A quick look at the list of the longest running American TV shows reveals a lot about our media consumption. Unsurprisingly, Americans like sitcoms that are easy to watch. Ranking just behind this type of serialized comedy, however, is cop shows. From comedies like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” to more somber shows like “Law and Order,” American television is inundated with police-centric programming of all different varieties, and these shows remain some of the most viewed cable shows in recent years.
For as long as police departments have existed, communities unjustly treated by law enforcement have mistrusted them. Some have theorized that the prevalence of police-centric programming serves to rehabilitate the image of the police both in those communities and in the American consciousness as a whole.
Critics have nicknamed this type of police-centric programming “copaganda.” In airing programming that centers around police protagonists, the police as a force are humanized, and their potential missteps read as isolated incidents. We are led to believe that incidents of police brutality are either honest mistakes made in good faith by now-humanized officers, or the malice of an isolated “bad apple.”
This notion is fundamentally incorrect. The reality is our current system of policing is structured to facilitate and excuse these forms of violence in every aspect, seen in its origins in slavery, qualified immunity laws and organizational culture that discourages reporting malpractice. The structure of policing itself is what yields incidents of police brutality — incidents that “copaganda” would have you believe are either accidents or the misguided decisions of a few troubled individuals.
Some TV shows attempt to accomplish this implicitly, imbibing their police protagonists with nuance and likability; we come to see the police force as the capital-G Good Guys. Others are more explicit, such as an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” in which the plot follows a police officer accused of shooting a Black man as a result of racial profiling, while the viewer is shown it was a mistake made in self-defense.
One of the most prominent examples of such messaging is the TV show “COPS,” which ran from 1989 to 2020. It didn’t follow a scripted narrative. The premise of the show was to follow police officers in major cities around on calls to observe them at work. Cameras are brought into officers’ cars, and officers are shown valiantly carrying out drug busts and arrests, dragging the often Black and brown criminal underbelly of their city out from run-down houses and whisking them from the streets of the good American city to jail.
The lack of a concrete narrative makes the premise of “COPS” seem relatively innocuous. However, the progression of the show’s locations reveals that the show’s producers may have had another agenda.
In the early 2010s, the rise of the internet and surveillance footage meant that incidents of police brutality were receiving more publicity than ever before, and mistrust of the police was rampant. During this period of time, a concerning pattern emerged: Immediately following a severe police brutality incident in a major city, “COPS” would begin filming there, inviting local residents into the day-to-day lives of that department.
“[Copaganda is] a damage control tactic used to subdue the valid concerns that may arise in response to reckless police behavior.” —Caelan Reeves CM ’24
Two of the most notable examples were in Omaha, Nebraska and Salinas, California. Mere months after incidents of excessive force in these cities took center stage in the news cycle, “COPS” was invited to film. The pattern implies that local governments of these cities were attempting to use the rehabilitative narrative established by “COPS” to boost the image of their departments.
This is an instance where we can see that “copaganda” doesn’t exist by accident. It’s a damage control tactic used to subdue the valid concerns that may arise in response to reckless police behavior. It convinces audiences that police brutality is a deviation from the norm instead of an inevitable product of our policing system.
The problems with “copaganda” extend beyond explicitly realistic shows like “COPS.” Another show to come under fire recently is “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which follows the police department of the fictional Brooklyn 99th district through the often low-stakes conflicts they face on a day-to-day basis. The show is obviously fictionalized; no actual police officer would lead a suspect lineup in a Backstreet Boys sing-a-long.
However, critics of the show’s subject matter argue that this does not absolve the show of potentially qualifying as “copaganda.” The show has been on air since 2013 and has yet to contend with the issue of police brutality. This — coupled with the show’s depiction of its leads as highly sympathetic and relatable — contributes to the rehabilitation of the image of the police regardless of the show’s fictional nature.
The goal of TV shows like “COPS” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is ultimately to create the illusion that incidents of police brutality are an exception instead of the norm. By painting a picture in the collective American imagination of a police force filled with nuanced, likeable protagonists, people come to see the police as an unequivocally good organization and view any police officers that act out as “bad apples” in an otherwise good bushel.
We live in an age where advertising and government influence are increasingly influential parts of all media. This makes it incredibly important to filter our media consumption through a critical lens, especially in regards to police-centric programming.
It’s important for your perspective on the police and other government offices to remain informed by concrete news and your own research. In doing so, you can view issues like police brutality through a lens of your own opinion, rather than one that has been created for you.
Caelan Reeves CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. They are a government and literature dual major from Chicago and love everything to do with music, movies and books.