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Friday, May 27, 2022 — Houston, TX

The latent lies of the police procedural

By Kaylen Strench, Arts and Entertainment Editor     9/3/14 6:09am

For a while now, I have wanted to become a criminal attorney, so I naturally love cop shows. This summer in particular was stock full of Netflix binges of top-notch detective mysteries such as The Killing, Law and Order and the zany Twin Peaks. I watch them the way you eat potato chips: with great joy and very little thought. You know the plot –– the gruesome crime scene, the forensics that narrow down the suspect, the interrogations and, my personal favorite, the trial. It’s thrilling, it’s mentally stimulating and, most of all, it leaves the viewer with the satisfying feeling that the world is just. Cop shows are addictive because they allow the viewer to enter a realm that is distinctly private yet completely essential to society –– an illusion that can be substituted for the harsh realities and inequalities of the real-life criminal justice system.

Now, I need to say that I do not discredit the intelligence of the American people enough to think that they truly believe the TV-police procedural is a completely accurate representation of real public servants. However, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized how many subtle aspects of Law and Order I myself have assimilated into my conception of the U.S. legal system. And this is inherently problematic, because police procedure, unlike other aspects of American life, is largely hidden away from the public eye. In fact, Law and Order may be the only forum many people have to understand the way the criminal justice system works, and if it is flawed or too rosy, then the American people and policymakers may never have the impetus to begin the conversation to reform it.

For instance, while complexity is a necessity of entertaining mysteries, the moral dichotomy of most cop shows is pretty cliche. The police and prosecutors are the good guys, the criminals are the bad guys. The criminals are often framed as villains who make evil, immoral decisions, and the police are the heroes that lock them away. As the recent Ferguson events have demonstrated, this dichotomy is terribly flawed. There are bad cops, good cops, bad judges, convicts driven by life to commit terrible crimes, criminals who are wrongly convicted: The list goes on. For instance, the Innocence Project reports that there have been 317 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the U.S., 18 of which served time on death row. The Chicago Police Department was recently forced to conduct an internal investigation due to mass reports of police coercing prisoners into false confessions. Judges have been convicted for receiving kickbacks for unfairly sentencing people to fill private prisons. Further, as a Harris County D.A. I spoke with told me, many crimes are committed against people with equally long criminal records, or gang violence may lead a person to commit a crime to protect his or her family.

In reality, it seems that there is often a fine line between the morality of the people in the jail cell and the people standing outside of it. This is not to say that our system is corrupted beyond repair or that there aren’t wonderful public servants, but it does mean that there are important changes to the system that need to be made. The simple formula of the average police procedural is dangerous, because it discourages people with little exposure to the problems of the real system from questioning its injustices.

Shows need to take their cue from The Wire, a detective show lauded for its accuracy and focus on addressing social issues. Instead of purely framing the police procedural as fantastical and idealistic, it would be great if it could be used as a means to raise awareness about flaws in the system. And what’s not entertaining about corrupt judges, overzealous police officers and conviction-happy prosecutors? However, I realize this may be too much to ask of television producers. Instead I will ask you, the reader: If you love detective mysteries as much as I do, that’s fantastic, but please, watch intelligently and critically.

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