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TV Cop Shows Affect Real-World Policing, Study Says


We have a story about the real-world effect of fictional police procedurals on television, you know, like "Chicago P.D.," "NCIS," "Law & Order," "Law & Order: SVU." In the criminal justice system - they're easily digestible episodes of good guys stopping the bad guys. But a recent study questioned how their portrayal of the criminal justice system influences the way we feel about policing. Here's NPR's Andrew Limbong.

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


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.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, screaming)

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

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


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?

BEGHE: 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 the 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 exist, 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 the 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 the system that's designed to dehumanize folks, the 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.

ROBINSON: 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.


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.


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.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.