Police shows, crime dramas, and even detective sitcoms can be pretty ambitious for law enforcement.
On serious shows like “NCIS-Los Angeles,” characters like LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell portray dedicated public servants. And when cops are funny, like Andy Samberg’s Detective Peralta in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” they’re endearing.
But amid mounting criticism of police brutality and racial injustice in real life, some critics want audiences to think more critically about what they watch.
Northwestern writer and journalism professor Steven Thrasher has covered police violence, racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement since 2014.
“You could say it’s a fantasy of what a police department is, but it comes across as the real thing, and that covers up the violence that it actually does,” Thrasher said. “I have been pepper sprayed and threatened by the police on several occasions. So I don’t find the police particularly funny.”
It specifically refers to “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – a fan favorite comedy about hunks and relationships from a fictional New York neighborhood. After eight seasons, he aired his series finale last month.
Created by the same writers behind upbeat comedies like “Parks And Rec” and “The Good Place,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” has been praised for its diverse cast and handling of topics such as racism, the homophobia and sexism within the police.
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 is concerned that this could skew viewers’ perceptions of whether real progress is being made.
“Diversity can be a catch-all word that doesn’t necessarily mean better conditions for diverse people in quotes or fairness for diverse people in quotes,” Thrasher said. “And in fiction and non-fiction, I think seeing people of color as soldiers, like cops, is supposed to convey the idea that things are better for people of color.”
Beyond “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” other TV shows like “SWAT” or movies like “Monsters And Men” have centered their stories on black law enforcement professionals.
In real life, over 15% of law enforcement professionals are black, which is slightly higher than the percentage of the overall black American population but lower than most major American cities.
More diversity in the profession does not necessarily mean less harmful interactions between black civilians and the police. However, the idea that representation and diversity can help resolve racism and police misconduct is still a common theme in pop culture.
CBS drama “SWAT” centers its story on a black sergeant in Los Angeles, and series creator Aaron Rahsaan Thomas has accompanied real professionals to develop the series.
“It allowed me to gain insight into the real jargon, terminology and more sense of the humanization of the people behind the badge,” Thomas said.
Actor Denzel Washington – who has played a law enforcement professional 13 times onscreen – also spoke about the importance of respecting and humanizing law enforcement after working with them to research its roles.
From an artist’s perspective, doing this research is essential, but critics like Thrasher say viewers should always pay attention when performances are rather ambitious.
“From the viewer’s point of view, it can make people think something better is going on,” he said. “When in fact the mere act of portrayal covers up and encourages people to stop asking questions about the perpetuation of violence.”