Victims of TVHollywood Cop Shows Distort Our View of Crime
"Brooklyn South," a new CBS crime drama, exploded into our living rooms this fall with the mass murder of several police officers at the hands of a young African-American man.In the show, the young man walks up to a police officer, pulls out a semiautomatic pistol and opens fire. Police die. Other police engage the young man in a running gunfight. An unidentified sniper opens fire on the police. More police die. Viewers see a police officer's head explode as a bullet hits it, and then see and feel the pain of the police officers' friends, family and lovers. We recoil in horror at the evil nature of these brutal crimes. Just another night on television. Crime is becoming an ever more potent catchword in the national lexicon of things evil and dreaded. We abhor crime. We hate criminals. And we have learned to do so largely by watching television. As a nation, we have become inordinately harsh on citizens whom we name "criminal." Since 1980, the number of prisoners and parolees in the criminal justice system has more than tripled, to roughly 5.6 million. Of these, 1.7 million, or about 623 of every 100,000 people in the United States, are in prison or jail. In recent years we earned the dubious distinction of being first, among Western industrial societies, in locking our citizens up. And still, public opinion polls indicate the vast majority of the nation's adults believe we are not harsh enough. Television (and, to an extent, movies) may be contributing to this trend. Because we watch through the viewpoint of the hero or heroine, we absorb the story through that point of view. Crime drama heroes and heroines are mostly police officers, and to a lesser degree prosecuting attorneys and victims seeking revenge. These shows, which make up the greatest number of new programs this fall, ask us to see the world through the eyes of the Hollywood law enforcement persona -- eyes that have little tolerance for civil rights and civil liberties. Hollywood police and prosecutors seldom get the wrong "perp," so those accused or suspected by the police are essentially criminals, not essentially citizens. Citizens' guaranteed constitutional rights become the "rights of criminals," which are just nasty impediments to the cops' goal of getting the criminals behind bars. In fact, the Hollywood Cop is seldom scripted as ill-meaning or wrong, even when violating the rights of citizens. Back in "Brooklyn South," the Hollywood Cops corner the cop killer, who holds a female hostage. A white male cop frees the woman, and the Hollywood Cops shoot the gun-wielding criminal twice in the chest. The still-living criminal is hauled into the precinct house, where grieving cops kick him in the side again and again. The young black man dies from these kicks. Of course, Hollywood Cops have only the best of intentions, so we end up feeling good about police brutality when we watch these protectors of the public intentionally inflict pain on another human. But the "Brooklyn South" sniper is still at large. The show's Hollywood Cops take to the streets to find out who in that block has a rifle. Two of them find a lowlife who knows a little about everything. One of the Hollywood Cops grabs the lowlife's shirt collar and, in a classic bit of crime drama formula, slams him against a metal fence. The sniveling, cowardly lowlife coughs up the skinny on the sniper. The viewer is invited to feel excited: The hunt is on. We understand Hollywood Cops can't wait for niceties such as search warrants if they are to save lives and bring justice to the streets, so we don't mind when these public servants find a way to circumvent the Constitution and do an illegal search. The Hollywood Cops lure the suspected sniper -- another African American -- from his home on a bogus pretext. There is no pretense about Miranda warnings or his right to an attorney. Instead, he is bullied into admitting he has a rifle and is arrested. "Brooklyn South" is scripted to tell viewers that African Americans who make claims about police brutality are unreasonable. In the show, the sister of the slain cop-killer intrudes on the cops' grief with demanding questions and shrill accusations. She, her family and their minister are scripted as intrusive, insensitive pariahs with concerns that are inappropriate to the situation. The emotional manipulations scripted into "Brooklyn South," typical of modern crime dramas, demand that the viewer maintain identification with the Hollywood Cop.Add this to the mix: News coverage and fictional depictions of crime exaggerate the real rate of crime, especially the rate of horrific crime. The exaggeration increases the emotional intensity of the drama, and bonds viewers to the show's heroine or hero. In "Brooklyn South," the daughter/sister of a Hollywood Cop is so familiar with cops being killed in the line of duty that she displays sadness, but not shock, at the deaths. In reality, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty is similar to, or lower than, the nation's homicide rate. Americans believe crime rates to be cycling upward, even though the twice-annual National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the Department of Justice, indicates the rate of violent criminal victimization has been falling for more than two decades. So if crime seems to be down, why do we fear it more each year? The answer could be because Hollywood Cops show us who the dangerous criminals are when they harass, torture, arrest and kill them. In Hollywoodland, not just "Brooklyn South," these people aren't usually white; if white, they have long hair, are poor or are strong and aggressive women. The specific characteristics of the Hollywood Criminal are too close for comfort to the characteristics of people we have been locking up. The proportion of nonwhite prison and jail inmates increased from about 48 percent in 1980 to about 60 percent in 1995. The number of African-American males incarcerated per 100,000 increased from 1,111 in 1980 to 2,920 in 1993. The number of women in prison increased about five times. As a society, we seem to find this state of affairs to be expected. After all, aren't these people criminal, morally repugnant, to be abhorred? "Brooklyn South" seems to be on the cutting edge of modern crime dramas. CBS pitches it in its on-line hype as an examination of the "devil's pact between the cops and these citizens." The network's spin artists even write, "The rule is simple: Don't trust a cop until you need one, but when you need one, the rules go out the window." One could hope that this show would simply vanish, but its creator, Steven Bochco, has a good track record, originating shows including "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue." The problem is the crime drama formula itself. In these increasingly common fictional venues, we learn to see ourselves as avengers and victims, and learn to exaggerate the rate of crime and misconstrue the rate of crime. We learn to fear and hate the faces of real people, those who are criminal or belong to crime-prone groups. And in these fictional venues, we learn to tolerate the loss of our rights and to be intolerant to others. The lesson learned may lead us to hold the door open for the emergence of postmodern totalitarian oppression. And that would really be a crime.SIDE BARCrime by numbers2/3: Fraction of all American adults who believe crime is increasing.520 :Number of property crime victimizations per 100,000 households in 1973.280: Number of property crime victimizations per 100,000 households in 1995.67 : Percentage of the nation's adults who believe there should be a greater number of crimes punishable by death.98 : Percentage of American households with at least one TV set at the beginning of 1993.64: Percentage of households in 1993 with two or more TVs.292: Number of people per 100,000 who were behind bars in 1990.5.6 million: Number of American adults who are incarcerated or under the control of the criminal justice system.70: Percentage of American adults who believe that current laws and regulations to protect communities from crime "do not go far enough."54.3: Percentage of college freshmen in 1969 who agreed with the statement, "There is too much concern for the rights of criminals." 71.6: Percentage of freshmen who agreed with that statement in 1996.89: Percentage of 1994 felony convictions which resulted from a guilty plea.6: Percentage of people convicted of felonies in 1994 who had a jury trial.14.5: Percentage by which a television viewer's metabolism is lower than that of someone lying in bed.10: Number of times crime is more prevalent on TV than in the real world.22: Acts of violence per hour in 1980's most violent prime-time show.60: Acts of violence per hour in 1992's most violent prime-time show.56: Percentage increase in the murder rate among the white population in South Africa, in the nine years following the introduction of television in 1974.Sources: The Bureau of Justice Statistics; the National Opinion Research Center; Louis Harris and Associates; the Higher Education Research Institute; Memphis State University; Advertising Age; Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania; National Coalition on Television Violence; the University of Washington.Compiled by Jim Julian and Alisa GordaneerJim Julian is an assistant professor of sociology at Central Michigan University who studies the mass media.