Fictional police portrayed on TV present a misleading narrative of law enforcement. Cop shows have perpetuated a cycle of glorifying police brutality and police misconduct. This disconnect between TV’s idealization of cops and how some actually conduct themselves paints a false narrative surrounding the effectiveness of the justice system.
“Dragnet”, a 1960s police procedural, was based on real-life cases, and had over 16.5 million viewers each week. One of their regular younger viewers was Dick Wolf who later became the creator of the long-running “Law & Order”, which first aired in 1990. Wolf created his own iconic preamble to the show with the instantly recognizable closing line “These are their stories.” Rooting such media in true-story events is of critical importance to such franchises.
Although the episodes originate from actual “ripped from the headlines” cases, the final scripts do not extend beyond the loose foundation set by the facts of the crimes presented. The storylines springboard from cherry-picked facts from actual cases, then go beyond taking creative license into a fictional narrative for more compelling episodes.
Police departments are oftentimes portrayed as going to great lengths to solve a case, which unfortunately is not reality. Similar to
“Dragnet”, “Law & Order” also had an unusually close relationship with the police departments who served as technical consultants, if not muses. The franchise’s most popular spinoff, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”, is based on the central theme of the police stopping at nothing to catch a perpetrator. Despite its skewed and biased representation, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” has had positive impacts on its audience. Lead actor, Mariska Hargitay, who plays Detective Olivia Benson, has spoken about real-life victims sharing their personal experiences with her about their assault. Other viewers told her they know how to defend themselves and what to do because of what they learned from the show. But if “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” encourages victims to report crimes and to have faith in the justice system, it is worth knowing that the same system is set up to fail them.
Instead of showing the flaws of law enforcement practices and procedures, Wolf presents a world in which the police treat every victim fairly. Biases and racism exist in Dick Wolf’s justice system and that is a reality hidden in this franchise. TV dramas frame the police as righteous saviors who are on the right side of the law in a system that treats everyone justly, which does not mirror reality. George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Manuel Ellis, Atatiana Jefferson, and Stephon Clark are some of the people who were (allegedly) killed by the police who are supposed protect and serve the public. That humanity can live in a utopia with peace and justice for all is a fantasy that is unlikely to become reality.
And, yes, this franchise is fictional. But even with heroes like Olivia Benson, audiences also have other “heroic cops” (like Elliot Stabler) who use excessive force on suspects that lead to confessions. When the police use aggressive, and sometimes violent, tactics to interrogate suspects, it is all in pursuit of desired outcomes. These tactics rarely result in a true confession. Law & Order continues to show a world where there is no accountability from police. This franchise is a televised recruiting poster and propaganda for a glorified narrative of the NYPD.
“Law & Order”is a world where the police have the best intentions, work for the people, and seek justice for victims—a world in which the ends justify the means. So Detective Stabler can go ahead beat a suspect, as long as the victim gets “justice”. “Law & Order” is a marketing machine for a fairy tale and a creation by someone who has hero worship for law enforcement. Wolf is peddling a fantasy of the police—a fantasy that people are more than willing to believe. But audiences need to understand that they are consumers of a defective product that will not result in an impartial justice system.