Most Americans never engage with police in a way that reveals the true depth of their eagerness to be bad guys. (For the record I have had this experience in a way not dissimilar from how Eric Garner and George Floyd were treated and here’s the kicker: I’m white.) There is a reason why juries don’t convict cops of murder and assault even those murders and assaults are videotapes. There is a reason why Americans by the millions are eager to overlook cops beating up on suspects.
It is because Hollywood has conditioned them to think that the only suspects who get treated this way are the guilty ones. Movies and television shows routinely portray cops as catching the bad guys when, in fact, most crimes go unsolved. Those that are solved are usually the result of pure luck or really dumb decisions by the guilty parties. Detectives do not solve most crimes. Most criminals are caught because they run a red light, drive a stolen car or are just plain stupid enough to get involved in a chase. This is a truth that is never shown on television. Crime shows have been around since television has been around and the only time you ever see a cop beating up an innocent suspect is when that cop has been singled out as bad and must be made an example.
Here’s the sick, sad truth: From Det. Joe Friday to whatever cop is the main character of the most popular crime show on TV as you read this, they NEVER beat up an innocent suspect or even put an innocent suspect in jail. The cops on TV ALWAYS get their man and that man is ALWAYS guilty. And here’s the sicker, sadder truth: this has conditioned Americans to expect that the same applies in real life. And here is where it gets sickest and saddest: we are okay with cops beating up guilty people. After all, they deserve it. The connection is clear: if the cops on television always get their man, that must have something to do with real life, right? And if Dirty Harry and other dirty cops on the silver screen violate the Constitution to get their man—who is always the right guy since they are never wrong—then it must be okay for this to work in real life.
If you really want to understand why cops—as a general rule, not as a couple of bad apples poisoning the barrel—violate civil rights and engage in extreme and excessive abuse of their authority, then look no further than you television. The box has been conditioning generations for more seventy-five years to accept that cops never get the wrong guy and so any abusive behavior is only in the service of sending the guilty party to jail. There is good news, however, because conditioning can be undone and reversed.
All that is required is for Hollywood to begin writing honestly about cops. Episodic television where the abusive cop is not a guest star who gets fired, but the star or sidekick who doesn’t even get disciplined. Show the truth, Hollywood! It is not just in the best interest of fixing the law enforcement problem in this country, it is your responsibility for having contributed in a major way to the problem which needs fixing.