For the Culture: The ‘hero’ cop myth

William Evans
Photo courtesy Amazon

The last cop show I truly enjoyed centered on a character who wasn't technically a cop, but rather a federal marshal. Regardless, “Justified” had me captivated, eager for each episode featuring the swaggering and pragmatic Raylan Givens.

Part of my enjoyment of the show, and something that made it less typical than those featuring cops patrolling neighborhoods, was the setting: the Holler down in Kentucky. There was also an otherness to the narrative, which centered on the proud, self-deprecating, mostly white, rural population. In other words, I enjoyed it partially because it didn't position a white law enforcement official policing black and brown people.

Still, this remains one of the most popular genres in TV and film: The hero cop upholding justice while at the same time reinforcing stereotypes of oft-criminalized communities.

Shows like “The Shield,” considered groundbreaking at the time, could never happen in 2018. (Half the show was spent watching Vic Mackey terrorize and manipulate people of color, as hard as that is for me to admit.) Yet we still get new “taking down crime and/or terrorists” shows every year — most often with white, male protagonists.

Amazon's new “Jack Ryan” has a lot of elements I want to root for, including literary source material (or at least inspiration), Wendell Pierce in the mix, and a smart, investigative progression. However, once you strip away all the fixings, it's still a white authority figure hunting down evil brown folks.

The trend now is to include the co-signature of black characters to uphold the pursuit as something noble. You don't even have to leave the Amazon streaming service to see another example like this with the show “Bosch.”

There have been attempts to subvert this, of course, such as “Shots Fired,” which featured a fatal shooting committed by a black police officer (way to open the tough conversations, FOX). Or “Seven Seconds” on Netflix, which featured several black characters in lead roles, but still exploited black pain as the main entree.

Which all begs the question: Why do we still need these stories?

Did they always function as some form of propaganda? Or do they seem even more focused as such in an era when we can't go a week without a police shooting? Just look at Botham Shem Jean's shooting death at the hands of a white Dallas Police officer. Or even the abusive tactics witnessed when an 11-year-old was tasered for attempted shoplifting in a Cincinnati grocery store.

I'm not so naive to believe that there isn't a market for these stories in Trump's America. But I do think the audience for them continues to narrow, and the stories are a lot less fictional than the producers would have you believe.