By Ashley Lee
of the Los Angeles Times
For more than a week now, our screens have been flooded with footage of cops shooting rubber bullets at reporters, driving police vehicles into crowds of protesters, detaining essential workers exempt from curfews, macing a 9-year-old child, shoving elderly people to the ground and, of course, kneeling on the neck of George Floyd until he died.
But such horrifying real-life images are at odds with the fictional portrayal of law enforcement we’ve consumed on TV for decades. Amid nationwide protests of police brutality against black people and other marginalized groups, that dissonance has spurred an industry-wide reexamination of the role pop culture plays in shaping our perception of both the police and the people they deem a threat. Nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change released a detailed study on the topic earlier this year.
“(These shows) create a world where we have cities, police officers, political officials, poverty, different races, and yet racism doesn’t seem to exist — a fictional world that is often quite diverse but without racism,” Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, told the Times this week. “As a result, that normalizes injustice. It makes it seem like the changes that we are fighting for are changes that are not necessary.”
Titled “Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre,” the study includes the following findings.
Real-life crime rates have generally decreased since the early 1990s but the number of crime series on TV has increased, which may be why most people don’t think crime has decreased at all.
Of the 26 series from the 2017-18 season examined in the study, 21 had showrunners who were white men. At least 81 percent of these shows’ writers were white, compared to the 9 percent who were black. A whopping 20 of 26 series had either no black writers or just one black writer.
CBS and NBC aired seven of the nine series that were the least diverse with respect to race and gender:
“NCIS” was 100 percent white and 80 percent male.
“Blue Bloods” was 100 percent white and 75 percent male.
“Elementary” was 90 percent white and 70 percent male.
“NCIS: Los Angeles” was 82 percent white and 82 percent male.
“The Blacklist” was 93 percent white and 80 percent male.
“Law & Order: Special Vic-tims Unit” was 93 percent to 100 percent white and 57 percent male.
“Blindspot” was 92 percent white and 58 percent male.
“Chicago P.D.” was 80 percent to 90 percent white and 60 percent male.
Characters of color often written in largely white writers’ rooms
Relying on white writers to craft characters of color can perpetuate “distorted and harmful” depictions of those characters — “their realities, behaviors, relationships, motivations, thoughts, feelings and more,” according to the study. Of the 26 series considered, Netflix’s “Narcos” had the worst ratio of characters of color to white writers, followed by Fox’s “9-1-1,” NBC’s “Chicago P.D.” and CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0.”
Though several shows featured central characters played by people of color, there were no representations of major racial tension on the job and rarely any in their backstories or personal lives.
The use of racist language also was rare. Nor were people of color depicted as being the disproportionate targets of these unethical behaviors. All of this adds up to the insinuation that law enforcement operates without racial bias. This is false.
Wrongful acts committed by cops are normalized as harmless or noble
In more than two-thirds of the shows examined, these actions were committed by “good guy” characters, as defined by the study’s authors — thereby painting the actions as “relatable, forgivable, acceptable and ultimately good.” On average, eight “good guy” characters committed a wrongful action for every “bad guy” who did so. (CBS’ “Blue Bloods” and Fox’s “Lethal Weapon” were the worst offenders, the study found.)
These actions were rarely objected to or acknowledged as unlawful by other characters, and therefore were categorized as “part of the job.” Many times, characters played by people of color were depicted as endorsers of these actions. Excessive force was rarely depicted.
As a result, the crime shows studied generally reinforced the idea that what police (and other criminal justice professionals) do is “right” simply because they are police.
Police rarely face any consequences for wrongful acts
Out of 453 wrongful actions committed by police and criminal justice professionals across 353 episodes, only 13 — fewer than 4 percent — were depicted as being investigated, the study found. Only six were depicted as being charged with crimes, and four suspended for their behavior (with or without pay). Only one was shown as being fired, convicted or facing legal punishment.
Read the full study at hollywood.colorof change.org/crime-tv-report.