Opening Argument: The Law & Order Police Are Bad At Their Jobs
Over at Vulture, Kathryn Van Arendonk wrote a piece about the way police are always the main characters on police shows — which might seem obvious, but she’s got a lot to say about why it’s important, and I commend the piece to you. Also of value is Alyssa Rosenberg’s op-ed in the Washington Post about dumping police shows entirely. Alyssa has done great work for years talking about representations of police in popular culture; follow the links in the op-ed.
I have thought a lot about these things this week. As you know if you read or listen to my work, there are cop shows I have loved — Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one I’m generally proud to like on its merits; Law & Order is one I’m not always. But know this: In Law & Order world, it’s not just that the police are the main characters. It’s how they police.
Cops in that world regularly threaten people, including people who are just witnesses, with harassment via immigration enforcement — whether they have reason to believe there’s anything to investigate or not. They threaten to imply that people have "snitched" to police when they haven’t, which is an explicit threat of extrajudicial violence. They taunt suspects about potentially being sexually assaulted in prison. They tell people they won’t be believed if they report police misconduct. They shove suspects, slam their heads onto cars, and in a few select cases, actually beat them, stick guns in their faces, threaten to arrest family members who are innocent. Jack McCoy, the franchise’s long-running prosecutor, threatened to prosecute people he knew were innocent — or certainly knew were probably innocent — regularly, to pressure the guilty people who loved them.
And here’s the kicker: They’re wrong a lot. The entire structure of Law & Order is that the first suspect is usually not the actual criminal. The first theory is wrong. Very, very often, the first person they arrest isn’t guilty. Very, very often, the first person who’s prosecuted isn’t guilty. In other words, these are protagonists, always presented as fundamentally motivated by good intentions, who are using illegal, unprofessional, or unethical tactics on, or in pursuit of, people who will turn out to be innocent.
One of the things that strikes me as so sad about Law & Order: SVU, which has a somewhat different tone and does sometimes reckon with social issues in a way more nuanced than the original show, is that it understands trauma. We have spent many, many episodes understanding the traumas of Olivia Benson, who’s risen from detective to captain. And that’s not a bad thing. But in the event a person who turns out to be innocent is mistreated, arrested, imprisoned, is that trauma explored in the same way? Of course not — and that brings us back to Kathryn’s point about who gets to be the main character.
I’ve always known these things, in this kind of frustrated way that echoes how I feel about things being done in court on TV that would never be allowed in real life (you can’t say whatever you want and say "withdrawn," unsurprisingly enough). But I’m deleting the reruns, long a part of my zone-out-on-the-couch routine, from my DVR. It’s not good for me; it’s not good for any of us. I have a long way to go, but I know that stuff is not good for any of us.