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Criminal Minds has always candidly operated as a warning to viewers.CBS

It’s one thing to applaud the cancellation of the long-running reality show Cops and the similarly themed Live PD series. It’s entirely another to tackle the distorted view of police and policing that’s presented on mainstream TV in police procedurals and crime-investigation shows.

Week after week, a plethora of cop shows on network TV misrepresent and glamorize police work, offer a world in which racism doesn’t exist and rogue cops are heroic figures who are justifiably fed up with rules and regulations.

These fictions conflict with the real footage of police in action as seen in recent weeks – kneeling on the neck of George Floyd until he died, viciously beating protesters young and old, shooting rubber bullets at reporters, and more and worse.

The connection between the fictions of network TV and the real role of police in U.S. culture is complex. It is not the job of commercial TV to hold up a mirror to society when it offers escapism. Instinctively, most commercial storytelling attaches itself to a broad mythology that is comfortingly familiar, and in the case of the United States, that involves a cultural narrative about “the lawman” protecting civilians from villains of every type, whether it be the riotous mob or the lone street thug.

What can be tackled with immediacy is how network crime series are made, and this is important, given that they influence public perception of how policing functions and who those villains are.

In January of this year the non-profit advocacy organization Color of Change published a study with this title, Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre. It’s a close examination of popular crime series and examines 353 episodes of 26 different scripted series from the 2017-18 season. We’re talking such shows as NCIS, Blue Bloods and Law & Order: SVU.

Some of the findings do not surprise but resonate now: Those in charge, the showrunners, are overwhelmingly white men. In fact, 81 per cent of showrunners are white men and 78 per cent of writers are white men. Only 9 per cent of writers are Black Americans. Of the shows studied, 20 of the 26 series had either no Black writers or just one Black writer.

There are other disturbing factors – many police procedurals on network TV hire a current or recently retired police officer as a consultant, to ensure authenticity. Mostly, these are older white males who have experience in media relations for police services. What they offer is less than authenticity and more like propaganda. Interestingly, the study found that in the 353 episodes, there were only six examples of police officers being charged with crimes resulting from professional misconduct.

There is a ton of further information in the study, with supporting facts and figures. Yet it only serves to deepen a suspicion about the thematic resonance of those shows about crime fighters.

That idea of constructing affinity for police officers made Criminal Minds and many other crime shows immensely successful and popular. Cliff Lipson/CBS

Such long-running series as Criminal Minds have always candidly operated as a warning to viewers. They posit that there are dangerous criminals everywhere; that no one is safe and that blind trust in the police and other authority figures is the only protection against those dangerous people. They suggest that it’s a good idea to be cautious and armed at all times, even in your own home.

Some years ago, writer/producer Ed Bernero, a former Chicago police officer and showrunner on Criminal Minds, told this critic, “Our cases start with a basis in reality, but we’ve had to tone down almost every single one of then. What’s really happening is much worse than anything we could want to do on the TV show.” Bernero also made it clear that he felt his writing job was to have an affinity and respect for the cops on the show and use their point of view.

That idea of constructing affinity for police officers made Criminal Minds and many other crime shows immensely successful and popular. Now, however, those crime shows must be viewed instead with some affinity for how others actually see them – as vehicles for justifying stereotyping, racism and suspicion of non-white, non-middle-class citizens.

This moment in history, this change in perception about racism and police procedures, was fuelled with one horrific act of misconduct. The public’s tolerance evaporated, but existed for decades, in part because what was on TV was both fiction and propaganda. That Color of Change study found that on 18 of the 26 shows examined, wrongful actions by law enforcement was depicted as “routine, harmless, or necessary, or even noble.”

These days, that’s not a comforting cultural narrative at all.

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