From its inception, Hollywood has been used to indoctrinate audiences into believing that, no matter what, the American establishment and its numerous branches of heavily militarized patriots are the good guys.
While the on-screen American military, air-force and navy ‘protected’ Americans by killing civilians on a different continent, and while government officials were portrayed as hardworking and in pursuit of freedom and democracy, media portrayals of the police had the potential to translate an abstract concept of nationalism into one that hit closer to home for most Americans. While military expeditions were overseas, the police were right there. They were in civilian cities and neighbourhoods, in and among the common people — nearby and ready to act, or ‘to serve and protect.’
Hollywood’s long history of police propaganda has entered the spotlight in recent weeks following the murders by police of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the latest victims of an establishment pervaded by systemic racism and unchecked violence. Protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have been ongoing since May 26, beginning in Minneapolis, where Floyd was murdered, and spreading across the US and around the world.
This in turn has prompted a critical examination of structures and narratives that enable police violence to continue unquestioned — one of which is the portrayal of law enforcement in film, TV and popular culture. Last week, the ‘reality’ TV show Cops was cancelled after 32 seasons. Shortly after, Live PD, another police show, was axed. But still, few are talking about what is arguably the most beloved cop show of today, Brooklyn Nine-Nine (B99).
While the show’s entire premise perpetuates the ‘good cop’ archetype, B99’s particular brand of police propaganda — also known as ‘copaganda’ — stands apart from the rest due to its portrayal of cops as people who are just like us, making it all the more dangerous.
While the vast majority of copaganda shows have leaned towards a more conservative political attitude, Brooklyn Nine-Nine breaks that mould by positioning its characters as explicitly liberal and progressive — taking the manipulation of viewers one step further.
B99’s particular brand of copaganda stands apart from the rest due to its portrayal of cops as people who are just like us, making it all the more dangerous. (Photo from TVLine)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a comedy about a team of New York Police Department (NYPD) police officers set in Brooklyn’s fictional 99th precinct. B99‘s cops are good cops. They’re woke and open-minded, funny and easy-going, and they’re on the right side of a lot of big issues (sexual harassment, homophobia, gun control). By contrast, on May 31, the real NYPD drove two police vehicles into a crowd of civilians protesting George Floyd’s death in Brooklyn.
The protagonist of B99, detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), is goofy, likeable, and seemingly harmless, rarely seen to use force or violence on-screen. On May 29, in Brooklyn, a real NYPD cop pulled a Black protestor’s face mask off his face to pepper spray him at close range. Later that evening, also in Brooklyn, a police officer violently shoved a protestor to the ground, where she hit her head and later had to be treated for a seizure and concussion.
The B99 gang is righteous and upstanding, frequently shown to be at odds with certain aspects of the larger police establishment, including racial profiling and discrimination. These fictional characters often occupy the moral high-ground in matters such as police brutality and accountability. Meanwhile, real NYPD officers at protests these past weeks have been covering up their badge numbers with black bands in an attempt to avoid being identified and held accountable when displaying unnecessary force against protestors — a violation of the NYPD’s own policy.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine did, at one point, explicitly address the issue of police brutality. In Episode 16 of Season 4, which aired in 2017, Sergeant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) is racially profiled and arrested in his own neighbourhood by a white police officer. Terry files an official complaint, which inevitably has negative repercussions on his career — but not before he tells a story about how he wanted to become a cop after a police officer saved him from bullies (“I always wanted to be a superhero,” he says).
It’s difficult, in retrospect, not to see this episode as a pathetic attempt at discussing systemic racism in law enforcement that drastically underestimates the sheer magnitude of anti-Black police violence in America. For the fictional Terry, the cop from his childhood was his hero, but for the very real 16-year-old Jahmel Leach, tased and beaten by New York City police officers at a protest on June 1, it is an entirely different story.
For countless other Black people, any interaction with the police is more often a prolonged nightmare than it is a heartwarming childhood memory. For many, it’s a death sentence — as it was for Amadou Diallo in 1999, for Sean Bell in 2006, for Eric Garner in 2014.
With regard to the stark difference between the show’s portrayal of police officers and their real-life counterparts, Brooklyn Nine-Nine does not stray from the mould set by decades of Hollywood copaganda. Its progressive leanings and depiction of police officers as humanly flawed but ultimately good-at-heart, however, is arguably more dangerous than traditional on-screen portrayals of the police.
Police propaganda has always been one of America’s most consistently popular genres of entertainment. From Cops to Law and Order to Blue Bloods, American audiences have watched (mostly white) law enforcement officials punish ‘bad guys’, protect innocent citizens, and save the day for decades.
The brainwashing was not accidental. The media that influenced public perception of the police was, of course, heavily controlled by law enforcement agencies, and the partnership between Hollywood and the police goes as far back as 1951, to the premier of the cop show Dragnet.
Dragnet was written with the approval of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) chief at the time, William H. Parker, with every script requiring approval by the LAPD’s Public Information Division prior to shooting. The show followed the heroic Sergeant Joe Friday and fellow members of the LAPD as they investigated crimes and maintained law and order.
The same year the show premiered, a group of LAPD officers, unprovoked, brutally beat 7 male civilians — five Latino and two white — leaving them with ruptured organs and broken bones. Police propaganda, since its very inception, has acted as a detractor from the realities of police behaviour, and as an enabler of police brutality.
The portrayal of cops in these shows, for the most part, have been consistent. The police are, of course, always the protagonists. Their perspective is the only perspective. They are selfless and brave, perpetually sacrificing their own safety in their pursuit of justice. Everything is just as you’d expect from shows approved and funded by law enforcement agencies — cops are glorified, ‘criminals’ are demonized, and everyone gets what they allegedly deserve in the end. Viewers are manipulated into elevating police officers, by virtue of their jobs, into figures that must be trusted implicitly and immune to both skepticism and accountability.
Most cops on TV are aspirational — the police officers aren’t normal people, they’re brave heroes, elevated above average civilians. Glorification is not the same as humanization, and while the former has been exceedingly useful in normalizing police propaganda in America, the latter has its own set of harmful implications.
By portraying law enforcement officials as responsible and empathetic, you imply that victims of police violence somehow do not deserve to be on the receiving end of those values.
By depicting a group of police officers at odds with the larger establishment of law enforcement, you’re saying, ‘not all cops are the same — some cops care,’ which is simply untrue. If they cared, they would no longer be cops.
The real problem with Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that it’s palatable. The same person who feels angry and heartbroken watching a video of yet another Black person being brutalized or murdered by police could, perhaps not even an hour later, enjoy an episode of B99 without making a single connection between the goofy, lovable cops on their screens and the overly weaponized, aggressively racist ones on their streets.
In fact, the show is so palatable to audiences that after its cancellation in May, 2018, fans of the show rallied for its renewal, and — after only 31 hours of campaigning — were successful in getting the show moved to from its home network of Fox to NBC, where it has continued to air for 3 more seasons.
The cast and crew of B99 have spoken out in support of the widespread protests against police brutality and donated $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network. Stephanie Beatriz, who plays Rosa Diaz on the show, donated $11,000 of her own money to the National Bail Fund Network and encouraged fellow actors who play or have played cops to do the same, acknowledging the connection between police propaganda and the lack of accountability police officers face in real life. In a recent interview with Seth Meyers, Terry Crews said that Season 8 of the show will be strongly influenced by current events surrounding anti-Black police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement.
But how can a cop show hinged on the premise of ‘good cops’ ever not be police propaganda? How can Brooklyn Nine-Nine be ‘influenced’ by the Black Lives Matter movement and, at the same time, have its characters remain active members of a police force that has historically targeted and over-policed Black people and Black neighbourhoods?
The answer is that it can’t.
However many episodes they dedicate to depicting instances of pared-down police brutality, a show that repeatedly tells us that it’s ‘not all cops’ is a part of the problem, and will always be a barrier to real progress — because it is all cops.
If you choose to remain part of an establishment founded on anti-Black violence and unchecked abuses of power, one that perpetuates those ideals to this day, you are complicit. And if you continue to give a platform to the ‘good cop’ narrative while state-sanctioned terrorism takes the lives of countless Black people in real time — like Brooklyn Nine-Nine does — you are complicit.
Additional contributions by Aprillé Morris
Edited by Abeer Khan