How crime shows like 'Law & Order' skew our sense of police behavior

Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty Images

A new study from the racial justice organization Color of Change found that TV shows about law enforcement have functioned as excellent public relations for police officers. The organization published the 152-page report, Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television's Scripted Crime Genre, which evaluated 26 different scripted crime dramas and how they influence perceptions of crime.

Of those 26 shows, only five had showrunners that weren’t white men. Only six of the 26 shows employed one or more black writers. When people of color were on the show, they were predominantly portrayed as the perpetrators of crimes, and rarely as victims.

"The narratives that are coming out of Hollywood — for profit— are fueling some of the incentives that we're seeing in our country, fueling people's understanding of what they think justice should look like. It also makes it harder for us to push back against injustice,” Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change, told Shadow and Act. "Police on these shows are constantly doing bad things but are either being rewarded or are able to give a speech about why they had to do it.”

If you’ve ever seen a crime procedural, you likely won’t find much of this information surprising. Law and Order SVU, as beloved a show as it is, was based around former Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein. Fairstein was one of the women who put the now exonerated Central Park Five behind bars before it was discovered that the crime was actually committed by one man.

In the very first season of the show, the term “wolf pack” is used by Detective Olivia Benson, a character who would later go on to be a symbol of justice for sexual assault survivors all over the world. The term was used to put the Central Park Five in prison — Fairsten used the term to describe her version of events; that the teenage boys roamed the park, “wilding,” hunting out their victims.

It wouldn’t be the only time the show would rely on tropes that perpetuated injustice. Detective Elliot Stabler, who was on the show until its eleventh season, was known to beat confessions out of suspects. Sometimes, they were guilty, sometimes they were innocent. Because of the framing of the series, which dealt with “particularly heinous crimes,” viewers could empathize with Detective Stabler even at his most unhinged.

In reality, his tactics are illegal and inefficient. Crimes aren’t solved by forced confessions, the world is made no safer by law enforcement behaving like Elliot Stabler. But over the course of dozens of episodes on a major network Stabler’s violence is softened. Color of Change’s study calls this the “Good Guy Endorser” ratio.

“Almost all series depicted bad behavior as being committed by good people, thereby framing bad actions as relatable, forgivable, acceptable and ultimately good,” the study states. “Remarkably, the data shows that scripted crime series depicted “Good Guy” Criminal Justice Professionals committing wrongful actions far more than they depicted “Bad Guys” doing so. The likely result? Viewers feeling that those bad behaviors are actually not so bad, and are acceptable (even necessary) norms.”

And Law and Order SVU is one of the more nuanced procedurals out there. Shows like The Closer, Blue Bloods, NCIS, Criminal Minds, CSI — these shows regularly end in the shooting death of the suspect.

Even as the casts of these shows become more diverse — it’s no longer white cops, white lawyers, white judges — the diversity on screen is not backed by diversity in production. “A lot of these shows have worked to diversify their casts...what we oftentimes see are people of color in all sorts of roles and in the last couple of years, people of color in law enforcement," Robinson said. "However the writers' rooms haven't actually changed. So you have justice written by white writers put through the mouths of elderly, stately Black judges, or police officers who never speak out against what's happening in the system. As a result, it paints a very false picture."

Color of Change has made recommendations in their report on ways that crime shows can improve these disparities, and prevent perpetuating harmful myths about the criminal justice system. They divided the recommendations into series practices and industry practices. At the level of individual shows, they recommend doing things like setting representation goals and stop depicting unrealistic relationships between public defenders and their clients.

Their suggestions are phenomenally detailed and could provide the groundwork for extensive change in an industry that has assisted in perpetuating myths about crime in the United States. The question is, will some of primetime's longest running series find any incentive to make those changes?