After Decades of Crime TV Shows, It’s Time We Shift the Narrative

Afton Williamson, left, and Nathan Fillion in ABC’s “The Rookie.”
Afton Williamson, left, and Nathan Fillion in ABC’s “The Rookie.”
Photo: ABC

Some of the most popular crime shows are returning with new seasons in the next few weeks, and it’s time to have an honest, serious conversation about how they are going to impact our society as so many people consume these stories about police and the criminal justice system.

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These addicting and familiar shows will dangle false narratives about law enforcement as saviors rather than the oppressors we’ve seen them to be over and over again. This moment though, provides a unique window of opportunity for storytellers to shift the way they depict conversations about policing. It is also a unique moment for all of us as consumers to think critically about the stories that we’re being told, especially after this past summer’s racial reckoning shattered any illusion that Black people are safe within the criminal justice system. It is a reality that is more widely accepted than ever before, but seemingly at odds with the enduring popularity of one American institution—crime TV.

For decades crime-related shows have played a major role in shaping our society. The stories they tell often push harmful, even deadly, narratives about Black people, police and the criminal justice system. In fact, it’s now well proven that these popular shows often glamorize police and lead to the criminalization of Black people.

These shows, in many cases, repeatedly convince viewers that crime is exploding—even when crime rates hit historic lows. They convince viewers that police and prosecutors’ actions are always helpful, while Black-portraying people as inherently dangerous, fueling racist stereotypes. Across the board, Hollywood continues to glorify a criminal justice system that harms so many Black people while robbing us of our stories and our truths.

This peddling of false and racist narratives isn’t surprising when television writers’ rooms and showrunners are predominantly white and male. In the 2017-18 season, our Normalizing Injustice report found that 78 percent of writers were white, 81 percent of showrunners were white men, and three series had 100 percent white writers. While police officers or other members of the judicial system are brought in as experts to consult on scripts and storylines, activists and advocates for justice reform have historically been left out of those conversations, leaving our voices unheard and the realities of our stories untold.

This year, we need to continue to stand up and demand television content that tells the reality of our experiences and we’ve got to be wary about the messages these shows embed into our communities. The police (and wannabe police) killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks were seen by millions and the uprisings their lives inspired showed us firsthand the consequences of normalizing depictions of police not facing the consequences of their actions. And without change, the new slate of crime TV shows will likely tell the same old story—giving law enforcement the benefit of the doubt, showing protests as a form of violence and presenting Black experiences through white producers, for white audiences.

But there is hope. In the past year, my team has sat down with over 24 of the biggest, most popular crime procedurals to help them avoid narratives that are harmful to Black communities. Shows like The Rookie, which is airing its third season this month, worked extensively to incorporate the feedback from our Normalizing Injustice research study and to depict the realities of the problematic systems that enable and encourage violence against our communities.

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The crime TV shows that we’ll start watching again are so popular because, while feelings of fear and isolation, it’s only natural to seek the comfort of what some call an “empathy machine”—investing in characters and situations beyond our own life experiences through our laptops and phones. But the stories we tell matter and there are better, more realistic stories to be told that don’t harm Black people.

No crime TV show will ever be perfect because our criminal justice system itself is built upon a foundation of white supremacy. By their mere existence, shows about law enforcement and the criminal justice system act as a publicity for police. However, so long as these shows still exist, we must continue to pressure their writers and producers to tell more accurate representations of Black people, policing and the criminal justice system.

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Kristen Marston is the culture and entertainment advocacy director at Color Of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization.

DISCUSSION

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TV trains us, Black/white/and other, to believe the empathetic cops break the rules to help the downtrodden or get to the truth. That’s why people who are hassled in real life try to reason and explain while their getting approached, hit, tasered and arrested. Then Law & Order trained us to hope that the bad cops are gonna be reined in by their bosses or that detectives will relentlessly pursue the truth and dedicated prosecutors are gonna interview witnesses and convince them to do the right thing. Nobody is doing any of it. That’s part of why by the time people get to prison, they’re completely disillusioned. So yeah, it is time to change the paradigm. Decide who our heroes should be and build shows around various iterations of what they do.