Cop Shows and Police Reform

I propose a different kind of cop drama.

The department is driven by accountability, building community relationships, communication, de-escalation and other training, excellent communication and support at every level for both police and policed, fair compensation, work-life balance, great benefits, and other elements that lead to meaningful success, inter-community trust, and inter-community safety (police and policed).

Rather than showing an environment where officers thrive because they have the environment and tools they need to succeed, we constantly depict corrupt bureaucracies so antagonistic towards the moral, justice-driven officers, they seem destined to fail as their personal lives fall apart. We show accountability and oversight as obstacles to good policing, rather than part of what can make it better. We show communities trapped in a system that constantly undermines everyone and everything worthwhile.

There's truth in it, sure, this is a popular narrative for many reasons. It is certainly reflective of truth. It's not the only story, though, or the only possible story. It's a partial truth with a deft political agenda, intentional or not. We choose to depict corrupt, underfunded, overworked, under-supported, Byzantine, cronyist bureaucracies in which dramatic failure seems inevitable, and we as writers are motivated here, because DAMN that makes for entertaining fiction.

But it also sells a dangerous story of inevitable failure and an environment where only the incredibly lucky and brilliant could possibly succeed. That's a dangerous narrative, especially in the context of this being the only narrative we see, over and over again. It assigns blame to seductive targets, clear cut bad apples versus "the good guys" who can't get a fair shot at meaningful accountability, intractible systems so impossible to change it's pointless to try.

This story shows us "the way things are" with no hope of a better way. It justifies and seeks to explain real world issues with why American policing needs reform, but it does so in service of a particular type of narrative, a narrative that holds up the system as unfixable because of human nature, the officers as victims of their noble struggle to do what's right despite the crushing odds. They become "loose cannons with nothing left to loose." Cowboys or questing knights, ultimately alone and at odds with anyone who could possibly help them succeed, chasing a barely bigger bad and often leaving a trail of dead loved ones behind. In this story, they pay the ultimate cost, and they often exact that same cost on others, "innocent" or "guilty."

It doesn't have to be this way.

Cop shows could give us a glimpse of an alternative path, challenge us to consider that it's not only possible to change, but it's already being done in other places, to varying degrees of success.

Fiction can help us envision other paths, including the probable results of meaningful police reform.

And yes, that fiction can still be engaging and thrilling and high stakes. Hope for a better system does not preclude nearly impossible mysteries, staggering challenges, gritty personal drama, unxpected twists, explosions, and a body trail.