Police Shows: Time to Cancel or Reinvent?

With a growing public concern around police conduct, is it time for police shows to go?

Carly Horne
3rd December 2021
Image Credit: IMDb
In 2020, Paramount Network cancelled the 32-series-long Cops following the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin. Protests raised important questions as to the prevalence of police brutality and the death of a young man at the hands of law enforcement, as well as the portrayal of law enforcement in the media. But is cancellation really the answer, or is it time to reinvent police procedurals in all of their forms?

Where Cops followed real-life police officers, criticisms arose even before concerns of police brutality led to the cancellation of the show. Such shows (including their UK-equivalents) are incredibly guilty of showing a particularly pro-police message. That is not to say that the police officers depicted do not do an incredibly difficult job and do it well - but what could be an opportunity to show the reality of a harrowing job, is instead be used to glorify what has proven to be an incredibly problematic sector.

Image Credit: Cops, IMdb

Arguably, however, fictional shows play a greater role in the conflicting public perception of what exactly police officers do and in take away from some very real concerns about the conduct of law enforcement officers. Whilst providing entertainment, it is important to consider whether our beloved characters are hindering real-life progress to a problematic policing culture.

With acknowledging the issues these shows bring, I have to confess I do gravitate towards procedural shows.

finding strong, ballsy idols in female police officers and detectives on my TV screen helped me to see tangible examples of women thriving in a man's world

As a young girl, finding strong, ballsy idols in female police officers and detectives on my TV screen helped me to see tangible examples of women thriving in a man's world.

Stella Bonasera (Melina Kanakaredes) on CSI: NY, was one of the first TV detectives I idolised. She had climbed the career ladder of the NYPD with a less than ideal beginning in life, had overcome horrific trauma and personal circumstances to bring justice to the victims of incredibly heinous crimes. But she was also aggressive, constantly ignoring orders from superior officers and putting her own life in danger - often at the risk of the life and careers of her colleagues. Her conduct with suspects earned her four complaints on her jacket and the result? A promotion to head up the New Orleans Crime Lab.

What Stella Bonasera and a plethora of other fictional police officers show is that some officers behave in ways that should be severely punished by their superiors, but escape with little or no consequences.

Image Credit: CSI:NY, IMDb

Sally Wainwright is known for her powerful and true-to-life screenwriting, but her police dramas (while rightly celebrated) raise important points about our own policing culture in the UK.

Sarah Lancashire's portrayal of Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Happy Valley) has been the subject of a number of accolades. Sergeant Cawood is a tough and effective police officer, using a passion for the job to mask the unprocessed trauma of her teenage daughter's death.

What we see with Catherine's character is a temper boiling close to the surface when she is placed under pressure. Her personal demons, definitely not resolved, result in displays of rage and excessive force which may reflect human nature, but once more display a police officer behaving unethically and facing little-to-no consequences. Catherine's actions, on at least one occasion, show an abuse of power written in such a way, we are encouraged to applaud her.

Image Credit: Happy Valley, IMDb

Abuse of power should never be used for entertainment, and no matter how awful the suspected actions of an individual or the circumstances, every single person deserves the right to due process.

Abuse of power, particularly in the police, has been a topic of conversation following the details of the horrific murder of Sarah Everard by Metropolitan Police officer, Wayne Couzens. Couzens' abuse of power led to the kidnapping of the 33-year-old and eventually, her death, as well as outpours of anger from members of the public.

The ACAB message surfacing in the last year was met with mixed responses, though some people began to think about how this applied to their favourite TV law enforcement officers.

no matter how awful the suspected actions of an individual or the circumstances, every single person deserves the right to due process

One such character was Law and Order: SVU's protagonist, Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and her on onscreen partner, Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni).

The actress, herself, does incredible work offscreen for survivors of sexual assault, abuse and domestic violence. But while her own character and others on the show help to give a voice to those facing unspeakable experiences - both Olivia Benson and former partner, Elliot Stabler, are dreadful police officers and certainly don't help the real-life problems arising from police procedurals.

Image Credit: Law and Order: SVU, IMDb

Elliot Stabler is portrayed as a family man, as dedicated to his work-wife as he is to the job itself. But he was also incredibly problematic.

Though his stance on abortion made sense as a result of a strong catholic faith, it had no place whatsoever in considering his role among special victims. His temper and history of police brutality might have had a place in the NYPD in the 1990s, or perhaps we're supposed to applaud him for assaulting the criminals suspected of committing the very worst of crimes. But what his character represents is actually the very characteristics we would hope to never see in a police officer, though unfortunately, see all too often.

Image Credit: Law and Order: SVU, IMDb

Olivia Benson is a little more complicated.

She is great with the victims, with a strong tendency towards an empathy and compassion we just don't see in the rest of the cast. Olivia's history gives her a unique perspective on the crimes the other detectives don't have and in one sense or another, her strive for social justice (in spite of the professional cost) is likely what brings a lot of fans to the show.

Similarly to Catherine Cawood, Olivia's own personal problems result in questionable decisions she faces no consequences for.

Olivia Benson was once kidnapped and held for four days by a man who had every intention of doing her serious harm. In spite of her own physical condition, she managed to subdue him - which would have been the perfect time to call for help. But her decision instead led to a dreadful chain of events - starting with Olivia beating her handcuffed kidnapper within an in inch of his life, to later perjuring herself about it in court. Even before her kidnapping storyline, we see Olivia beat a confession out of a suspect, faced only with the punishment of being sent home.

these shows are truly missing their potential to bring change to a real-life system very much in need of an overhaul

I'll be the first person to confess just how much I love police procedurals and reality TV portraying life in the emergency services. It's a sort of comfort for me to watch Catherine Cawood keeping Yorkshire safe or watching Captain Olivia Benson bring justice to a survivor in New York - so I very much hope cancellation isn't the answer.

But these shows are truly missing their potential to bring change to a real-life system very much in need of an overhaul. It doesn't matter whether these police officers are protecting the hills of Calder Valley or the streets of Queens - it's time to re-invent such a wonderful genre and the frontrunners heading the change.

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