US cop shows are still trying to sell a mythical version of policing, writes Pat Stacey
“You can get killed just for living in your American Skin,” sang Bruce Springsteen in ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’, his powerful song about the fatal shooting of young black man Amadou Diallo by four white policemen in New York City in 1999.
Diallo, a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant, was unarmed when he was gunned down outside his apartment building in the Bronx. As he reached for his wallet, the four plain-clothes NYPD officers opened fire. They fired 41 shots, 19 of which hit Diallo.
The four — one of whom had shot another unarmed black man dead in 1997 — were tried for second-degree murder and reckless endangerment. All were acquitted.
This is what happens, frequently, in the real America. We know this because of Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and all the other black victims of white police, whose names have coalesced into a mass over the weeks, months and years.
In the fake America, however, the one sold to a hungry television audience for decades via a drip-feed of police dramas (still the most popular genre on US television), such things almost never happen. Even if they do happen, they’re invariably blamed on the “one bad apple” in the department.
The bad apple metaphor has been around as long as the cop show itself. Every cop show ever made, in any era, has always had “one bad apple”; one racist cop, who tarnishes the image of the force and threatens to destroy public confidence in the police.
In the end, though, the “one bad apple” is always rooted out. Justice is always served. It’s the genre’s way of pretending to address the issue of racism in the police without actually addressing it at all. It presents racism as isolated rather than institutionalised. It precludes the notion that there’s a whole barrel full of bad apples, and the ones at the top might be the most rotten of all.
The series Before Homicide: Life on the Street — based on David Simon’s factual book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets — and Simon’s own series The Wire introduced ambiguity (not to mention a significant number of substantial black characters) into the cop show equation, where police were invariably portrayed as heroes, always on the side of right and always overwhelmingly white.
American television’s first big police procedural, Jack Webb’s Dragnet, which ran for most of the ‘50s and was revived in the late ‘60s, was made with the full cooperation of the police. They vetted the scripts, supposedly to ensure authenticity. In reality, it was to ensure a positive portrayal of cops.
Dragnet was pure “copaganda” and its influence persists today. Every cop show still employs the service of police consultants and advisors.
Blue Bloods invariably views anyone who questions the motive or integrity of the cops as malicious.
The immensely popular Law & Order: Special Victims Unit may not be as crudely pro-police as Dragnet and may not have a cast dominated by white faces, but it still presents the cops as an unimpeachable, incorruptible force for good.
The most egregious example of “copaganda” currently on TV is the nauseatingly reactionary Blue Bloods, starring big, boring Tom Selleck as the police commissioner patriarch of the Reagans, a family of Irish-American cops — a three-word combination which, in the
America of the early 20th century, was shorthand for graft, corruption and racism, most frequently and vehemently towards African-Americans.
Blue Bloods invariably views anyone who questions the motive or integrity of the cops as malicious. The characters have been known to spout pious platitudes about colour-blindness, yet the show is consistently criticised for its attitude to black characters.
In one episode, a black suspect throws himself from a window then claims police brutality. One recurring character, a black minister, is repeatedly shown to be a devious chancer stirring up racial discord.
Ultimately, iron-clad bulls**t like Blue Bloods might be what eventually makes US television think about calling off the cops.
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