America’s working-class hero

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  • As the dust continues to settle down, we are seeing images of restive cops in the US, settling scores. America still thinks the policeman personifies the working class hero.

  • Over the years, killing by cops on the job has continued to rise. . . . These had become an institutionalized means for police, to settle scores.

  • Remember the police chief’s famous lines: “We stopped being peacekeeping police and turned into troops at war.”

By Nazarul Islam

America has thrilled itself with a paradox. By and large, crime rates are low in America—and so reflected, in the historical standards. However, television viewers could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Of the 34 dramas that were aired at prime time on the four big broadcast networks last autumn, 21 had revolved around crime. Statistics paint a unique picture.

On America’s CBS channel, the figure was 11 out of 14. Cops and robbers are essential and everywhere in the small screen’s alternative reality. In the era of angry and aggressive policing, it is an honorable service to your fellow citizens to video record police officers interactions with the common people.

Crime and punishment is an important theme in our literature and in media presentations – and on reality television, as well. For thirty one years, viewers had tuned in to “Cops” to see officers busting drug-dealers, reckless drivers and prostitutes. But no longer – Before its new season began, Paramount Network and its owner, ViacomCBS, axed the show amid spiraling protests over police brutality.

No amount of community policing will cause the common people ever, to accept a known corrupt police department.

The concept of “Cops” was simple: follow officers and film their encounters. But critics said it got access in exchange for favorable coverage of police. Many of those arrested may have been too high or confused to consent to appearing. The show exaggerated the role of drugs, which accounted for 35% of arrests, three times the true rate. Compared with real-life arrest data, black and Latino men were over-represented.

The ratings for “Cops” were poor, so the decision to nix it might have been easy. But “Live PD”, a more popular show on A&E, has also been cancelled. It had admitted to erasing footage of a black man dying on the streets of Minneapolis. Was this asphyxiation leading to death justified? The reckoning has hit drama series, too, as insiders grapple with television’s role in distorting perceptions of policing and normalizing abuses.

Warren Leight, executive producer of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (SVU), has reiterated that cop shows are collectively “mis-contributing” to society. Dream Hampton, a producer and director, has suggested a moratorium on new ones. Too often, she said, they “justify the cutting of corners, the throwing away of the constitution”. They also make policing look more effective than it is. In real life, just 46% of violent crimes were resolved with an arrest in 2018, compared with everyone on “SVU”.

All this matters, because many people believe what they see on the box. Over 40% of Americans think crime shows are realistic.

This can have peculiar real-world effects, such as armchair sleuths telling detectives how to do their job. In one study, police in Canada confided their frustration over “CSI” fans who tried to interview witnesses and identify evidence themselves.

Overall, TV-watchers are more likely than others to have confidence in the police. They are also more prone to think, wrongly, that police misconduct yields truthful confessions—not surprisingly, given how such behavior is often portrayed. A study of a season’s worth of four American crime shows in 2011 found that, on average, police acted badly once per episode.

Almost all instances were justified and went unpunished. Rule-bending actually boosted officers’ roles as moral enforcers. The effect was to forgive their abuses.

Racism has been swept under the carpet in a different way. Color of Change, a pressure group, analyzed 26 crime shows that aired in 2017-18. Racism, it found, was rarely a factor when TV policemen acted wrongfully. In fact, racial disparities in the criminal-justice system went largely unmentioned. Neither excessive force nor incarceration affected minorities disproportionately, as they do in reality.

Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, executive producer of “S.W.A.T.” on CBS, likens these themes to medicine—easier to avoid for networks chasing the largest possible audiences. In particular, “CSI” and “SVU” skirt issues of race by making most offenders and victims white. The explanations for crime tend to be psychological, not sociological.

Take a long view, though, and it is clear that things can change for the better on TV, because in some respects they already have. Police dramas have been a staple of schedules for decades, for obvious reasons: the stakes are high; the action is fast-paced; the endings are morally satisfying. But the genre has evolved. In the 1950s Jack Webb, the creator of “Dragnet”, adapted genuine cases. The Los Angeles Police Department signed off the scripts; its officers were portrayed as virtuous and efficient.

In the 1980s and 1990s shows such as “Hill Street Blues” and “Homicide: “McMillan and wife”, “Life on the Street” ‘and Kojak’, tackled rising urban crime. Policing cities was portrayed as hard and complicated; cops broke the law to get the job done. “I believe in the constitution,” affirms a detective in “NYPD Blue”. But if a murder suspect walks free, he says, “I do what I have to do” to extract a confession. In the 21st century two shows—“The Shield” and “The Wire”, which both first aired in 2002—declined to absolve rogue police.

“The Wire” humanized both cops and criminals and drew parallels between them, as officers act badly and cover it up. Still, neither show implies that police forces are so corrupt or broken that they ought to be dismantled, as some in America are now urging.

Can TV reflect that mood – And how? Jason Mittell of Middlebury College suggests a series inspired by Camden, New Jersey, which disbanded its police force in 2013 and reconstituted it with an emphasis on community relations. Murders decreased. That, he says, “would let viewers imagine what it means to rethink this institution, what happens to society when it is recast.”

Something like a more realistic show might be less frenetic. “The constant running and chasing cars—that’s not what policing is like,” says Ronal Serpas, a former police chief of New Orleans now at Loyola University. He notes that most cops never fire their gun on duty. They are more likely to answer house alarms and attend to neighborhood spats.

Will Broadcasters not entirely ditch a formula that has proved so successful? But they may have more appetite for dramas that focus on the policed, such as “When They See Us”, a recent Netflix series about black and Latino teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989. Savvier viewers will want more stories that reflect reality better, predicts Mr. Thomas of “S.W.A.T.”. “The public is ready for a more nuanced conversation.”

Over the years, killing by cops on the job has continued to rise. . . . These had become an institutionalized means for police, to settle scores.

Remember the police chief’s famous lines: “We stopped being peacekeeping police and turned into troops at war.”

Accountability in police can best be done in an assembly where everyone concerned will come and share their views and opinion to the activities of the police because there’s a whole lot of excesses in the police force that must be corrected for effective policing and better society’s trust on them.

Let’s grasp the message: In America, the policeman is a full time, working class hero!

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The Bengal-born writer is a senior educationist and is settled in USA. He writes regularly for Sindh Courier and for the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America. 

 

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