The End of the Fictional Cop

Photographs by Devin Yalkin
D etective Elliot Stabler walks into an empty interrogation room with purpose. He’ll soon be questioning a perp who beat murder and rape charges 14 years ago, and he can’t afford a repeat, so he gives himself the edge. He cranks the thermostat up 20 degrees; he removes the screw from a chair, giving it a wobble; he swivels the light bulbs slightly out of place so the lighting flickers. With these tweaks, a confession is nigh. Yes, this is coercive, but it’s okay—he’s one of the good guys.
Before months of protests against police brutality renewed scrutiny of law enforcement, many Americans might have seen the Law & Order: SVU detective’s coercion as noble. Now the tide is turning , and taking cop shows with it. In June, Cops , the documentary ride-along show that took viewers to the front lines of the wars on drugs, poverty, and driving while Black, was canceled by the Paramount Network. The same fate befell A&E’s Live PD , a hugely popular successor to Cops . Discovery’s Body Cam , another spin on the gonzo-cop formula, has not aired since the end of June; on social media, fans await news of its fate with dread.
Shows about fictional police officers remain on air, but many of their creators are newly self-conscious. On Twitter, Tom Scharpling, an executive producer for Monk , lamented that he had “contributed to the larger acceptance that cops are implicitly the good guys.” The former Law & Order: SVU showrunner Neal Baer expressed regret that Detective Stabler “was smacking people around” while doing police work. (In “Rage,” the SVU episode described above, Stabler spits on a suspect.) Cast members and the showrunner of the sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine donated $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network; Stephanie Beatriz, an actor on the show, almost sounded like she was tithing. “If you make tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in residuals from playing a cop?” she tweeted . “I’ll let you do the math.”
Some critics have suggested the problem with cop stories amounts to a detachment from real crime statistics or the history of policing. Cord Jefferson, a writer on the HBO series Watchmen , advanced this argument in a recent interview with Variety . In his view, writers downplay the racism in police forces, something Watchmen does not do: “We didn’t want to shy away from the fact that in many places in America, members of the police were also members of the Klan. There are absolutely many parts of America where that is still a problem today.”
[ Read: Saying goodby to ] Law & Order
Courtney A. Kemp, the showrunner of Power , expressed a similar sentiment in a Hollywood Reporter op-ed: “On TV—unlike reality—rarely is someone arrested because of his/her/their race.” In her view, hard facts would undermine the valor that cop shows sell to keep viewers hooked; if cops are racists, they are no longer...