How TV crime shows erase racism and normalize police misconduct
2020-01-25 | Since 10 Month
Valencia Gunder knows the inaccuracies of television crime dramas all too well. As a criminal justice activist, she’s often the only voice in the room representing women or people of color.
Known by her Miami community as the “Modern Day Fannie Lou Hamer” after the civil rights activist, Gunder shares her own story of incarceration in 2010 to advocate for inmate and gender rights. Part of the work, she said, is combatting preconceived notions based on stereotypes perpetuated by the media.
“I usually get the shock factor,” she says as she describes her experience bouncing from detention facility to detention facility and being denied feminine products. “Television doesn’t show you when we’re treated like animals and denied basic necessities.”
The distorted reality portrayed on the small screen promotes dangerous tropes about criminal justice, according to Color of Change, a progressive not-for-profit civil rights organization. In the group’s latest study, researchers looked into 26 scripted series focused on crime from the 2017–2018 season, on broadcast networks and streaming platforms.
The study analyzed the role crime dramas play in “advancing distorted representations of crime, justice, race and gender in media and culture” and their “real societal consequences”. “The crime genre glorifies, justifies and normalizes the systematic violence and injustice meted out by police, making heroes out of police and prosecutors who engage in abuse, particularly against people of color,” the report finds. Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, said the consequences of these inaccurate portrayals “create a culture and system where people think the justice system is fair and is working”. That goes against the data and the realities on the ground, he added.
“Imagine if medical shows were giving out bad facts about cancer or HIV or diabetes,” Robinson said. “These shows, for years, have been perpetuating myths about how the system works. And those myths educate people who serve on our juries.”
According to the study, television and streaming shows almost always ignore racial disparities in the criminal justice system, from who’s committing crimes to how prosecutors are treated.
“Attorneys of color get way less respect, even by clients,” said Brittany Gail Thomas, an attorney and former public defender in Brooklyn and Baltimore. “You have to fight against the grain for being black or Latina.”
Misrepresentations often skew public perception of how the criminal justice system works. The study says shows are so far behind real-life conversations of police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct that it results in portrayals of injustice associated with racial bias – including profiling, excessive force, coerced plea bargains, and over-sentencing – being dismissed as part of the status quo. Most shows consistently “depicted the standard, day-to-day practices of criminal procedures (and their outcomes) as race neutral”, the study says, when the reality is race is almost always a factor in even mundane law enforcement operations.
Normalizing injustice and racism
Criminal justice shows include law enforcement officials who are bad apples. But most audiences wouldn’t know it. That’s because the study found that misconduct is often presented on screen in a way that normalizes it, making problematic characters seem good and their wrongful actions justified.
Slamming a suspect against the wall during an illegal search isn’t a harmless, routine part of the pursuit of justice. But in 18 of 26 programs, the study found that when the “good guy” commits offenses like these, the officer is seldom considered “bad”.
Instead, anything a law enforcement or justice system official does “is inherently ‘right’ and ‘good’ by virtue of it being done by ‘a beloved main character’,” according to the report. Thomas admits to yelling at her own television when characters commit known violations.
“I’d be interested in a program about prosecutors who mishandle their power, or a black man being treated poorly by a court staff and how he handles it,” she said. “[Audiences] need that juxtaposition.”
According to Color of Change, only six discussions about possible solutions and reforms to the criminal justice system occurred in more than 350 episodes of the 26 television and streaming programs. Framing wrongful actions as relatable, forgivable, acceptable and ultimately good is what Robinson calls the promotion of injustice.
“Crime exists because of a whole set of root causes and these shows paint a very different picture of that under the guise of imitating reality,” Robinson said. “Because we are educated by TV, it incentivizes folks wanting a type of law and order that doesn’t protect the victims or keep us safe.”