Saying Goodbye to Law & Order

NBC / Getty / The Atlantic

Growing up, I wanted to work in law enforcement. Actually, what I wanted was based on a television franchise I began watching as a teenager: Law & Order. Dick Wolf’s world of procedural crime dramas, the good guys working via the legal system to catch the bad, mesmerized me throughout high school and into college. In particular, I fell in love with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, following Detectives Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler as they brought criminals to justice.

Benson and Stabler made me want to be one of those good guys, but it was their colleague Detective Odafin Tutuola, the street-savvy black cop on the same elite squad, who welcomed me. Cop-centered dramas brought with them a specific struggle for someone like me, a black boy from a poor family in a poor city who was interested in law enforcement: the struggle to reconcile heroic depictions of police with warnings of their danger. To be interested in cops was to wedge my beliefs between the pop culture that wanted my attention and the stories of state-sanctioned violence against black people passed down from parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.

My relationship to policing has a “before” and an “after.” My “before” involved episodes of Disney’s Bonkers, elementary-school D.A.R.E. visits, and pointing at the beautiful German shepherds from police K-9 units throughout the city and asking if I could pet them. My “after” was thankfully less tragic than what could have been, less a singular event than a gradual education and personal hardening in my teens as I was pulled over by the police almost monthly.

Recommended Reading

Fictional depictions of black cops played a big role in sustaining my interest in policing. I began to see them more and more often as pop culture started to diversify. The year 1989 brought Family Matters and introduced the family-friendly black police officer Carl Winslow; 1994 saw the premiere of New York Undercover, with the dark-skinned black actor Malik Yoba as Detective J. C. Williams and Michael DeLorenzo as his Puerto Rican partner, Eddie Torres; one year later came Bad Boys, pairing two of the highest-profile black actors of the day, Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, in what would become an $800 million franchise spanning three decades. They were the bridges between police gallantry onscreen and a culture of black anti-police sentiment in real life. Detective Tutuola was but one of a growing number of black detectives who could understand police bias and still be valorized as a good guy, proof you could have it both ways.

In college, I built friendships based on a shared love of Law & Order. My roommate was white and from an affluent suburb of Detroit, but our obsession with police movies instantly bonded us. We detailed our favorite cop duos to one another: Bad Boys II had recently premiered, with Marcus Burnett and Mike Lowrey returning for an action-comedy bromance that combined funny with sexy. S.W.A.T. had Colin Farrell and Samuel L. Jackson, Showtime had Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy, Training Day had Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke. Law & Order: SVU ran in daily syndication on our dorm-room television. As my interest shifted from law enforcement to law school, I started watching SVU’s short-lived spin-off, Conviction, following Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot training a young group of new prosecutors.

My “after” came from the classroom. I learned about broken-windows theory and the “dark figure” of crime, took classes with titles like “Crime Media and Culture,” and read assigned books like Armed & Dangerous: Memoirs of a Chicago Policewoman. One professor mocked my favorite shows, which included The Shield and the newly popular and growing CSI franchise; the fantasy of television crime dramas can affect real life, he explained, citing jurors who ask why police didn’t run the serial number from a tooth filling or pull fingerprints from thin air. The veneer of Law & Order wore off, replaced by a closer examination of my life experiences and the challenges of real-life policing.

My teen naïveté was obvious, but a media culture that fetishizes law enforcement reflects a long-standing cultural disconnect from black Americans. Too often, cop-centered stories portray its stars as heroes and ignore the broader failures that leave black people on the receiving end of police bias. And while it would seem easy to take predominantly white police stories and diversify them with black actors—a plug-and-play approach to representation—that method becomes a double-edged sword when fictional black police bolster a status quo narrative.

Still, black hero-cop stories continue to build steam across movie genres, from comedies like Bad Boys for Life, to dramas like 21 Bridges, to comedy-dramas like BlacKkKlansman, to horror films like Body Cam. A history of bias in policing is largely sidelined to keep the focus on worthy persons. Detective Tutuola can acknowledge racism and Officer Winslow can stand up to the officer who profiled his son, but these characters tend to highlight individual goodness inside a compromised institution.

Despite current outcries to demilitarize, defund, or altogether abolish the police after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, according to one recent poll, more than half of Americans still don’t see police violence as a “very serious problem.” If stories play a role in shaping public opinion, the legacy of American cop narratives has mostly functioned as escapist storytelling for white comfort at the expense of black experience: Crimes are solved in an hour and the good guys tend to win, when in reality fewer than half of reported violent and property crimes are solved. These shows can’t faithfully address systemic racism and the reality of police violence any more than white-savior narratives can faithfully reflect black achievement.

Even in its critiques of policing, crime dramas typically suffer from a failure of imagination. Few shows have done as well as The Wire in featuring police officers evenly with both corruption and valor, but only by decentering them did The Wire become an example of pop culture taking a sincere approach to law enforcement’s race problem. It featured policing alongside other crucial elements, such as government, education, news media, importing, and street dealers. The show’s third season, which imagined a neighborhood called Hamsterdam where drugs were legal, operated as a what if exercise: What if, instead of criminalization, an American city considered drug use a public-health issue? When crime fell by 14 percent, a local deacon and community leader named Deacon spoke with Howard Colvin, the police officer who had informally legalized drugs in the neighborhood. “No offense, but you’re like the blind man and the elephant,” the deacon told Colvin. “It’s a lot bigger than what you got your hand on; you just can’t see it.”

“See what?”

“A great village of pain, and you’re the mayor. Where’s your drinking water? Where’s your toilets? Your heat, your electricity? Where’s the needle truck? The condom distribution? The drug-treatment intake?”

Hamsterdam fell short of addressing drug abuse as a matter of public health, but one of its lessons was that crime dramas don’t need to be police dramas. Shows like FX’s The Shield capture the difficulty of police reform, and HBO’s Watchmen imagines officers whose guns are locked, needing specific clearance to unholster them; even standard procedurals like the Law & Order franchise allow criminals to slip away as a critique of a system that can fail. Yet across TV, I still see no Hamsterdam focused on alternatives to policing, no setting that envisages public safety through mental-health care, crisis managers, and community patrols. Television has the opportunity to influence public opinion the way it once did via the popularization of the police drama, this time replacing cop stories with a fuller picture.

In 2011, the actor Christopher Meloni left Law & Order: SVU following failed contract negotiations, a few years after my taste for such characters (and desire for a career in law enforcement) had soured. Stabler had been the firebrand detective who was combative and intimidating, and who openly fantasized about killing defendants. His departure was abrupt but not without meaning, even if unintentional, amid a real-world context: Instructed to attend anger management and have his conduct investigated by Internal Affairs, he refused and quit. Portrayals of aggressive cops felt ever more tone-deaf in the ensuing years, as the nation learned the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many others. Still, SVU pressed on, alongside other primetime network dramas like Blue Bloods, Chicago P.D., and NCIS. New police-centered shows such as L.A.’s Finest, Tommy, and The Rookie were green-lit. In 2020, SVU aired its record-breaking 21st season to become the longest-running live-action primetime television show in history—the same year that protests against police violence spread around the world.

Earlier this month, NBC announced that Elliot Stabler would return to Law & Order: SVU for its 22nd season; he would also get his own spin-off, called Law & Order: Organized Crime. Detective Tutuola, meanwhile, is still in the Special Victims Unit, working within the system. Cop-centered narratives are unlikely to end, but my time with them has.