The police procedural is perhaps the most widespread and popular show format in the entire history of television. From Dragnet in the 1950s up to The Wire, English-language television has always been replete with police procedurals of various styles and tones. As recent European imports like The Bridge attest, it's also a popular format in other parts of the world. The police procedural as a form goes back even further than the advent of television, of course, with a long—and some might say, sordid—history as popular fiction. At Public Seminar, Ana Miljak dissects several police procedurals from US television today in order to answer the question, are police procedurals harmless entertainment, or propaganda for the forces of order? Here's an excerpt:
Thus, especially given the recent cases of police brutality that have come with alarming regularity on our television screens, is the police force really a system that needs to be consistently validated by entertainment media? Police procedurals tend to depict police officers as inherently good people who always strive for justice, even if they have to take morally circuitous routes to get there. This is not always the case in reality.
In 2015, 1,145 people were killed by police officers in the United States, an increase from 1,112 casualties in 2014. In the first three months of this year alone, 277 civilians died at the hands of American police. Last year, former Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was sentenced to 263 years in prison on multiple accounts of rape, all of which were committed while on duty. Outside of these extreme cases, there are hundreds of accounts of civilians being manhandled and mistreated by the police, as documented daily by the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project.
Fictionalized police programs frequently weave in these cases of police misconduct, but frame them from a different angle. A common trope of crime dramas is the police officer so determined to uphold the law that he bends it in the pursuit of justice. Officer Sam Swarek on Rookie Blue, for instance, frequently beats confessions out of detainees and manipulates reluctant eyewitnesses into identifying perpetrators. Each time he roughs up a suspect or forges a search warrant, it is ultimately justified and excused by his fellow officers because he was “just doing his job.”
Police procedurals often tend to solicit sympathy for law enforcement agents, no matter what they do or which laws they break, by insisting that underneath their blue uniforms, gun holsters, and bulletproof vests, they are normal, morally upright people. Blue Bloods, which follows the lives of the Reagan family, portrays them as everyday, average working-class folk, even though they are the most powerful family in the New York Police Department. The Reagan clan consists of patriarch and NYPD Commissioner Frank Reagan; his father and former commissioner, Henry; his two sons, Detective Danny and Officer Jamie; and his daughter, Assistant District Attorney Erin. Each episode of the show sits us down at the dining table during the Reagan’s Sunday family dinner, where they chew on issues like race relations, vigilantism, and excessive force along with their peas and meatloaf. They share stories. They bicker. They pass the mashed potatoes. They do everything that we do (Cops: They’re Just Like Us!) and we can relate to them, and maybe even start to like them, because of it.
Image: Promo shot for the US television show Blue Bloods.