Should We Defund the Police Shows?

And what would TV look like after that?

Paramount executives canceled Cops late Tuesday night after 33 years on air.

“Cops is not on the Paramount Network and we don’t have any current or future plans for it to return,” a Paramount spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday.

The move follows nationwide protests against police brutality and calls for the defunding of police departments in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

A&E also canceled Live PD late Wednesday night, after recently released body camera footage showed Williamson County Sheriff’s deputies holding 40-year-old Javier Ambler down and using Tasers on him four times while a Live PD crew filmed.

Ambler repeatedly told deputies he couldn’t breathe, and his last words were “Save me,” according to the Austin American-Statesman. Live PD has since said the video of Ambler’s in-custody death has been destroyed, meaning investigators can’t look at the footage.

But many say canceling Cops (which has a long history of troubled lawsuits and questions about its veracity) and Live PD is not enough. A growing movement wants cop shows and police procedurals canceled altogether.

What would that look like? And how could existing cop shows change in the meantime?

A new primetime

I like a good cop procedural as much as the next armchair detective. But there’s just so many of them on air right now. There are currently 22 procedural shows dealing with law enforcement airing on the Big Four networks (ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC). The amount varies from network to network, but CBS leads the pack with 10 shows dealing with police or other forms of law enforcement, including its NCIS series, S.W.A.T. and FBI. NBC has five, ABC has four and FOX has three.

Five of the top 10 shows on primetime are procedurals like NCIS and 9-1-1, according to Nielsen’s latest ratings list. There is no shortage of on-screen representation in American television if you are a member of law enforcement.

American media has shown the plight of police for more than 70 years, when ABC first aired Stand By For Crime in 1949. Dragnet, which received financial assistance from the Los Angeles Police Department in exchange for favorable on-screen portrayals, followed two years later. And Hollywood’s love affair with the procedural drama has continued ever since.

But what if the cancellations of Cops and Live PD are just the beginning? If CBS canceled all 10 of its procedurals, it would lose out on NCIS, one of its most lucrative franchises. Same for NBC, with its Chicago crossover series and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. What might go in those spots?

Any number of things. More shows featuring people of color and other diverse communities, educational programming, and comedies. More shows spotlighting other civil servants like doctors, city government workers or social workers. They could program more documentaries and more sports. God knows people are desperate for sports right now. Hell, even esports coverage is starting to take off for ABC. There is no shortage of counterprogramming for cop procedurals.

Possible changes

All of those cancellations aren’t likely to happen, though. Too much money is on the line to lose out on ratings from programs like NCIS, Law & Order and 9-1-1. So how can existing procedurals start to effect change from within?

Hire more black writers, more writers of color, and more writers that come from different backgrounds. At least then, these stories of police brutality might be more than just Very Special Episodes that acknowledge race but don’t deal with it. Write more diverse characters, and cast more than just one token person of color on each police team. Write more plots that revolve around low crime clearance rates. Stop receiving funding from police departments.

Media has the power to shape people’s minds and attitudes. Network procedurals have given the American people false ideas about solving crime for decades (“Computer, enhance!”) and have largely avoided the issue of police brutality. Some of the shows currently on air, like For Life and S.W.A.T., do a good job at examining the legal system and the grey areas of policing. But by and large, the procedural protagonist — the rough-around-the-edges cop who doesn’t follow the rules but gets the job done —  is the new American cowboy myth.

And in this new era, broadcasters must change that myth. Or you end up with law enforcement officers who got their idea of what right looks like from TV.

Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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