I have something to admit: I love Law & Order SVU. And when I say love, I mean LOVE. As in I-have-seen-every-season-and-named-one-of-my-quarantine-house-plants-Olivia-Benson kind of love. (She thrives under pressure i.e. my inability to remember to water her.) I’ve watched the hit cop procedural for 21 seasons, never giving a thought to much beyond the fact that it’s an interesting watch that melds my love for true crime with female-led shows, and the fact that Detective Rollins and ADA Carisi’s “will they-won’t they” love story has gone on for *far* too long. (They just need to couple up already). But as of late, it’s become increasingly difficult to reconcile my love for a show that inherently celebrates and idolizes law enforcement with the IRL actions of police officers in North America.
While BIPOC—especially individuals from the Black community—have long experienced and spoken out against police brutality and the militarization of police, the past two weeks have finally see non-Black people paying attention to the fact that, in both Canada and the United States, there is a *major* problem of violent racism within police forces.
Since George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Derek Chauvin on May 25, marches and protests around the world have called for reform and the defunding of police. But maybe we should also be calling for the defunding of police shows? Because the fact remains that what we as an audience see and support in squad rooms on-screen affects how we interact and view police IRL—a reality that needs to be interrogated and one that has to change.
Police—and shows about them—are everywhere
While I’m pretty much solely a Law & Order SVU kind of girl, there’s no denying that shows about law enforcement are *everywhere.* The Law & Order franchise may as well be the Marvel Universe for cop shows, for all the spin-offs that have been created by the series’ producer Dick Wolf. In the franchise alone, viewers can choose from: Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, Law & Order: Los Angeles, New York Undercover, Chicago PD, Chicago Justice, FBI, and FBI: Most Wanted, with SVU clocked as the longest running live-action primetime series in American history. Most recently, Wolf and NBC announced yet another police-focused spin-off drama starring former SVU star Christopher Meloni. Reprising his role as Detective Elliott Stabler (Meloni appeared on SVU as the lead character from 1999–2011), Meloni is set to head up his own show that will revolve around the NYPD’s organized crime unit.
In addition to Wolf’s franchise, shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Blue Bloods all depict the professional and personal lives of police officers, inviting viewers into fictional squad rooms *and* bedrooms, humanizing officers and their experiences outside of their jobs and really making them seem like they could be your BFFs. (One-upping me on my plant, Taylor Swift has a cat named after SVU‘s Olivia Benson, for crying out loud).
And these depictions affect how we view police IRL
As Vulture writer Kathryn VanArendonk noted in a June 1 article for the magazine: “The overwhelming mountain of cop shows amounts to a decades-long cultural education in who deserves attention, and whose perspective counts most.” By primarily centering the experience of police officers in these shows—aside from a select few and far between series like Orange Is the New Black, which focuses on inmates—when it comes to crime and the dynamics of law and order, “TV teaches us that cops are the characters we should care about,” VanArendonk writes.
These shows inherently frame police as the heroic protagonists and moral compasses. They build up interior lives and backstories for why they respond the way they do, which can be pulled out as excuses by the viewer. When SVU‘s Detective Nick Amaro goes off and punches the father of a missing girl, we don’t immediately chastise his character for resorting to violence while on the job and overstepping his role, because we know him! He has marital issues! He’s sensitive to anything pertaining to his wife Maria, who’s deployed overseas with the U.S. military! And even in prestige drams like True Detective, where VanArendonk points out police are meant to be more human than heroes (another example is The Sinner‘s Detective Harry Ambrose, a lonely drunk who in the first season has an affinity for pain during sex and, in the most recent, developing back issues), the underlying assumption of police shows remains. “The cops are still at the center, still the point of view we use to interpret the world, still the characters we follow week after week. As TV viewers we are locked inside a police perspective, harnessed to their needs, desires, and daily rhythms.”
That means that the communities they police—which in shows like SVU and Brooklyn Nine-Nine tend to be communities of colour—are not only inadvertently the “other” in contrast to our protagonists, but also easily disposable. “The characters who stay are cops,” VanArendonk writes for Vulture. “In the almost unimaginable deluge of American crime TV, the characters whose names we know and whose lives we value are cops. The communities they police are disposable, and at the end of each episode, they’re promptly disposed of.”
We have to acknowledge that there’s a real problem with the police
As VanArendonk points out, this portrayal of law enforcement on screen sanitizes the police and their violence and brutality off screen. Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine—a comedy about an NYPD precinct—often portrays its characters as loveable goofballs, getting into silly hijinks. As Twitter user @BA_reacts noted, the first episode of the show was about characters Amy Santiago and Jake Peralta—two officers portrayed by Melissa Fumero and Andy Samberg, respectively—making a bet on who could arrest more people in a limited amount of time.
@nbcbrooklyn99’s first ever episodes were about Amy Santiago and Jake Peralta on a bet who can arrest more people in a limited time. It’s feels sinister how they made it look so fun and peppy and cute pic.twitter.com/K7qBLrx7w1
— Bon Appétit Reaction (@BA_reacts) June 8, 2020
It may seem lighthearted, but in fact is quite sinister, considering the numerous accounts of predominantly BIPOC being stopped, arrested or profiled by police for no valid reason—many of which have ended up in violence or death against.
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Shows like these have affected many of us to the point that when we hear about a Belleville, Ont. police officer posting photos of himself on social media wearing a confederate flag T-shirt or a Kingston, Ont. police officer who blames victims of police brutality like George Floyd for “resisting arrest,” we chalk it up to one bad apple as opposed to a systemic issue of racism within policing itself. And, let’s be real: It is a systemic issue. In Canada, Black Canadians are disproportionately accosted and carded by police, and in Toronto are 20 times more likely to be shot by police than others.
But you can be sure *that* won’t be showing up on an episode of Law & Order SVU—at least in an authentic way.
It’s causing me to think critically about what I consume and inadvertently support
With wider conversations happening around policing across North America, it’s imperative that everyone engage with and think critically about what they’re doing and the systems they’re supporting. Thinking about my own affinity for police shows—as bare minimum as it may be—has coincided with a larger critique of how I personally view and engage with law enforcement IRL. Do I see them all as inherently good and infallible? Not entirely, but I am definitely not critical enough.
Recently, I was walking towards an elementary school field in my Toronto neighbourhood to sit and read. That day, there were unofficial anti-racism protests in the city, and there had been rumours that a group from Montreal, not associated with the Black Lives Matter or any anti-racism organization, was coming in to riot. (FWIW, it was a peaceful protest). Walking into the school parking lot, I was surprised to see at least 15 police cars and vans taking up the entire side and back parking lot of the school. As I got closer, I realized I’d have to walk right through the group of officers milling about by their cars. For probably the first time in my life, I tried to gauge how I actually felt around law enforcement: Did I feel threatened? Did I feel nervous? Did I feel safe? And also, what must that be like to not even have the luxury to interrogate these feelings? Because, to be clear: It’s absolutely a privilege that I’ve never had to critically think about my feelings towards police until now. I’ve always just assumed that my interactions with law enforcement would be peaceful—or at least fair. It’s a reality and a discrepancy that I’ve been aware of for a long time, but has taken on an even greater meaning as of late.
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Thankfully, I’m not alone in my awakening. In the United States, recent polls show that 57% of Americans said police officers were generally more likely to treat Black people unfairly than to mistreat white people. While this is 100% a “no shit,” moment, this number is still big for the US and public opinion, as particularly white Americans have not historically believed that Black people continue to face pervasive discrimination.
On June 2, producer Dick Wolf fired writer-producer Craig Gore from the upcoming “Law & Order: SVU” spinoff after he posted incredibly offensive photos of himself holding a rifle in a Facebook post, threatening to “light up” people breaking curfew near his L.A. home. While it’s obviously necessary that Wolf fire Gore, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Gore—who had previous writing credits on shows like Chicago P.D. and S.W.A.T.—was one of the people shaping the narratives around policing in some pretty big shows—narratives that have undoubtedly seeped into people’s homes and conscious thoughts. His comments are a reminder that we shouldn’t always believe what we see on TV.