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‘The uprisings opened up the door’: the TV cop shows confronting a harmful legacy | US television

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There’s a moment of police harassment in the pilot of ABC’s cop drama The Rookie, which premiered in fall 2018, that’s so tangential to the plot you could easily miss it.

Three Mexican gardeners honk at the cruiser of an abrasive training officer, who then berates the gardeners as a “test” of his rookie trainee on her first day. The three mostly mute Mexican men are accessories to this characterization of the tough-guy officer and his flustered trainee, as the effect of the harassment on their lives goes unexplored – until a third season episode from earlier this year, in which the trainee asks the officer to imagine how the gardeners felt about the “terrorizing” encounter that, for them, was not a test. His admission that he “used” the gardeners is a startling example of on-air revision: a main character acknowledging a personal failure that is also the show’s failure to consider that the minority characters – in real life, the policed – were used to positively characterize its police officers.

It’s also the work of cultural consultants, experts on diversity and inclusion who advise TV producers and writers’ rooms on how to more responsibly and accurately portray law enforcement on television. Following last summer’s nationwide protests against anti-black police brutality, broadcast networks have increasingly turned to consultants to address the disconnect between the reality of racist policing and the lionized, mostly race-blind law enforcement seen on such popular shows as Law & Order, NCIS, Blue Bloods and Chicago PD. Before the protests, “the barrier was just getting people to recognize the urgency of changing these narratives,” said Kristen Marston, culture and entertainment advocacy director for Color of Change, who helped advise The Rookie’s third season. “The uprisings opened up the door.”

Outside help in TV writers’ rooms is not new: crime shows have, since the beginning of serialized TV, collaborated with ex-law enforcement advisers or police departments to depict seemingly realistic, unfailingly heroic policing; post-#MeToo movement, film and television productions turned en masse to intimacy coordinators to safely choreograph sex scenes. Cultural consultants such as Marston could become a new standard on crime shows – one tool to address how some of the most popular shows on television work as PR for a criminal justice system that is not the generally color-blind, fair, dramatic and effective one seen on screen.

Hollywood has long been one of the most influential forces in how Americans think about law enforcement, particularly for white people who are, as a group, less likely to have a harmful interaction with police. From Dragnet to Dirty Harry, NYPD Blue to Law & Order and its many spinoffs, film and television overwhelmingly present law enforcement as heroic, or at least acting with good intentions. Nowhere is this perspective – “cop-aganda” in which police are always the protagonists – more entrenched than in network procedurals. These shows, in which a stable roster of characters resolve a case within a single episode, have for the past decade composed anywhere from a fifth to over a fourth of all scripted network programming; NBC has an entire night devoted just to the Law & Order creator Dick Wolf’s trifecta of Chicago first responder shows (PD, Med and Fire); six of the top 10 most watched scripted broadcast shows in 2020 were crime procedurals.

A still from The Rookie
A still from The Rookie. Photograph: ABC/2021 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

These shows about a system which disproportionately targets people of color are overwhelmingly produced and written by white people. The landmark 2020 Color of Change study Normalizing Injustice, which examined broadcast crime series airing in 2018-2019, found that 86% of writers across 19 series were white, and five series had entirely white writers’ rooms. Despite depicting a criminal justice system that over-polices black Americans – black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and black and Latino people comprise 56% of incarcerated Americans (compared to 32% of the population at large) – all series except CBS’s Swat had 15% or less black writers, and nine series had none at all.

As in many industries, Hollywood responded to intense public pressure for change last summer with some immediate, once unthinkable actions. Paramount shelved the popular show Cops, the longest-running reality series in TV history, which for 33 years used questionably sourced footage of real arrests to valorize misconduct as a necessary policing measure and exaggerate the prevalence of violent crime. A day later, A&E cancelled a similar series, LivePD. CBS struck a groundbreaking deal with a police reform group founded by the executive of Obama’s taskforce on 21st-century policing, 21CP Solutions, to advise portrayals of police on its shows. The network also pledged 25% of its development budget to black, Indigenous and people of color (bipoc) creators, and promised its writers’ rooms would be, at minimum, 40% bipoc for the 2021-2022 season.

Showrunners and writers also went public with their personal intentions to embrace change. The cast of the NBC comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine donated $100,000 to the National Bail Fund. Donnie Wahlberg, star of CBS’s Blue Bloods, one of the more conservative cop procedurals on air, teased a “more mindful” upcoming season. Law & Order SVU’s executive producer and showrunner, Warren Leight, also pledged to re-examine the influence of the hero-cop narrative. “This has to be a moment where people make themselves uncomfortable, where people in power have to make themselves uncomfortable,” he told the Hollywood Reporter’s TV’s Top 5 podcast in June last year.

“I always tried to approach from a place of having cops trying to do the right thing,” Alexi Hawley, co-creator and showrunner of The Rookie, told the Guardian of the show’s early seasons. But after 2020, “it felt like being solely aspirational wasn’t good enough any more, that we were showing a version of policing that was alien to many people.”

The murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and the cultural reckoning over systemic racism that followed, pressured Hollywood to grapple with its productions’ responsibility in obfuscating and excusing the real criminal justice system’s harms – calls renewed this week after Chauvin became one of the few officers ever convicted for a fatal shooting in a system that overwhelmingly sees police use of force as justified. Nearly a year later, now that episodes conceived and written post-2020 have aired, the question is: how much is changing?

Law & Order: SVU.
Law & Order: SVU. Photograph: five

Television presents a version of the world which, as the Color of Change chief, Rashad Robinson, puts it in the intro for Normalizing Injustice, “license law enforcement to do whatever they think is right to catch the bad guy” and “justify and rationalize the actions of law enforcement and prosecutors no matter how many people get hurt along the way”.

Procedurals offer “a very simplified view of law and order and offending in general”, said Kathleen Donovan, a political scientist whose 2015 study analyzed the effect of police use of force on public perception. Crime is depicted as a static constant, though rates of violent and property crimes have declined sharply since the early 90s. Most TV crimes are violent and solved by the end of the episode, even though property crime is far more common than violent crime and police are far less effective at closing cases.

Shows like Law & Order: SVU, which solve sexual assault cases at triple the national rape case clearance rate of 33.4%, promote “fantasies of hyper-competence”, said Soraya McDonald, a cultural critic at the Undefeated, with “situations where police are always in the right”. Officers such as the longtime SVU anchor Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), whose disciplinary record of multiple lethal shootings is mentioned several times in his return to the series this month after a decade’s absence, “might not necessarily operate by the book, or neglect to give someone their Miranda rights, or will use some sort of subterfuge that is justified because it is neatly wrapped up”. The resolution of “see, we’ve caught the bad guy” almost always outweighs the ethical transgressions – breaking into a house unannounced, use of weapons, witness intimidation, roughing up a suspect, or just macho aggressiveness – deployed as “necessary” for the end.

Years of research have demonstrated how consumption of television news influences one’s perception of, say, the prevalence of local crime. Depictions of justified force and hyper-competency on scripted TV shows can similarly shape how positively people view police. The links are not directly causal, but subliminal, especially as Americans spent, on average, 2.8 hours a day watching TV in 2019. “It’s entirely plausible that people are changing their attitudes or forming perceptions based on what they’re watching repeatedly on TV, even if they tell you, ‘I know it’s not real,’” said Donovan.

Seeming “real” has been the aim since the earliest police procedurals, which began a long tradition of Hollywood productions acting as a mouthpiece for police departments. As Alyssa Rosenberg documented in her exhaustive, seminal 2016 Washington Post series on law enforcement in film and television, one of the first popular police procedurals, Dragnet, which premiered in 1951, worked in full collaboration with the LAPD and its police chief, William Parker, on storylines and logistical help, in exchange for script approval by the police.

The show set a model for how police and Hollywood could work together for mutually beneficial audience entertainment and standardized the use of real-life police consultants on crime shows. Crime staples such as ABC’s NYPD Blue and HBO’s The Wire – the show largely considered to be the most nuanced and challenging depiction of systemic flaws in law enforcement – were both heavily influenced by former police officers. Blue Bloods has a 30-plus year NYPD veteran, James Nuciforo, on retainer as a technical consultant.

A still from The Shield.
A still from The Shield. Photograph: Sony/Sony/Channel 4

Shows that challenged the police narrative were met with department resistance. Glen Mazzara, who co-created FX’s The Shield based on the real LAPD Rampart police corruption scandal, recalled tense conversations between Fox and the LAPD before the show aired in 2002. Presumably worried about the critical nature of the show , whose early prestige anti-hero Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) resorts to extrajudicial violence in a flash-bang unit, the LAPD threatened to withdraw standard security support for production, according to Mazzara, and refused to license their name. Characters in The Shield thus never say “LAPD” by name and wear fake badges on the wrong side of their uniforms. “In my opinion LAPD bullied Fox to make concessions to make sure that we would not in any way try to give a dramatization of the LAPD or the Rampart scandal,” he said.

The deference to the perspective of police is one of the mainstays of television made untenable after last year’s uprisings, according to Mazzara, who went on to serve as co-chair of the Writer’s Guild of America Diversity Advisory Group. Procedurals need to have writers who are “from the community who are coming up against cops”, he said. “We can’t just tell everything from the cops’ perspective. You need to show how people are encountering cops, how people are going through the criminal justice system, and how difficult that can be on individuals and families.”

“I don’t believe most showrunners understand the impact of how people see law enforcement,” said Mazzara. “Because for most showrunners in their profession, in which they’re in a cozy relationship with police consultants, they’re probably not engaging [with] law enforcement, and they’re probably not involved in the communities that are being heavily policed.”

One of the very few exceptions is Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, co-creator of CBS’s Swat and one of the few black showrunners in Hollywood. “As a showrunner of color and as a writer of color, I do feel an added responsibility that I’m not sure some of my peers feel, which is I’m very aware of the content that I put out and the impact it can have on those who perhaps do not have a voice or do not have a spotlight,” he told the Guardian.

A still from SWAT
A still from Swat. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images

Swat airs on a network whose audience skews older and whiter than America at large; at the start of last season, the age of its average viewer was 63, the oldest of the four broadcast networks. The CBS slot, said Thomas, offers “an opportunity to reach an audience who may, in some cases, very rarely interact with someone who looks or sounds or comes from the background as our main character”, Daniel “Hondo” Harrelson (Shemar Moore), a black former marine raised in south LA.

Thomas is careful to balance discussion of race and policing with the familiar adrenaline of action; the show’s 2017 pilot, for example, depicts protests in Hondo’s home neighborhood over the accidental killing of a black teenage bystander by one of Hondo’s Swat teammates. Hondo espouses a different method of policing than LAPD higher-ups, and urges his team to treat residents like civilians, like “family”; he also thwarts anarchist terrorists with action-cop standards: fast cars, big guns and explosions.

“The goal is never to proselytize with the show,” said Thomas. “The most effective way, a lot of times, to communicate with people is to guise it with the idea of bringing something of substance, entertainment-wise.”

While Swat addresses the reality of police brutality and racism far more directly than its peers – the fourth season premiere splices a teenage Hondo amid the 1992 LA riots with the adult Hondo in a Black Lives Matter march that ends with him kneeling before a mural of George Floyd – it’s still a high-octane action show in a unit defined by militarized weapons. The “most delicate dance”, said Thomas, is presenting the Swat team “as a life-saving unit” with the show’s entertainment action-genre hooks, especially as the protests put the over-militarization of police departments – the tanks, riot gear and military-grade weapons – under greater scrutiny.

As part of a recalibration of that balance, the Swat writing team has been more conscious about depicting gunfire by police in its fourth season, which premiered last November. “Ideally it should be the last resort instead of the first resort,” Thomas said, noting that writers have consciously prioritized uses of non-lethal force in its fourth season. “In the same way that we’re trying to be mindful of the images that we put out culturally and ethically we’re also trying to be aware of the type of violence that we’re perpetuating.”

The Rookie, meanwhile, has incorporated guidance from several cultural consultants into storylines that expand from “bad apple” individual to rotten tree system. Third-season storylines include intergenerational conflicts between black officers over how hard to push for reform; the difficulty, both in administrative hurdles and attitudes, of disciplining an officer who routinely profiles and harasses black residents; unhelpful white savior complexes at a community policing center in a predominantly black, underfunded neighborhood; and the perverse incentive for police to up-charge misdemeanors to felonies in order to induce plea deals.

The show’s central aspiration, in other words, has shifted from depicting police officers doing their work well to police departments handling systemic issues better. “For the first couple months, we were in listening mode and trying to figure out how to do it,” said Hawley. “We really took it on as a challenge to go ‘how many different ways can we talk about what the problem is and still be our show?’”

But not all shows are embracing the directness seen in Swat and The Rookie. Blue Bloods, which Slate called “the perfect white-privilege lullaby” in 2014 for its belief in police color-blindness in a fundamentally fair system, obliquely incorporates last year’s reckoning in its 11th season through pervasive anxiety among the force about bad PR. The character of Regina Thomas (Whoopi Goldberg), a city council speaker calling for police reform, acts as a benevolent foil to its star, the chagrined, ultimately sacrosanct Commissioner Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck); relieving the heat of the moment, for Frank and Blue Bloods, is portrayed as a matter of interpersonal niceties and common middle ground, rather than police reform. The arc of the season isn’t toward racial justice, or department introspection, so much as Frank Reagan’s balance of “the common good” and the show’s utmost value: loyalty to the police family.

A still from Blue Bloods.
A still from Blue Bloods. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images

Law & Order: SVU has found somewhat of a middle ground, with headline-lifting storylines that gently challenge its officers’ methodology without undermining their fundamental heroism. In its 22nd season premiere, a black internal affairs investigator calls out Detective Olivia Benson’s implicit racial biases after she arrests an innocent black man in an incident ripped directly from the viral video of Amy Cooper, a white woman, falsely accusing a black man of harassment in Central Park last summer. Another episode drops Detective Finn Tutuola, played by Ice-T, in a deposition for his fatal shooting, depicted in a prior season, of a black man who held a knife to his young son’s throat. New supervisors interrogate Stabler’s penchant for vengeance-fueled aggression; “we don’t do it this way any more,” Benson says after he threatens to beat up a mouthy suspect in his mid-season return. All three stress over how, as Benson puts it, “everything is being looked at through a different prism now.” The show processes public pressure for an updated playbook through personal reckonings – mistakes and shortcomings shown in a new light and then absolved by good intentions.

The relative stability of juggernaut shows like Blue Bloods and Law & Order, which gesture at shifting attitudes but don’t significantly change their formula, are part of the reason why some, such as Rosenberg, have called the genre itself compromised and outdated. How can shows so closely aligned with the centering of cop narratives tell more ethical, responsible stories?

Limited series which depict the fallibility of law enforcement, such as Netflix’s Unbelievable, which adapted a ProPublica story about an investigation into a serial rapist initially botched by disbelieving Seattle police officers, or the systemic racism in Watchmen, could point the way forward. As do renewals in genres such as romcoms and teen movies, which have updated sexist, heteronormative tropes to reflect audiences’ fluid, inclusive, queer realities.

If procedurals were more accurate to real life, “I think we would be alternately bored and disgusted by them,” said critic McDonald. The question is not so much a limitation of depicting law enforcement than of writers’ imaginations in how holistic, nuanced and oriented to make said depictions – writing which “actually reflects the truth of how people live”, said McDonald, “and how their lives are affected by policing”. What would a police show that centered bail reform or abolition movements or community alternatives to policing look like?

The Rookie and Swat are two shows which have started to embrace storytelling aimed at systemic brokenness. One of the positives of 2020, said Thomas, was finding an audience “that was ready to have actually more intelligent, more nuanced conversations about race, class, the challenges that occur between seemingly disparate elements when we’re talking about the community and police”.

“I’m personally seeing a change, where there’s certain things that I’m seeing people talk about on TV, on network shows, that I never would’ve imagined they would want to talk about,” said Marston of crime shows at large. But hiring a consultant is “not a replacement for a black writer”, she said, nor a remedy for an industry-wide failure to promote black talent beyond the lowest writers’ room ranks. “I’m there to talk about the issues surrounding the communities that the black writers shouldn’t have to know about if they don’t want to,” Marston said.

“I hope that we can at some point say that this is the new standard, the old practices are no longer acceptable,” she added. “I don’t think that we’re quite there yet.”

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Texas Deputy AG Apologizes for Slamming Simone Biles as ‘National Embarrassment’

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US gymnast Simone Biles received immense support from Americans this week after announcing she would not be competing in the Team USA final, nor the women’s individual all-around gymnastics final, due to personal mental health concerns. At the same time, the 24-year-old has received backlash from many individuals who viewed her pull-out as weak.

Aaron Reitz, deputy attorney general for Texas, took to Twitter on Wednesday evening to issue an apology to Biles, and recant a statement in which he panned the record-setting US gymnast as a “national embarrassment.” 

“In a moment of frustration and disappointment, I opined on subjects for which I am not adequately versed. That was an error. I can’t imagine what Simone Biles has gone through,” Reitz claimed. “Simone Biles is a true patriot and one of the greatest gymnasts of our time.”

“I apologize to her, and wish her well,” the deputy AG concluded, emphasizing that his “personal social media comments” do not represent the views of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, nor the Office of the Attorney General. 

Reitz’s since-deleted tweet against Biles, who was born in Texas and still resides in the Lone Star State, quoted another post that applauded the 1996 Olympic performance of Team USA gymnast Kerri Strug. Strug, one of the US’ “Magnificent Seven,” severely injured her ankle during the first half of the vault competition, but refused to bow out of the event and ultimately led her team to win the US’ first gold medal in women’s gymnastics. 

“Contrast this with our selfish, childish national embarrassment, Simone Biles,” Reitz said in his quote tweet. 

The deputy AG’s attempt at using Strug’s story to chastise Biles fell flat, as the two-time Olympian threw her support behind the 24-year-old on Tuesday. 

Furthermore, it is worth noting that Biles is no stranger to performing with adversity. When the US Women’s Gymnastics team took home gold at the 2018 World Championships in Qatar, Biles dominated in nearly every competition, despite intense stomach pains from what was later confirmed to be a kidney stone. 

Despite her pull-outs this year, Biles has continued to root for her fellow Team USA gymnasts. She also expressed in a Wednesday social media post that “the outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”



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Aid cuts make a mockery of UK pledges on girls’ education | Zoe Williams

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With all the fanfare Covid would allow, the global education summit opened in London this week. Ahead of the meeting, the minister for European neighbourhood and the Americas was on rousing form. “Educating girls is a gamechanger,” Wendy Morton said, going on to describe what a plan would look like to do just that.

The UK, co-hosting the summit with Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, plans to raise funds for the Global Partnership for Education, from governments and donors. The UK government has promised £430m over the next five years.

There followed a number of reasons why the issue is so important, all of them absolutely sound: on any given indicator, from GDP to infant health and beyond, a nation stands or falls by how well, for how long, and how inclusively it educates its girls.

The issue has never been more important than during this pandemic, which in many countries is hitting a peak having already affected girls disproportionately.

These are all the right words, even in the right order, yet they land completely at odds with the government’s behaviour.

Lis Wallace, head of advocacy at the One campaign, is most immediately concerned with these pledges being fully funded. There are two core targets: one is to increase girls’ access to education, the other is to boost the key milestone for all children – that they’re able to read and understand a simple story by the age of 10.

The past 18 months have been devastating for education, particularly in countries where it’s harder to access to online learning. About 1.6 billion children are out of school across the world. There’s a target to raise $5bn (£3.6bn), “which is a drop in the ocean of what is required to meet the global learning crisis”, Wallace says. It looks as though this summit will raise no more than $4bn, which is nothing less than a “failure of statecraft”, as Wallace explains: “It’s challenging when the host government is stepping back and making aid cuts for it then to ask other countries to step up.”

This is a depressing echo of the G7’s failure earlier this year; commitments to share vaccine doses with low-income countries came too little, too late, with devastating results, and it’s hard to avoid the question of whether that outcome would have been different if the host nation had role modelled some generosity.

Furthermore, there’s some confused causality in the minister’s assertion that staying in school protects girls from “forced child marriage, gender-based violence and early pregnancy”. The exact inverse is true: it is largely teenage pregnancy that forces girls out of school in the first place, and to try to use education in lieu of sexual health and reproductive provision is illogical.

Esi Asare Prah, who is a youth and advocacy officer in Ghana for MSI Reproductive Choices, describes a situation in which 5,000 to 7,000 girls drop out of school each year after becoming pregnant – last year, 2,000 of them were between 10 and 14. Across sub-Saharan Africa, MSI estimates that up to 4 million girls drop out or are excluded from school every year due to pregnancy.

“These girls are most likely to be on the street, doing menial jobs; their children will not make it into higher education. It creates a cycle of poverty and a cycle of slums. For me, the foundation of it is that you can’t seek to invest in education for girls in sub-Saharan Africa and cut down funding for sexual and reproductive health. If you treat development issues as isolated, you will have the same issues of 50 years ago chasing you into the future.”

Here, the recent cuts to the aid budget make a mockery of these pledges on education: UK funding to the UN Population Fund recently went down by 85%.

There is inspiration to take from this summit, nevertheless; President Kenyatta has been leading the charge not only on education but also on the climate crisis, and there is a solidarity and sense of purpose between poorer nations that may yet inspire greater generosity from donors. Whatever it achieves, though, it will be despite its UK host not because of them.

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[Ticker] US backs WHO plan for further Covid-origin investigation

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US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.

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