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How 70 years of cop shows taught us to valorize the police

Early Hollywood treated the cops as incompetent fools. Then everything changed.

Los Angeles Airport police officers observe protesters gathering on Century Boulevard near LAX on April 30, 2020.
Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

In 2019, polls found that the police were one of the most trusted public institutions in America, more trustworthy than Congress or journalists or religious leaders.

But in 2020, after George Floyd died at the hands of police and wave of protests against police brutality spread across the US, police drove their vans into crowds of protesters, shot paint canisters at people standing on their own porches, fired rubber bullets at reporters and arrested other reporters live on television, and pulled down protesters’ masks to pepper spray them in the face in the midst of a respiratory pandemic.

There is a gap between the ways in which the police behave and the ways in which the public perceives them. And for a long time, police have behaved as though they think pop culture is responsible for that gap.

In 1910, the International Association of Chiefs of Police was moved to adopt a resolution condemning the movie business for the way it depicted police officers. The movies, the IACP complained, made crime look fun and glamorous. Meanwhile, the police were “sometimes made to appear ridiculous.”

It was true: The movies did tend to make the police look ridiculous in the 1910s. From 1912 to 1917, the incompetent Keystone Cops bumbled their way across the silent screen. From 1914 to 1918, animated Police Dog shorts showed a police force unable to prevent adorable Officer Piffles (a good dog) from getting his owner into one scrape after another. And in 1917’s Easy Street, Charlie Chaplin’s tramp-turned-police-officer was only able to save his girl from a mob of criminals after accidentally sitting on a drug addict’s needle and picking up superpowers from the force of the inadvertent injection.

Police in popular culture of the 1910s were inept buffoons to be mocked and, well, ridiculed. And the real-life police reacted with outrage. How could the police do their jobs if people thought of them as losers who could be foiled by a cartoon dog?

Today, the police of popular culture have no such problem. Our screens are filled with depictions of heroic cop after heroic cop. We’ve got reactionary heroic cops and liberal heroic cops; white heroic cops and Black heroic cops; heroic cops who will work outside the system when the situation calls for it and never face a problem because they are always right, and heroic cops who never have to work against the system because the system itself is always right.

We live in a world in which police frequently respond to peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. We also live in a world in which the heroic police officer is one of our culture’s default protagonists. And the police are our protagonists because they put in the work to become so.

The modern police procedural was built by the police

Left, the incompetent Keystone Cops, photographed by Harry Vallejo, 1912. Right, Jack Webb as Dragnet’s heroic Joe Friday, pictured here on the DVD case.
Left, WFinch/Wikimedia Commons. Right, Alpha Video.

The ridiculous police of 1910s pop culture didn’t come out of nowhere. The police of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were widely understood to be a corrupt gang, and not without reason. The infamous Lexow Commission of the 1890s, which ran more than 10,000 pages long, found that the police extorted $10 million from the public each year in New York State alone, and that they regularly harassed the citizenry rather than trying to protect them. That report drove 30 years of police reform efforts and gave a young Theodore Roosevelt the chance to build his reputation on cleaning up the New York City Police Department — but for much of the public, the police’s reputation as a pack of hired goons at worst and incompetent bumblers at best had already been set.

Decades of reform helped change the public’s perception of the police. But it also helped that the movie industry, eager to escape police censorship, began to police itself. Studios needed police cooperation to cover up their stars’ misdeeds. They also needed to get shooting permits. They had plenty of motivation to play nicely with the police. So the policeman as incompetent bumbler began to fade away from the movies.

But what cemented the idea of the hero cop in the American imagination was the modern cop show, starting with 1951’s Dragnet. And as many critics have already shown — including, notably, Alyssa Rosenberg in her in-depth study at the Washington Post — the modern cop show was the result of a close relationship between Hollywood and the police.

The premise of Dragnet was that it was revealing to the world the authentic truth of what it is like to be a police officer, fighting crime. “Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true,” showrunner, star, and narrator Jack Webb promised at the beginning of every episode. And as Webb’s character, the stalwart LAPD detective Joe Friday, went about his work, he was surrounded by real cop cars and real cops acting as extras in the background of his scenes. Famously, the LAPD checked Webb’s scripts for authenticity.

But as Rosenberg laid out, the LAPD’s help came at a cost. Webb submitted every script to the LAPD’s Public Information Division for approval before shooting, and any element they disliked, he would scrap.

The politics of Webb’s Dragnet were not neutral. “What Dragnet offered the American public,” as the pop culture scholar Roger Sabin writes in his book Cop Shows, “was a vision of the police force as a ‘stabilizer’ in society, made up of honest men (mostly men) dedicated both to keeping the bad guys in their place, and to the more abstract values of law and order.” Dragnet presented the police to the public the way the police wanted to be seen: as aspirational heroes.

In 1951, the same year that Dragnet premiered, multiple members of the LAPD assaulted seven civilians, leaving five Latino men and two white men hospitalized with broken bones and ruptured organs. Racially motivated violence against civilians was and still is part of the reality of the police force. But Webb and his collaborators at the LAPD deliberately elided that reality, giving us the fantasy of the hero cop instead.

Today, it’s impossible to critique the police procedural without using the genre the police built

The cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine: from left, Andre Braugher, Andy Samberg, and Melissa Fumero.

After the success of Dragnet, law enforcement departments across the country began setting up eager collaborations with Hollywood, ready to shape the narrative of the police officer in the public’s eyes. Highway Patrol followed quickly in its footsteps, and then F.B.I., Columbo, Hawaii Five-0, Hill Street Blues, and the mothership: Law & Order and all the series it would spawn. Today, it’s de rigueur for cop shows to have cop experts on consult, ready to apply a patina of authenticity to the stories Hollywood tells us about police.

It is also de rigueur for some of the 21st century’s cop shows to argue that there are serious problems in contemporary police forces. Not all cop shows choose to critique their systems: Law & Order and its various spinoffs tend to place their unfailing trust in the system. CBS’s Blue Bloods aired an episode in 2014 in which a Black suspect throws himself out of a third-floor window to frame a blameless white officer for police brutality, the implication being that criticisms of the existing system do nothing but make life easier for criminals and harder for our heroic boys in blue.

But the 21st-century police shows that tend to be highly critically acclaimed and beloved by liberal audiences, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Wire, do try to use their police expertise to critique the institutions in which they take place. The Wire features sympathetic individual cops, but it also depicts police brutality against sympathetic and well-developed civilians, and it argues that police departments are structured to encourage that brutality. And Brooklyn Nine-Nine develops much of its conflict by pitting its well-meaning progressive protagonist cops against the more conservative members of the NYPD.

Not coincidentally, The Wire was considered wildly ahead of its time when it debuted in 2002, especially compared to the traditional police procedurals populating network television both then and now. And by the time Brooklyn Nine-Nine premiered in 2013, gentle criticism of the police as an institution felt like more or less what a respectable liberal viewer could expect from a respectable liberal TV show. The idea that a police show was inherently incapable of being politically progressive barely registered in mainstream criticism. When the journalist and academic Steven Thrasher suggested as much in 2018, calling Brooklyn Nine-Nine “some GOOD propaganda,” he faced widespread backlash.

But regardless of whether a police show codes itself as conservative or progressive, the police officer is always the protagonist. He might be troubled, she might be working within a corrupt system and trying to change it from within, but it is always through their eyes that we see the world. And that’s because the police built the genre that we use to talk about them. So today, even shows that are trying to self-reflexively critique the inherent flaws of the cop show find themselves doing so using the framework that the police built.

It’s for that reason that some actors who have played police officers, including Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Stephanie Beatriz, began publicly donating to bail relief funds for protesters as calls to defund the police came to dominate headlines in 2020. The donations were an act of restitution for making their living by glamorizing cops.

(Notably, at least one figure associated with a less-progressive police show had the opposite reaction. A writer from S.W.A.T. and Chicago P.D. was fired from then-forthcoming Law & Order spinoff Law & Order: Organized Crime for making social media posts that jokingly threatened protesters.)

Part of the central joke of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that Andy Samberg’s character Jake is obsessed with ’70s detective procedurals and that he became a detective because he wanted to be the star of his own TV show. But Jake isn’t any different from the rest of white America in the way he sees the world. We all grew up on cop shows. And we all reflexively know that when we are presented with a cop story, the cop is the hero.

What will the future of the cop show look like?

Pushing back against such a deeply ingrained cultural understanding is difficult. Samberg himself acknowledged as much when he told People in July 2020 that he and the cast and creative team of Brooklyn Nine-Nine were “all in touch and kind of discussing how you make a comedy show about police right now, and if we can find a way of doing that that we all feel morally okay about.” Samberg’s co-star Terry Crews had previously said that four unproduced episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine had been scrapped and would be rewritten. At the time, the show was between seasons; in February 2021, not long before it went back into production, news broke that its upcoming eighth season will be its last.

In the months since the George Floyd protests, different police procedurals have taken different paths in wrestling with this new narrative of the cop show as copaganda. Law & Order: SVU featured an episode where Olivia Benson has to face the question of whether or not she unconsciously racially profiled a suspect. Cops was outright canceled (it went back into production last fall to fulfill overseas obligations). CBS has brought in criminal justice reform advocates to work as consultants on its many police procedurals, in the same way that cop shows have traditionally used police officers as consultants.

And police officers have reacted to this development in much the same way they did to the Keystone Cops a century ago: with outrage. The new CBS shows “will be stories engineered to further diminish public opinion of police officers,” Patrick Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, told the Washington Post last fall.

But if working with new consultants appreciably changes the cop show, it will only be the latest change in a long and fraught evolution.

Cop shows are where America thinks about how we see the police and how we would like to see them. These shows are shaped by our beliefs about the police, and they shape our beliefs in turn. A summer of watching police respond violently to protests against police brutality necessarily changed the way thousands of Americans think about the police — and that, in turn, means the cop shows will have to change, too.