NEWSLETTER WEEK 48 – APRIL 27, 2021
Before we get into the history of policing we want to pause a moment to share the names of just a few of the people who were killed by the police just in the week that has passed since our last newsletter. It feels important, albeit insufficient, that we take a moment and pause and remember their humanity, that people loved them, and that they mattered in this world.
Ma’Khia Bryant, Columbus, OH
Andrew Brown, Jr., Elizabeth City, NC
Doward Syleen Baker, Dothan, TX
Edgar Luis Tirado, Dallas, TX
If you read the above articles, you will notice that we have included more than just “unarmed” people. That’s intentional. Even if someone was committing a crime, they do not deserve to be killed by the police. Our capacity for compassion does not have to end where people’s “criminality” begins. We can believe that it is wrong to steal and also not want to live in a world where our cops murder people for believing they are stealing. We can hold the truth that humans are complex, often fragile creatures and also hold the truth that no one deserves to die at the hands of state officers.
We saw a tweet earlier today that summarized something we often feel like we don’t have the words to express:
“You think police departments all across the country are putting on military gear to beat and arrest the people protesting the behavior of a few bad apples? You think they’re spending millions of dollars to defend police who’ve murdered people because they disapprove?” (thanks Olayemi Olurin)
We meant to get this out Friday but such is life (sorry team, Emily was writing one of her final papers of law school about Live PD and doubling down on the police-in-the-media content before this past weekend just didn’t happen like she’d planned).
WORD OF THE WEEK
What is copaganda?
A portmanteau of “cop” and “propaganda,” copaganda is essentially the phenomenon wherein police are depicted, through media portrayals, selective storytelling, or just in conversation, as fearless heroes. It’s what turns a conversation about systemic inequities and police militarization into one about “bad apples” (a phrase that, only when finished, explains the phenomenon of policing – if “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch,” then actually, yes the few “bad apples” of police forces do, in fact, delegitimize the occupation entirely).
According to Palika Makam, of the human rights organization, WITNESS,
“Sometimes copaganda is created by police officers themselves, like this country music video released by the Metro Nashville Police Department that features Sergeant Henry Particelli singing with his guitar as people held signs that read “Peace” and “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.” That police department and many others around the country are turning to social media posts to help counter negative narratives and boost images, like this one, where white police officers pose with a Black child holding a Black Lives Matter sign, or this one from Austin, which shows police officers with all the thank-you mail they claimed to have received from members of the community. Other times, social media videos of police officers kneeling, hugging protesters, or posts of them offering snacks and their tears to little Black girls and boys, as the fearful children shake and cry, are promoted by the general public, and even allies and activists. The focus of these videos is supposed to be on the kind nature of individual police officers, but it’s important to remember that each friendly officer also has a gun on their hip and holds qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that, as explained by The Appeal, can effectively shield officials like police from accountability for misconduct, such as when they use excessive force. Take, for example, the Ohio “dancing cop,” a white police officer who went viral in 2015 for a video in which he danced outside with Black children. That officer was investigated and eventually cleared, in 2019, after body camera footage surfaced of him punching a Black man in the face.”
You can read more of Makam’s explanation of Copaganda here.
Copaganda isn’t a new phenomenon, though it has been particularly prevalent with the rise of social media (and the rise of viral police violence, caught on video for the world to see).
POLICE IN THE MEDIA
The first depictions of police weren’t positive. The earliest evidence of policing depictions we could find was from 1910, when the International Association of Chiefs of Police moved to adopt a resolution condemning the movie business for the way it depicted police officers. The movies, the IACP complained, made crime look fun, glamorous, interesting, while the police were “sometimes made to appear ridiculous.”
And, in fairness, the movies did tend to make the police look ridiculous in the 1910s. According to Vox’s Constance Grady, “from 1912 to 1917, the incompetent Keystone Cops bumbled their way across the silent screen. From 1914 to 1918, animated Police Dog shorts showed a police force unable to prevent adorable Officer Piffles (a good dog) from getting his owner into one scrape after another. And in 1917’s Easy Street, Charlie Chaplin’s tramp-turned-police-officer was only able to save his girl from a mob of criminals after accidentally sitting on a drug addict’s needle and picking up superpowers from the force of the inadvertent injection.”
But also in fairness, the police at the time were widely understood to be a corrupt gang (see last week’s newsletter about policing’s honest-to-goodness history; in that era, between the vigilante hate groups posing as officers and the infamous 10,000 page-long Lexow Commission of the 1890s that found that the police extorted $10 million from the public each year in New York State alone, cops were rightfully unpopular).
It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that public perception of police began to change. A young Theodore Roosevelt is credited with cleaning up the New York City Police Department, though for much of the public, the police’s reputation as incompetent, inconsiderate, and most notably, highly racist, had already been molded.
This set off a string of reforms to boost the police’s reputation. But it certainly didn’t hurt that the movie industry, eager to evade police censorship, began policing itself, too. Between needing to cover up stars’ misdeeds and the increased need for shooting permits, Hollywood became eager to play nice with the cops and the “incompetent bumbler” stereotype soon faded.
This coincided with the increased militarization of the police of the Vollmer era(and, frankly, the fact that movies were being made for white people, police were made to protect white people, and Jim Crow laws were posed as benefits to white people. Everything is everything and the coalescence of racist early 1900s media and pro-police early 1900s media are nearly inseparable in hindsight).
But what cemented the idea of the hero cop in the (white) American consciousness was the modern cop show, the first of which was 1951’s Dragnet. The modern cop show is a telltale sign of a close relationship between Hollywood and the police.
Dragnet purported to be a sort of window into the “authentic truth” of fighting crime. “Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true,” showrunner, star, and narrator Jack Webb promised at the beginning of every episode. And as Webb’s character, the stoic LAPD detective Joe Friday, went about his work, he was surrounded by real cop cars and real cops acting as extras in the background of his scenes. Allegedly, the LAPD checked Webb’s scripts for authenticity.
But, as explained by Alyssa Rosenburg for the Washington Post, the LAPD’s help came at a cost. Webb submitted every script to the LAPD’s Public Information Division for approval before shooting, and any element that the LAPD disliked, he would toss out. This was the beginning of the police using the media as a secondary PR firm.
Dragnet’s politics were anything but neutral. “What Dragnet offered the American public,” as the Roger Sabin, pop culture scholar, writes in his book Cop Shows, “was a vision of the police force as a ‘stabilizer’ in society, made up of honest men (mostly men) dedicated both to keeping the bad guys in their place, and to the more abstract values of law and order.” Dragnet showed the police the way the police wanted to be shown: as heroes.
The year that Dragnet premiered, 1951, multiple members of the LAPD assaulted seven civilians, leaving five Latino men and two white men hospitalized with broken bones and ruptured organs. Racist violence was, and still is, a reality of that police force. But Dragnet’s producers, and collaborators at LAPD, elided that reality, giving the public the first hero cop fantasy instead.
Dragnet’s success beget more collaborations between law enforcement agencies and hollywood: Highway Patrol followed quickly in its footsteps, and then F.B.I., Columbo, Hawaii Five-0, Hill Street Blues, and the mothership: Law & Order and all the series it would spawn. Today, it’s commonplace, if not contractually required, for cop shows to have cop experts on consult, ready to apply a “patina of authenticity” to the stories Hollywood tells us about police.
Modern television shows and movies about policing vary in their willingness to show failures in the police they depict. Law & Order and its various spinoffs are eager to place their unfailing trust in the system and CBS’s Blue Bloods tends to be aggressively pro-police and anti-criticism (the show once aired an episode wherein a Black suspect throws himself out of a third-floor window to frame a blameless white officer for police brutality, implying that criticisms of the existing system do nothing but make life easier for criminals and harder for our heroic boys in blue… okay but are we really surprised from a show called “Blue Bloods” though?).
But shows that appeal to more liberal audiences, like The Wire, often paint a more honest image of their officers, the agencies they represent, and their own misgivings. The Wire is known for having sympathetic individual cop characters but also shows sympathetic civilians, some of whom are victims of police brutality and it often argues that police departments are structured to encourage that brutality.
No media compares to reality-based TV shows, though. COPS and Live PD, in particular. COPS, the nation’s longest running show, aired for 32 seasons before the day after it aired its first episode of season 33, it was cancelled. Live PD only aired for four seasons but (much to our chagrin), both it and COPS are looking like filming might start back up.
From its initial release, COPS provided viewers with what it presented was an “objective” glance into the work of officers on the job; however, the world COPSportrayed had at least three times more drug arrests, four times more arrests for violent crimes, and ten times more arrests for sex work. Filmed by camera crews embedded with patrolmen, COPS captured initial police-citizen interactions, most often showing a car chase, a SWAT raid, a chokehold, and, in 84.4 percent of interactions, an arrest. In the world of COPS, viewers are exposed to a version of law enforcement that is remarkably effective and “bad guys” who are particularly one-dimensional. One of COPS’ signature features was its portrayal of a singular interaction, wherein it showed a civilian accused or “caught in the act” of wrongdoing without a later follow-up with a ruling of that civilian’s actual guilt or innocence.
Live PD, a natural offspring of COPS, first aired in 2016, combining the police-civilian interactions signature to COPS with evolved modern broadcasting technology. Live PD purported to present live footage of police-citizen interactions, taking COPS’ “real-life” perspective of policing a step further as it presented audiences with “contemporaneous” examples of officer-civilian interactions. Live PD presented situations as “almost live;” the show aired for three-hour blocks on Fridays and Saturdays, although camera crews filmed the show six days a week, providing filler footage for segments when there wasn’t live “action.”
People who have been filmed for Live PD have reported multiple levels of indignity. For starters, the show doesn’t care about actual guilt or innocence, it cares about giving viewers a high-adrenaline viewing experience that will keep it coming back for more. Live PD doesn’t give updates related to the case status so the people arrested on the show risk their reputations (and their family members) and even losing their jobs or custody of their children based on their criminal charges, or assumptions thereof, broadcast on a reality-based police show. Despite Live PD’s disclaimer at the beginning of each episode that “criminal charges may have been reduced, dismissed, or never filed,” there is still a stigma associated with being accused of wrongdoing in general. In addition to social and economic consequences, the criminal charges associated with Live PD appearances are very real, resulting in all the same collateral consequences and loss of liberty of any other arrest coupled with a national spotlight on one’s wrongdoing or vulnerability.
Those accused of crimes aren’t the only community members harmed by their features on Live PD. Family members of the accused are subjected to witnessing their loved ones’ arrest, disparagement, or assault at the hands of the police, sometimes before they would be made aware of the traumatic event by more appropriate sources than national television. In fact, in Richland County, SC, a mother saw footage of her son laying dead on the lawn of the home they shared from Live PD, before hearing the news from a more appropriate source. Innocent bystanders and victims of crimes have reported long term community stigma from the way they were portrayed on Live PD as well. Maurice Morrison, an innocent man accused of stealing a car after a clerical error in the police’s system, sums it up well: “The show is entertainment. It’s not to try to show footage of what the police did. That’s what body cameras and dash cams are for. A TV camera is for entertainment purposes and entertainment purposes only. Entertainment should not be in the justice system.”
And finally, news media. It’s no secret that journalists use police as sources for crime reporting. Crime reporting is bad news. And bad news gets the most clicks. Journalists have a vested interest in telling stories that are flattering to police. And when it’s perceived that they’ll report information that’s unflattering, as we’ve seen repeatedly this past year, journalists get harassed and arrested(yes those are nine (9) separate links covering separate incidents. We could go on but you catch the drift). When we read the passive voice of “officer-involved shooting”, that’s directly related to this phenomenon.
The summation is this: producers of cop shows, documentary or otherwise, make money off of people being interested in the drama. Especially reality-based cop shows where the “transparency” of the arrest takes the back seat to high speed and high drama. And they have a vested interest in staying in the good graces of the police.
MORE ABOUT POLICE PORTRAYALS IN THE MEDIA
We’ve linked a TON of resources throughout this newsletter but in case you want some explicit recommendations, we highly encouraged you to listen to Running from Cops and to read Alyssa Roseberg’s longform article “How Police Censorship Shaped Hollywood.”
We’ll be back in your inbox Friday to talk through some of the other forces at play when we talk about cops: unions and qualified immunity.
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden