasize that this kind of behavior in his or her department would lead to strong sanctions and even dismissal of officers who step over this line.  By speaking out in an informed, intelligent voice about the danger of forming opinions about police from television and film will help build the community we all seek — safe, connected, respectful, and collaborative.