“It just feels like we can do more with the art and with the shows that are put out there,” “S.W.A.T.” showrunner Aaron Rahsaan Thomas says
The Hero Cop is one of television’s most enduring tropes. But how heroic can the police remain at a time when many outraged citizens are campaigning for them to be defunded amid widespread protests over the killing of unarmed civilians like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor?
The fallout from the weeks of nationwide demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism has already prompted two cop shows to hand in their badges: The long-running reality shows “Cops” and A&E’s popular “Live PD.” The simmering tensions against the people entrusted to protect and serve their communities have boiled over, and that has led to questions about the vitality of the fictional cops who patrol the television screen.
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“There’s always going to be an appetite for people who can go out, do good and get a form of justice. That’s always a satisfying story for most people,” said Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, showrunner for CBS’ “S.W.A.T.,” who conceded that many of the current crop of shows around police suffer from “a conservatively narrow point of view.”
Thomas is a rarity in the industry: An African American showrunner who has made a career for himself writing about law enforcement. Before running “S.W.A.T.,” Thomas worked on “Southland” and “CSI: NY.” “It just feels like we can do more with the art and with the shows that are put out there to at least help expand the conversation,” he said. “Particularly, the relationship of police with the communities that they police in.”
In its January study “Normalizing Injustice,” the civil rights organization Color of Change found that police procedurals have had a major impact on how the public views police even as they misrepresent many realities about the criminal justice system. The biggest one: the lack of accountability for the police. “Even when they break the law, the accountability measures are not there,” Rashid Shabazz, chief marketing and storytelling officer at Color of Change, told TheWrap. “You often are not seeing the full picture of those who are most affected by police procedures (and) police action.”
Color of Change looked at the makeup of 19 of those shows’ writers rooms during the 2018-19 season. The numbers proved that overwhelmingly, these shows are run and staffed by white writers (86%) while only 7% are black. There were five series — “The Blacklist,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “Blindspot,” “NCIS” and “Blue Bloods” — that only had white writers. “S.W.A.T.” was the only one that more than 15% of its writing staff made up of black writers.
Despite seeing improvement in the number of female and minority writers for the current season (2019-20), the Writers Guild of America still found that 82% of showrunners were white. Last Friday, the Writers Guild of America West issued an open letter from its committee of black writers — the first time the guild has released a statement specifically from one of its committees — that called on Hollywood and the studios to do more than just issue statements of support and actually prioritize the hiring of black writers.
“The numbers are still appalling. They’ve been appalling throughout the history of television, and particularly in the case of police procedurals,” Thomas said.
Shabazz said TV should broaden its perspective when it comes to telling stories about police work. “There needs to be more voices shaping these shows, and not just writers of different races who have different experiences with criminal justice,” Shabazz said. That includes speaking to not only cop and law enforcement consultants, which has been a longstanding practice, but community and advocacy groups as well.
John Ridley — who won an Oscar for writing “12 Years a Slave” and served as a writer on NBC’s “Third Watch” — believes that adding more diverse writers, and empowering them to speak up, will also help cover up blind spots.
“There may be those critical episodes where having that extra voice in the room prevents people on the back end having to give an apology that was so easily prevented,” he told TheWrap. He added that police shows are not alone in over-relying on harmful stereotypes. “We’ve certainly seen shows set in the government intelligence spaces that rely too heavily on individuals of Muslim backgrounds being the bad guys.”
The genre is famous for their “ripped-from-the-headlines” narratives, but many shows have handled questions like police brutality and other systemic issues such as racism in a single episode or multi-episode arc. Typically, one or two cops are singled out as “bad eggs” and reprimanded, while the “good” cops look even more heroic for weeding out the evils in their own ranks.
But the past few weeks showcased many examples of police overstepping their boundaries and being overaggressive toward peaceful protesters. The question now is will these current tensions between law enforcement and their communities become permanently baked into these fictional police dramas.
“We tell a story about a militarized police unit. Many of the images that we see (from the current protests) involve some of the same imagery that we’ve seen on our show,” Thomas said. “We don’t want to ignore that. We want to lean into that.”
In the case of “S.W.A.T.,” the “black vs. blue” element has been with the show from the start. The series is led by Shemar Moore’s Daniel “Hondo” Harrison, who gets promoted to lead the LAPD’s SWAT team in the pilot episode to ease racial tensions following an incident where a black kid gets shot by a white cop. “By starting off the series that way, we were basically writing up a contract with the audience,” he explained. “This will be an entertaining show, but it’ll also be a show that will not shy away from certain hot button topics.”
Thomas can’t see any way his show ignores what is happening out in the real world. Hondo “has a black family that still lives in South L.A. They may have complicated feelings regarding his involvement with SWAT, his choice to become a SWAT officer in the first place,” he said. “These are questions he has to answer, that his white colleagues may have the luxury of not having to address.”
Between shows like “Law & Order: SVU,” “FBI,” “The Rookie” and “Blue Bloods,” broadcast television has dipped into the cops and law enforcement well more than most. But that comes with restraints that often require onscreen cases to be tidied up and resolved — or declared unsolvable — in the span of a single 43-minute episode.
“The medium itself doesn’t really lend itself to a, quote-unquote, realistic portrayal,” Thomas argued. “It’s an artificial setup and there’s a finite space of time. There’s often closure when it comes to these situations. Cases are solved — or not — in a finite amount of time.”
He said the trick is to make the emotions felt by the audience feel more authentic, even if the world the show lives in is not: “With the feelings and the emotions that we see in the moment, it would behoove us, at the very least, to find space to try to explore those, even in these fictional universes.”
The current social climate has not made Thomas feel any more responsibility than he already felt. “Some storytellers, their responsibility is always there. I know for me, it’s not so much been an increase, it’s just been,” he said. “You find more and more people feeling maybe a greater responsibility. But, for some, that responsibility was always there.”
It’s not as if the mistreatment of black people by law enforcement is a new issue. Before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there was Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile and Michael Brown. Brown’s death set off protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 that looked very much like the ones the country has seen over Floyd’s murder — though on a more limited scale. Similarly, the Los Angeles riots in 1992 happened after three LAPD officers were acquitted on charges of police brutality against Rodney King.
“It’s not that these events are unprecedented, they just went undocumented,” Thomas said.
But he understands that his counterparts on other cop shows, many of whom are white, may feel uncomfortable about stepping onto this field. The current cultural conversation about systemic racism has forced a reckoning in the industry over what kinds of stories get to be told and by whom. But the protests have shown the issue of policing and racial injustice is a problem for everyone to solve, not just black people.
“I do think silence, even born from awkwardness or ignorance, is often not productive,” he said. “If you have nothing to add, or to offer, to what is a very vital conversation, I would say, yes, I think that that can be harmful. But at the same time, a big part of this, and a big part of our show, is figuring out ways to improve communication.”
There have been shows in TV’s history that have portrayed police in a more nuanced light, with many holding up “The Wire” and “The Shield” as examples.
David Simon’s HBO crime drama “The Wire” was celebrated for its willingness to show how cops and criminals were both capable of empathy as well as horrific actions. The show, which ran from 2002-08, presented these problems as largely systemic issues that force people into choosing between only bad options — though its first season was told mostly through the eyes of Dominic West’s cop, Detective Jimmy McNulty. “The Shield,” Shawn Ryan’s FX series that also ran from 2002-08, centered around Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey and his team of corrupt cops willing to cut drug deals and murder anyone who got in their way. Even though “The Shield” put the ugly side of police work on full display, it still followed the cops’ perspective.
Despite the current animosity toward law enforcement, TV cop shows are likely to remain on the primetime beat. NBC is even adding a new “Law & Order” — called “Law & Order: Organized Crime” — next season that will see the return of Chris Meloni’s popular “SVU” character, Elliot Stabler.
“We can always do better in our storytelling,” Ridley said. “But if you’re asking me straight up: Does every narrative cop show now need to go away? Does every episode need to be hyper-hyper vetted? I hope that always there were eyes on it for ways that they represent well. But that starts in the writers room. With writers who are in there, who are respected enough to be able to say, ‘Look, I know what we’re trying to get at in the story, but we should look at this space or this character and make sure that if we’re going to go there, this thought or this point of view is well represented.'”
Steve Pond contributed to this story.
For more, read Part 1 in our series on modern TV cop shows: Why Don’t TV Cop Shows Have More Police Brutality Storylines? Blame ‘Dragnet’
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The May 25 killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police prompted protests over police brutality and racial injustice across the country — leading many networks and streaming services to reconsider programming. Here are some movies and TV shows that have been canceled or shelved (sometimes temporarily).