Police in popular US ‘entertainment culture’

If you’ve ever wondered how we arrived at today’s widespread demonization of police as being universally racist, sexist, murdering so-and-so’s (which is clearly nonsense;  there are certainly some bad apples in the barrel, but by no means all), a five-part series in the Washington Post provides some interesting perspectives.  The series logo is itself intriguing:

The five articles are:

  1. How police censorship shaped Hollywood
  2. How pop culture’s cops turned on their communities
  3. In pop culture, there are no bad police shootings
  4. The drug war’s most enthusiastic recruit: Hollywood
  5. Blue lives: Pop culture’s minority cops

Click on each title to be taken to the article concerned.  Here’s an excerpt from the first one to whet your appetite.

The police story is one of the elemental dramas of American popular culture, the place we face down whatever crimes frighten us most in a given era and grapple with what we want from the cops who are supposed to stop those crimes. “Dragnet’s” Joe Friday bolstered public faith in law and order in the ’50s. “Dirty Harry” Callahan stoked terror and rage about the violent crime wave that began in the ’60s. And John McClane of “Die Hard” awed audiences when he singlehandedly saved a whole office tower from ruthless criminals in the 1980s.

If these were only fantasies, they would still be powerful. But the ideas that popular culture embeds in the public consciousness about policing remain after the story is over. This five-part series examines the evolving relationship between police officers and the communities they are supposed to serve; the way Hollywood shapes our expectations for shootings by police; the entertainment industry’s embrace of a more violent style of policing during the drug war; and the changing composition of police forces in an increasingly diverse society.

Because it is not possible to understand the stories Hollywood tells about the police without looking back at the industry’s own vexed relationship with the law, this series begins by exploring how police pressure, government regulation and censorship helped mold pop culture’s stories about the police.

This is not a straightforward story about how police departments are bad and Hollywood is good, or vice versa. Nor is it a simple morality tale about how creative freedom made it possible for a liberal industry to critique a conservative profession. … driven by the need for drama and excitement, Hollywood used genres such as action movies and reality shows to glamorize the very ideas about policing that have generated such division in the United States today.

There’s more at the link.

This series is particularly interesting for artists, writers and others in the creative professions.  Amongst other projects, I’m working on a novel involving detective and police work (albeit set in the distant future), and I found a lot of food for thought in these articles.  In particular, I had to figure out how many of my own portrayals of police and their work were ‘acculturated’ to what Hollywood has put out there, rather than the facts and day-to-day humdrum reality of actual law enforcement operations (of which I have some experience in the corrections sphere).  They’ve certainly helped me to re-evaluate my approach.

Recommended reading.



  1. Having an interest in food preservation and growing my own, one thing I've learned from the experience of others is that when you are storing apples long term, it's very important to only store the best of the bunch… as it only takes one bad apple to spoil all of them!

    The whole "there's only a few bad apples" means that there are still too many bad apples and I doubt there's enough being done to address the rotten ones before the others start to rot as well.

    This is a hard topic because I respect and support most of them… most…

  2. Almost all the recent, last 30 years, TV cops would either be in prison or have eaten their gun in real life. You can't get all "passionate" for the drama in real life because real life doesn't have neat happy endings. You have to let it go or it will eat you alive. And you have to accept that you'll be responding to the same people for the same problems, even after one is charged.

    I suspect research might reveal some of the "bad apple" police actions were sadly the result of the cop developing a social justice warrior/hero attitude that prompted a bad decision, such as shooting a guy running away in the back in clear violation of constitutional law and department policy. Some seem to follow the pattern of hero-badguy, must stop badguy, now "hero" is confused why he's being treated as a bad guy.

    And sadly, when the writers decide to have "discussion" of an issue like they do on 'Blue Bloods' they have the characters's memories wiped so they aren't burdened by earlier discussions where they different positions that would influence anyones opinion on the current topic. And, of course, when a show character is accused of wrong-doing, they are always exonerated by hook or crook in the plot.

  3. It focuses most on other areas, but may I suggest Rory Miller's "Violence, a Writer's Guide"? Chapter 6, for example (Good Guys and Violence).

    Take care.

  4. Peter, did you see the posts I wrote about spending time in a jail and juvenile facility? (field trip! really, it was for school…)

  5. thank you – I was certainly thinking of your book as I did that. The criminal justice half of my degree has been a fascinating glimpse, even if I never actually use it.

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