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.”
“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.