Over at the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg has come up with a simple, easy, and completely rational way to address the problem of police brutality: “Shut down all police movies and TV shows. Now.”
Do you remember the half-hour documentary show Cops? “Cops is filmed on location with the men and women of law enforcement. All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” Now that you’ve read those words, you’re probably humming “Bad Boys” right now.
There are probably some viewers who would argue Cops glamorized the police forces depicted on screen. The camera crew certainly wasn’t there to make the policemen look bad or to expose police wrongdoing. We didn’t see them beating suspects or intimidating teenagers. If police forces thought the show would make them look bad, they wouldn’t have agreed to the ride-along.
But Cops often made police work look like a particularly sad realm of existence. Maybe it was just the episodes I caught, but the police in Cops always seemed to be responding to domestic disturbances. The man and woman would be hysterically shouting at each other, a baby was crying, and terrified small children were watching from the doorway of another room. The man and woman — occasionally married, oftentimes not — would trade accusations as the cops tried to calm down one or both parties. Sometimes one or both were drunk or high. A search of the suspects would often turn up drugs. The older neighbor who called the cops would watch from next door, shaking her head and taking a drag on a cigarette with about an inch of ash still on it.
Oftentimes the boyfriend in the appropriately named shirt would end up in the squad car, red and blue lights flashing, as the woman who had been screaming a moment earlier suddenly switched gears and begged the officers to not take him away, more terrified of what was coming next than the bad situation in which she was already. Child protective services seemed to be needed at least once an episode.
The camera crews of Cops regularly encountered citizens who had a long list of troubles and problems, ones that law enforcement was poorly equipped to handle: unemployment or under-employment, poverty, addiction, few or no role models or support networks. Dysfunction begat dysfunction. A frequent viewer of Cops might conclude that once the camera crew was done with the ride-along, the squad car should arrive with a social worker as backup. The broken law was only one of many serious problems on the scene.
It was hard to feel optimistic for the non-police depicted on Cops. Maybe a run-in with the criminal-justice system would scare some of these folks straight; otherwise it was ensuring that a man who had made bad decisions, who had a long list of problems, would eventually be out, trying to find a job with a criminal record.
Many of us will be lucky enough to rarely encounter crime and its consequences. Police officers encounter crime and its consequences all the time. Consistent exposure to humanity at its darkest places would never justify police brutality or unequal treatment under the law. But police are human beings, too, and no doubt constantly encountering violence and the worst tragedies of the human condition takes a psychological toll. It’s fair to wonder if America’s police forces have been asked to manage longtime dire situations in rough, impoverished neighborhoods, circumstances that no law-enforcement force could ever sufficiently address.
(By one measure, Rosenberg got her wish before the current controversy, in the sense that no cop movies or television shows are in production. Just about all fictional television show production halted because of the coronavirus pandemic and is still working out the details of how to restart.)