The police procedural is one of the most popular genres on American television. Twenty-four scripted series and three reality programs that center on the lives of law enforcement agents are currently on air. Although some of these shows may be unfamiliar to the casual TV watcher — such as The CW’s Beauty and the Beast and TNT’s Major Crimes — many are widely popular. Blue Bloods, now in its sixth season on CBS, is the most-watched show on Friday nights, pulling in an average of 11.3 million viewers per episode. Approximately 7 million people watched the fifteenth season of Law & Order: SVU each week. Classics such as 21 Jump Street, which inspired a 2012 film adaptation, and Dragnet, a pioneer of the genre, are landmarks in our cultural terrain, even though they have long been off the air. Crime has maintained its pervasive presence on our television screens, much like it pervades our actual world.
What accounts for the enduring popularity of police procedurals? On the most basic level, they are highly entertaining. They play on our societal fascination with crime as well as with those who both commit and put a stop to it. For most of us, these shows, aside from a few hopped turnstiles and a handful of stolen candy bars, are the closest we will ever get to the seedy criminal underbelly of our society. Police procedurals provoke the question, What would I have done? What would have happened if I really did rob that bank? What if I actually had swung that frying pan against my cheating boyfriend’s head? Where would I have hid the body? How would I have gotten away with it? For the more brutal crimes, the sexual assaults, the multiple homicides, that we would never think of committing, we take pleasure in watching those who do commit them get thrown behind bars, and we can act vicariously through the detectives and officers who lock them up and swallow the key. Thus these shows are also the closest we will ever get to putting on a metaphorical cape, defeating the villains, and saving the burning city from collapsing on itself. We are able to live out our criminal and heroic fantasies simultaneously through both the lawless perpetrator and the take-no-shit cop.
Each crime drama follows a specific structure, almost without fail. Every episode of Criminal Minds, for example, unfolds according to this distinct formula:
- The Crime is committed, usually in the basement or living room of a suburban home, usually by a mentally disturbed white male, most likely against a woman, always in an excessively horrific manner. The unidentified suspect, the “unsub,” is revealed to us, the viewers, from the very beginning.
- The FBI agents are informed of The Crime and a string of recent similar cases in the same area. A pattern is established. They fly out, on their private jet, to the scene of The Crime and develop a profile of the unsub, whom we get to know and understand through a series of flashbacks to his past.
- The agents follow a dead end or two that gets them nowhere in solving The Crime. Meanwhile, the unsub strikes again, leaving another dead body, or two, for the team to discover. Here we usually see a shift in the unsub’s M.O. — usually an increased use of force or a decreased timespan between killings — that causes the team to reevaluate their profile and act with a greater sense of urgency.
- Something or someone causes the unsub to snap and break pattern. He confronts and captures another victim while the FBI agents race to find him. A member of the team suddenly has a grand epiphany that leads them to the killer, just moments before he can claim another victim. He either surrenders or is shot down, his victim is rescued, and the team hops on their private jet back to headquarters, where they will begin the process all over again.
Police procedurals also provide viewers with a neatly wrapped-up narrative, one that is hardly presented to us offscreen. With the exception of cliffhanger season finales, cop shows always end with a sense of resolution. Justice is eventually served and the bad guy walks away in handcuffs. In the crime-riddled, anxiety-driven society we live in today, it seems as though awful things are always happening; yet rarely is justice delivered. Even though America holds the highest number of incarcerated individuals in the world, the number of violent crimes that go unpunished in this country is also high.
The current US homicide clearance rate, the percentage of cases that have resulted in an arrest, is 64% as of 2012. This means that 36% of homicides committed since 1980 remain unsolved, leaving a total of 211,000 open cases. The statistics for sexual assault are even more dismal. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, only 7% of rapes that are reported to the police, which account for just 32% of rapes committed, lead to an arrest. Shows such as CSI and Law & Order: SVU create an illusion that our criminal justice system, personified by courageous FBI detectives and police officers, is actually doing what it is supposed to do, even when reality suggests otherwise.
Thus, especially given the recent cases of police brutality that have come with alarming regularity on our television screens, is the police force really a system that needs to be consistently validated by entertainment media? Police procedurals tend to depict police officers as inherently good people who always strive for justice, even if they have to take morally circuitous routes to get there. This is not always the case in reality.
In 2015, 1,145 people were killed by police officers in the United States, an increase from 1,112 casualties in 2014. In the first three months of this year alone, 277 civilians died at the hands of American police. Last year, former Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was sentenced to 263 years in prison on multiple accounts of rape, all of which were committed while on duty. Outside of these extreme cases, there are hundreds of accounts of civilians being manhandled and mistreated by the police, as documented daily by the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project.
Fictionalized police programs frequently weave in these cases of police misconduct, but frame them from a different angle. A common trope of crime dramas is the police officer so determined to uphold the law that he bends it in the pursuit of justice. Officer Sam Swarek on Rookie Blue, for instance, frequently beats confessions out of detainees and manipulates reluctant eyewitnesses into identifying perpetrators. Each time he roughs up a suspect or forges a search warrant, it is ultimately justified and excused by his fellow officers because he was “just doing his job.”
Police procedurals often tend to solicit sympathy for law enforcement agents, no matter what they do or which laws they break, by insisting that underneath their blue uniforms, gun holsters, and bulletproof vests, they are normal, morally upright people. Blue Bloods, which follows the lives of the Reagan family, portrays them as everyday, average working-class folk, even though they are the most powerful family in the New York Police Department. The Reagan clan consists of patriarch and NYPD Commissioner Frank Reagan; his father and former commissioner, Henry; his two sons, Detective Danny and Officer Jamie; and his daughter, Assistant District Attorney Erin. Each episode of the show sits us down at the dining table during the Reagan’s Sunday family dinner, where they chew on issues like race relations, vigilantism, and excessive force along with their peas and meatloaf. They share stories. They bicker. They pass the mashed potatoes. They do everything that we do (Cops: They’re Just Like Us!) and we can relate to them, and maybe even start to like them, because of it.
In the recent New York Times article “Police Body Cameras: What Do You See?” Timothy Williams notes that police body cameras provide a very one-sided view of the interactions between officers and civilians, stating that “when video allows us to look through someone’s eyes, we tend to adopt an interpretation that favors that person.” Crime dramas have a similar effect. When we are taken through the daily routines of fictional law enforcement agents, witnesses to their every thought, action, and Sunday dinner, we will probably begin to root for them, which can potentially bleed into how we view real police officers.
Absent, however, is a similar characterization of the perpetrators. Police procedurals hardly ever depict the lives and backstories of those convicted of crime. Criminal Minds, as its title suggests, is one of the exceptions. It gets us to consider the personal history and mentality that produce a dangerous killer. In most other current shows, however, felons are never given identities outside of that label.
In an episode from season 6 of Blue Bloods entitled “All the News That’s Fit to Click,” a journalist going undercover as a police officer is shot in the back of a cruiser, leading the NYPD to believe that they are dealing with a cop killer. They stop at nothing to find him. When they eventually do, the shooter is unrepentant with a bad attitude, calling Danny a “pig” multiple times and oinking at him. The shooter explicitly states, over and over again, that he hates the police, but no reason as to why is provided. The only history we are given about him is his criminal one — “three times charged for assaulting a police officer, just finished a ten-year stretch for stabbing a police officer and resisting arrest.” He definitely deserved to be brought to justice for almost killing someone, but we miss the reasoning that led him to pull the trigger in the first place. Maybe he had been brutalized by the police in the past. Maybe one of his friends or family members was killed by an officer. Maybe he just really does not like officers given the brutally violent history of the police force. None of these motivations excuse his crime, but they at least put it into context, which we are given for every single move that the officers on these shows make.
By humanizing law enforcement agents and refusing the same treatment to offenders, police procedurals present a vast oversimplification of crime in America. They suggest that criminals are, always were, and always will be criminal, and so we should treat them as such. Police procedurals also enforce the idea that there is always something to be afraid of when navigating our society, whether armed bank robbers, scorned ex-girlfriends wielding frying pans, or the “especially heinous” criminals featured on SVU. Who will be there to save the day? The police officers and FBI detectives, who always have the purest of intentions and keep our best interests at heart, will. Except when they don’t.