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Study: TV Police Shows Affect Real-World Policing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week, two TV reality shows that focused on police were canceled - "Cops," which had been on for more than three decades, and the more recent "Live PD." The cancellations came in the wake of nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd and demanding an end to police brutality.

But criticism of the way reality shows and TV dramas depict police work goes back a long way. Earlier this year, a new study came out that detailed how TV portrayals of the police helped cement racial attitudes, normalize bad police behavior and impede changes in real life. NPR's Andrew Limbong reported on this back in February, and in light of recent events, we thought you'd like to hear it again today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANDREW LIMBONG: A house searched without a warrant, evidence being covered up or...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHICAGO P.D.")

JASON BEGHE: (As Hank Voight) Hey, look at me.

LIMBONG: ...A cop named Hank Voight on NBC's "Chicago P.D." using a metal rod to torture someone for information.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHICAGO P.D.")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, screaming).

BEGHE: (As Hank Voight) Give me a name.

LIMBONG: Here's the character's philosophy on policing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHICAGO P.D.")

BEGHE: (As Hank Voight) You need people like me out on the streets doing the things regular cops are unwilling to do.

RASHAD ROBINSON: And you're left with an opinion that, yeah, this is what they've got to do in order to keep us safe. But keep who safe?

LIMBONG: That's Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, which advocates for racial justice. They teamed up with the Norman Lear Center at USC to look at 26 cop shows across this season - more than 350 episodes.

ROBINSON: Over and over and over again, the good guy - the police officer, the district attorney - was doing bad things. And it was being endorsed.

LIMBONG: The study breaks down who does the wrongful actions, what kind of actions are they and who plays the onscreen roles - the prosecutors, the judges, the victims. And then they compared it to real-world statistics.

ROBINSON: These shows paint this sort of magical space in cities like New York and Chicago, where people of color exists but somehow racism doesn't exist.

LIMBONG: With few exceptions, these shows rarely depict how disproportionately black people are targeted by police or how bias is baked into this system. For Lucy Lang, that's the biggest problem.

LUCY LANG: I'm the director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

LIMBONG: She also served as an assistant DA in Manhattan for 12 years prosecuting violent street crime and homicides.

LANG: I mean, it's more often a system that's designed to dehumanize folks, a system in which there are management failures. And it is those sort of banal things that result in inequities more often than a single malevolent person.

LIMBONG: But it's hard to make compelling TV about systems.

LANG: Truth be told, my job does not make for great television.

LIMBONG: If the days of the noble criminal defense attorney - your Perry Masons, your Ben Matlocks - are gone, then what's left is a TV landscape full of enforcers.

ADI HASAK: I wasn't really interested so much in cops as I was in just institutional corruption.

LIMBONG: Adi Hasak created the NBC show "Shades Of Blue," a cop show about this system.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHADES OF BLUE")

JENNIFER LOPEZ: (As Harlee Santos) Where there's drugs, there's a gun.

LIMBONG: Jennifer Lopez plays detective Harlee Santos. She makes increasingly problematic and corrupting decisions, like convincing a rookie cop to lie.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHADES OF BLUE")

LOPEZ: (As Harlee Santos) I saved your ass today, which means tomorrow, in that internal affairs interview, you save mine.

LIMBONG: But by the time the show premiered in 2016, a number of real-life cops were making headlines for committing real-life crimes, and Hasak grew uncomfortable making a cop show. He left during its first season.

HASAK: You know, there were a lot of cop shootings. Cops were shooting unarmed people. And I was wondering if I was really serving, you know, anything here besides just, you know, helping the flame get bigger.

LIMBONG: Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, started this project partly because violent crime in the U.S. is trending down, yet studies show the public doesn't see it that way. And Robinson says it isn't easy to convince people otherwise when law enforcement has its own PR machine on TV.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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