Why Hollywood loves cop stories
From the newsroom of the Washington Post. Ross Helderman Post. This post reports. I'm Martine powers. Friday June twelfth. Today the past and future of Hollywood's losing affair with law enforcement, and the symbolism of clothes on Capitol Hill this. You've probably got emails from every business. You've ever given your email to letting you know that they think black lives matter, but unlike Alice's teacup in New York which sent me one of those emails. The entertainment industry actually has something immediately within their purview that they can do if they want to change the conversation around policing in America. Being forty four magnum, the most powerful handgun. And would blow your head clean off. On May. You got cops believe and that is take a pause. Look at the cop shows and the police movies that they produce and see if the message they're sending align with their stated values. My name is Alyssa. Rosenberg is about the intersection culture and politics for the Washington. Post opinion, section, and in two thousand sixteen I wrote a five part series on the history of Pucklechurch cops, and there are a lot of them. And, so you're basically calling for like all these shows that are on TV right now like law and order and Brooklyn nine nine and the. Cop shows on every single channel that the executives for the networks and the show runners. They should actually stop filming those shows. It sounds like an audacious proposal, but because of the covid nineteen pandemic, almost no Hollywood production is actually underway in the sense that almost no one is onset or on a sound stage, actually shooting television and movies right now. So this is something that might have been a really costly. Ask in normal times. I mean I would understand if a network were show, runners said. Are you insane? Do you know how much? Much it cost me to stop production on episode. Keep everyone employed Walter. Not Working, so we can have a focus group, but at a moment when the work that is being done on most shows and movies consists of writer's room has having zoom calls. There has never been a lower cost or more opportune time for the people who make this particular species of popular culture to say look. We're saying this stuff publicly. Is What we're putting on screen in accordance with our values, and if not do we want to do anything about it. So just for context like how popular are TV shows and movies about police. They are really popular. He looked BC's lineup. Dick Will Chicago shows which are set in a shared universe, and are about the police fire, ems and hospital workers in Chicago are a night of primetime programming. Twenty percent of the network's programming and that doesn't even count. The law and order franchise. In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate it equally important groups, the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who? Of the most enduring genres in American popular culture, it's never really waned, and it's going pretty strong today. Did you watch. Any of these TV shows growing up. These cop shows I grew up in a house largely without exposure to culture. I think. We gotTA TV for the First Time In nineteen ninety two when my parents wanted to watch. The Bush Clinton presidential debates, and it wasn't until I graduated from college. That I had my own TV cable for the first time, and I was living in DC just gone through your totally Standard Post College. break-up I had two friends. I was broke and I was lonely, and so I watched. Basically, nothing, but law and order. reruns for you. Come home from work and watch three or four hours of them on TNT because they're always on. Exactly and so. That was in some ways. My formative experiences television is having it at twenty one, not at five or ten or even fifteen I. I think I've mentioned this on the podcast like three times before, but my dad is obsessed with law and order I grew up watching law and order I'd come home from school and be doing homework and Lon Order, which is be on in the background, because it's on for like four hours every night, and it's just how I frankly like stood the criminal justice system and I would say I I love cops stories. You know they're dramatically perfect. the crime issue stakes, the investigation of crime gives you action and solving crime gives you an incredibly morally satisfying conclusion. I mean there's just perfect story engines, but they're not politically neutral one either and the thing is not the first generation to be shaped by top stories like this I. So how far back do you cop stories go? If, you go back to Charlie. Chaplin and Buster Keaton who are the two giants of the American Silent Film Era. They are making top stories. They're making cops stories that look very different from the ones that we watch today Heaton in particular, made a number of short films in which he plays characters who end up on the wrong side law on, and in one case would really unjustly killed by the police because of a misunderstanding. So! These stories have always been here and we're insertive. Our second century cop stories in America I would say. But as long as there have been cop stories there have been. Sort of a push poll between the entertainment industry and police departments themselves. Tell me more about that, so if you go back to nineteen o eight. There is this big moment when George McClellan Junior. WHO's the mayor of New York City? Shuts down cities movie theaters. He has police officers go in and closed them because they're sort of of ice and the police are in number. Cities are concerned about the way that they're portrayed and pop culture, and in nineteen ten, the International Association of Chiefs of Police Adopts a resolution condemning the movie business as a whole, because the police are sometimes made to appear ridiculous. In the stories that pop culture is putting out and see how this early debate and then in Nineteen Fifteen, the Supreme Court rules that movies are not protected by the first. Amendment and I know that something. That's incredibly weird to think about today we all. I think accepted this point that you know movies and TV are protected modes of expression, but for thirty seven years people who were making movies and eventually television, radio. Didn't necessarily have the protection of the First Amendment. I mean I can't imagine what it would be like to work with that knowledge that your speech is not considered protected that the police can come. Shut Down your movie theater, and that be organization of police chiefs says that you're doing something immoral and potentially dangerous. There's no way that doesn't shape the stories that people decide to tell. Yeah, how? How is that reflected in the early years of what we saw like police drama? So there is this figure who I think most of us would not necessarily be familiar today, but he's kind of the original genius of police storytelling and has his Jack Webb and he had this route genius idea to go partner with the LAPD and was smart enough to essentially make them proposal, he said. I will tell your stories. You can literally censor the episodes. But I get to sell my show as the authentic depiction of what's happening in the LAPD and also frankly he got loans of equipments. He got off duty officers who would act as extras and it made. Shooting. Dragnet cheaper and easier for him and the LAPD public information office literally got to sign off on the scripts. So there was something of a symbiotic relationship in which this film company was was able to say. Look like here are real stories of police officers, or this is a true exciting depiction of the adventures of police. And then the police had the censorship privileges that made sure that this came out in a good light for them, and it wasn't UCLA PD. The head of the California Highway Patrol Bernard Caldwell goes to his PR, Guy says. Get to show dragnet I want something like that. It's good for me. It's good for recruitment. And they get it. There's actually a show on highway patrol whenever the laws of any state broken duly authorized organizations swings into action. It may be called. The State Police State troopers, militia, the Rangers or the highway patrol. Stories. This was I mean. Beyond the point at which the First Amendment has been reapplied to police storytelling, but there are advantages to both partners in making this an actual partnership. I mean if you can get your permits Greece, so you can shoot on location if you can get a bunch equipment that will mean that you don't have to go out and like in rent or paint cop cars. So fast forward to the eighties and the war on drugs. And how did we start seeing that? Play out on screen because I'm thinking back to the movies that would remember that are eighties movies about police and there are a lot of them. The joke was awesome for Hollywood cop stories because it lets them compete in an era when action movies are ascendant and fighting the drug war is. Sooner. Perfect Action Movie Story Right I. Mean You have crimes that are more heinous than a burglary or mugging, and that also theoretically have cancerous effect on society? You have a set of criminals. tend to be depicted as foreign s unusually bloodthirsty. Take your hands out of your pocket. Let's go now we all. Took a grenade. They're not citizens in the same way. I'm using that term broadly. It's not just that. They are for the most part not depicted as Americans, but they're just people who live outside the normal realm of morality, which I think is what makes a show like Miami Vice, so compelling rate is that it's it's internationally if people coming in and out from all over, and but also it means that because they are not American, because they've chosen to live outside of society, the use a really dramatic force against them becomes justified in the narrative, so the drug war, both became a real world argument for beefing up the firepower and surveillance equipment that police departments had and onscreen. It becomes an excuse to turn cops from. SORTA doughy middle aged guys like Jack Webb were wandering around the neighborhood and it squad car into checked awesome action heroes. And you can have those huge chase scenes where your cars are speeding down highways, you can have you make explosions up. How do I? Know these are going to go bank? You worried about that. I think that's a reasonable concern. You can have these incredible gun battles, and you can do all of that without people saying what is going on, we want the police police us like that, but the whole point is that they're not policemen you like that. They are police saying drug dealers from. Country or coming here to you know corrupt our kids and kill our kids with overdoses and. It becomes this amped up US versus then morality play, which again is what action stories do very well you know when I was looking at I built a database of police shootings in pop culture, not a complete one, but just patterns like just any scene where a police officer shot someone else or was shot at what usually when they were shooting at someone else, but if you go back to dragnet I mean you know you have in the upset, the big thief you have Joe Friday, sort of. Beating himself up over having to shoot someone and the whole episode is literally setup to convince him that. No, he's done the right thing. You really had to kill that guy. First Time whenever killed a man. What a good thing you! Kind of wonder. Maybe there wasn't some other way. The third episode of Naked City literally has a woman who has been widowed by the police. Tell the officer who shot her husband, you know. You're okay. I can see it. Yes sorry for what you did. Peter was nervous. Sorry for anything. Don't feel sorry about people's to Halloran. Wasn't worth it. Wasn't worth it. Believe me I know. Right I mean it's literally. Everyone is sort of put on the side of even the people who've lost their family members to police shootings in pop culture. Tell the cops over and over again that I mean actually my son, my husband Cetera had it coming Starsky and Hutch. Where one of the characters shoots a thirteen year old black boy, Hey! He's just a kid. To Kill the kid. Needs. He, Killed Money Act. His. And his mom is like well. I saw where he was going. I know what my boy become. A mother love. Child. And cares for her child. And more names. For her. But my the knows what her son his. I mean it's tough as crazy. Who will I also WanNa talk a little bit more about those scenes that you compiled because I think that that is really insightful in terms of our understanding of what it looks like when a police officer kills them, I think that. When you see those scenes in movies, they tend to be scenes where you have a real sense. Sense that the police officer knows what he or she is doing that. They are incredibly great marksman at that they can reliably shoot at who they intend to shoot out in the way that they intend to shoot at them, and that these are very thoughtful decisions that are playing out generally in the right way in front of a camera, and then that just. Creates alternate narrative reality, which is that usually when these things happen? They're totally chaotic and police. Often don't know who they're shooting at or why or how? Yeah and there's a real tension between the story that poplar tells and the actual legal standard governs weather police shooting justified, and I mean the that standard is something known as objective review bonus it's would another cop have shot someone in the same circumstances like level of fears of reasonable and yet why pop culture shows over and over again is that you know there isn't fear involved? There's only calculation. There's only excellent aim, and that shows up in everything from Fargo Hamar Garson. She's on the ice. She's heavily pregnant yet. She's able to sort of. A with this deadly accuracy, low key like an amazing scene. Yeah I mean you see this in the final sequence in hot fuzz, which is a comedy, but a comedy about how awesome cop action movies are where the main character manages to recall his shots in a way that allows him to disabled, but not actually kill any of the vital English villagers that he's going after you know, it's really interesting that extensively liberal industry has set up this just totally fictional sense of how these shootings work and you know. Initially they did it on behalf of police like the shootings on dragnet and Adam twelve. The officers were always really in control felt remorse about it, but they were always justified and. When I've been thinking about these shows over time you know, I think the depiction of the police in pop culture is both a subsidy for the police and. Talk for people who want to criticize the profession. But ultimately it's also kind of bad for the police to because this is a standard that notion being can possibly me as Stanley that is counter to the legal standards that govern whether their conduct is justified. And it's just. It sets up a collision between fantasy and reality, which is now documented in real time by people with camera phones that is unsustainable and. If it's not sustainable mistreats, it may not be sustainable on screens. When you look at the current landscape of movies and television shows that feature police de you see an evolution in that, or do you see narratives that are more fair or more acknowledging the problems that people experience with police in real life and I think that one of the great things about. The last fifteen years of fifteen twenty years, the entertainment industry is that as audiences have fragmented. You have shows that are just very different from previous entrance in the John Laura that have been able to stay alive for four or five or eight seasons. Telling a different kind of story that maybe doesn't have the same kind of mass appeal, and you know the capture that it ruined talks about is the wire actually left it out of my most recent column? Just because the the the sort of chorus replied is being well. What about the wire whenever you talk about police? Culture is just exhausting. Because the wire depicts corruption with a police department, and you would say that many of the good quote unquote good characters are i. think what the wire does. That is interesting is that it treats the police as a bureaucracy among many bureaucracies, many of which are affected by the same problems, the same inability to change and vulnerable to the same kinds of sclerosis and Shannon and. I think police departments have often been treated as sort of sacrosanct and distinct and what Simon David Simon. Who created the wire did in that show is said that the police organization like anyone else. Look I'm sorry I brought this whole mess up to begin with because frankly if no one's going to do about it anyhow. Whoever killed him wanted to pass it off a suicide. The cops are happy enough to have one less murder to investigate on top of that. The Anna Rundle's state's attorney doesn't give them. I'm not supposed to give. Your son, just gonNA squeeze between the sides. And that some of the bad guys are police, officers, and some of the good guys are the people who are arrested not that there are good, I think it's David, Simon and so they're not really good or bad characters, but people who tend to empathize more with, and it's not just that it's that you know. Putting on a badge doesn't transform you into superior species of human police officers can be defined by self, interest and bureaucratic infighting and family ties just as much as anybody else. He gave them back their humanity, and a lot of ways in A. Cultural Environment that insists on day finding them sometimes to their detriment, but that's still just like one show rate I feel like I wouldn't say that. The sensibilities of the wire are really reflected in all. These other cop shows that we see on TV to this day. No I mean I think the most interesting mainstream can counter example to that is Brooklyn nine nine is created as half hour police comedy, and there have not been a lot of police companies you in part, because crime is serious, but Dan Gore who worked on parks and recreation, created this show set in Brooklyn's initially with the sense that a like hipster Brooklyn would be a place where there was a certain amount of ridiculousness that you could translate into a cop story without losing the thread about the seriousness of prime importance of the work. Love the I walk through a crime scene. It's kind of like arriving at summer camp except the lake is full of blood and your bunk, mate his daddy I think I might be bad at metaphors, so after Adams comes over more killing person who even approaches doorways, this delivery guy. Yeah, but he never enters the apartment. You Rosa. Check it out triple digits. Evidence we triple digits will cool indeed, you know it's not cool or vic ordered dinner from house of Lettuce. There's no way this guy knew he was gonNA die. No one would want lettuces their last meal. But this show has been really serious interested in a lot of ways about gay dandy politics of police departments, and about that push and pull between me appeal of the action. Kat Model, and what's actually required by the job which inch do policing well requires. The ability to get through a lot of boring stuff, the ability to talk to people and our personal relationships. Yeah, community relations ability to be patients. It requires a level of procedural correctness that is rarely translated particularly well to drama. And I really haven't spoken to Gore in a while. Certainly not since the current upheaval, but the he and the cast the show donated a hundred thousand dollars to the National Health Fund said that they were in accord with protesters and I feel for them to a certain extent. Because you know what I was initially writing the series and twenty sixteen. You know they were ahead of the conversation in a lot of ways but they were also. There were things that the format of the show didn't allow them to right. I, mean it's a it's A. It's a light hearted comedy. You're meant to be founded. The characters and I think that this is a difficult moment for reformist. Because you know when I spoke to Gore for the series, you talked about wanting this wanting nine inch. Be Model for what police can look like. But, if you put forward a model of what things can be, that is not accurate to what things are or where it starts to feel like it's not accurate. Things can become that utopianism Kinda kernels into something indigestible. So what do you think is the answer here like went when you talk about having these TV shows all take a pause and take stock of what images are actually putting out into. The world is the answer to that we should be providing a better model for what cops could be like Brooklyn nine nine is the answer to that. We should be more reflecting the realities of what people experience at the hands. Hands of COPS, which often violence and unfairness and brutality, or is the answer that like we shouldn't be telling cop stories at all, or at least we shouldn't be telling stories that are from the perspective of cops, so and just beyond the question of the dramatic perfection of cop stories yup policing is important. Crime has a real impact on people's lives, and how it's addressed by the police, but narrative interesting answer morally important I don't want cop shows to go away, but they've been telling the same stories for almost a hundred years in part because those are the stories they had to tell to be on the air and. I think if we're in an environment where. There is more narrative space where audiences are willing to accept different kinds of stories, and in fact, maybe craved something different from the police then. This is a moment when innovation is really possible. You know I think about something light. Netflix's unbelievable, which was adapted from a really really amazing reported story about. A young woman who was actually pursued on charges that she had made a false report of sexual assault. When in fact. If? The police had taken her seriously. They might have caught a serial rapist earlier, and so the show is balanced in a way that few top stories are between the victim and the police officers. It's also balanced between officers on different sides of the debate about how policing is supposed to work, and you know what people know and understand about re cases, and so the answer doesn't have to be that. There are no cop stories or news stories from COPS perspectives, but one thing do could. Could be to give victims more weight in the storytelling. You could do more shows about how hard it is to solve crime I mean one of the core assumptions, and it's a chorus option because it's a good dramatic value about police storytelling that cops solve almost all the cases that come before them, but that's just not true. Almost forty percent of murders in the United States are not cleared. Number gets worse if you look at ray bill gets worse if you look at property crime. And I think that not requiring cops to be action heroes, not requiring them to be perfect, but allowing the human and allowing them to be. In a complicated dynamic with their communities could be really valuable both for audiences, and for the police I think one of the things that people have said repeatedly during this moment of reckoning is that we asked the police to do too much. And I think it'd be worthwhile to look at the full range of what the police do, and telling stories about sort of the totality of the job, and what it's like to do it what it's like to seek help from the police and not get it what it's like to be a copy of a case that you can't solve I think those are all valuable stories and I think the. Ones that the American public seems to have some hunger for so I hope someone decides to take the risk and tell them. Elusive Rosenberg writes about the intersection of culture and Politics for the Washington Post opinion section. By, the way, you might be interested to know that after we keep this conversation, there was actually a pretty major development. The reality TV show COPS has been canceled after thirty years on the air. Another police reality show called by PD, has also been canceled and and making that decision network executives at Anne put out a statement acknowledging that quote. This is a critical time in our nation's history. They went on to say that quote going forward. We will determine if there is a clear pathway to tell the stories of both the community and the police officers whose role is to serve them. Hall. And now one more thing about the symbolism of clothing this week on Capitol Hill. Good Morning Everyone The justice and Policing Act establishes a bowl transformative vision of policing. America Congressional Democrats on Monday, had a press conference to discuss legislation that would reform policing on a national level. I'm Robin Given and I'm a staff writer and the fashion critic. In advance of that they all wore cantey clot, Stolz and they also knelt for eight minutes and forty six seconds. You know it was an incredibly visual moment, but it did not. Necessarily I think con across the way that they intended. The can't cloth is a textile that originated in Ghana. In the US it has been embraced by some African Americans as an expression of their culture, and so the county cloth misfired because the image of the legislators in the county cloth was divorced from information about the bill that they were introducing and the connection that they were trying to make between a legacy of slavery, and the current policing system was lost. Lost many of us had the privilege last year of going to Ghana to observe four hundred anniversary. Going across the Atlantic was a horrible. The Kid I do think that the decision to where it came from a place of Ernest solidarity, but the use the candidate cloth suggested that really it's only African Americans. Who should be thankful for or supportive of this legislation? When in fact, everyone should every human shed? The House Committee on the judiciary will come to order. While, Wednesday morning, felonious floyd came to Capitol Hill to testify at a hearing about police reform and racial profiling. Thank you for the invitation to here today. To talk about my big brother George. The world knows him is George but I call him period. Yesterday we laid him to rhys. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I'm the big brother now. He really talked about his brother, but also the pain in having watched. Video of his brother dying. I can't tell you the kind of pain. You feel when you watch something like that. When you watch your big brother, who you looked up to your whole entire life. I beg for his, mom. I'm here to accu to make stop. One of the most striking things for me was that he arrived wearing a suit, but without tie, and that was notable, because during his remarks at the funeral service, he talked about how he'd been unable to shake his brother, saying I can't breathe and that he had been unable to wear a tie. Enough is enough. There were also moments when you could hear one hand sort of gently pounding into the other hands right thing the people elected to speak with him. That was as physical as he got. because. There was the danger that he would be reduced to a quote. Angry Black Man I, didn't get the chance to say goodbye. To peer. While he was here. I was robbed at. It's almost in those quiet moments of Joust, a man being a man it cuts through the grandstanding, and it really gets to the heart of it all. which is that you know, people just want to be seen as valuable individuals. Robin Kevan is a fashion critic for the post. Manjit for post reports. Thanks for listening. Our executive producer is mentally Cossiga. Our senior producer is Maggie penman are producers are Alexis do Rena Flora's Lena Muhammed Jordan. Smith Rennie's for Noffke and Ted Muldoon who also composed our theme music. The Post Director of audio is just stalled. I'M MARTIN? Powers will be back on Monday with more stories from the Washington Post.