It's an interesting time to play a cop on TV.
With people in every state across the nation gathering to protest police brutality, it likely has not been lost on many Hollywood stars and creators that many of their careers are owed to putting cops on screen, often as the main characters, and often as heroes. Cops and law enforcement are a go-to for stories that, from a TV creator's point of view, will never run out of material and will always have compelling questions to ask. But as more and more cities, including Los Angeles and New York City, begin to work on reforming their police departments in the face of protests after the death of George Floyd, TV's police departments might also have to change.
Law & Order: SVU showrunner Warren Leight reflected on writing a show about law enforcement in a recent Hollywood Reporter podcast, particularly when it comes to portraying cops as the hero of the story, as Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) almost always is.
"People watch the shows to see heroes. You have the responsibility to at least depict the reality—as close to the reality as you can. There are shows with flawed cops at their center…I don't mind a flawed cop at the center, but a flawed cop with a tendency towards violence who's glorified, to me, is a real recipe for legitimizing police brutality," Leight said. "That's what I see the most that disturbs me…I really hate watching shows that depict the lifting the desk and throwing it in the middle of the interrogation room. I understand that that was a trope even at times on Law & Orders, but I think that will be a harder trope to maintain in the current environment—or I hope that it would be a harder trope to maintain."
In an essay for Vanity Fair, S.W.A.T. co-creator Aaron Rahsaan Thomas opened up about the responsibility he feels, both as a showrunner on a series about law enforcement but as one of very few Black executive producers of network procedurals.
"A Black man who has made a career, in part, writing for network police shows, having eventually created my own show, S.W.A.T., for CBS," he wrote. "For me, writing television can never simply be about entertainment. Many people in Hollywood have a fear of being didactic, preaching messages that risk making an audience feel uncomfortable. But, in the shadow of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officers, a question persists—how are the shows we are writing contributing to perceptions of the justice system, class, race, and the image of black men? I look at this, not as a creative burden, but a necessary responsibility."
Another popular but very different cop show is Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and fans have begun wondering what effect the protests will have on a comedy about goofy cops, with some suggesting they just shouldn't even be cops anymore.
"Don't cancel Brooklyn Nine-Nine," one fan wrote. "Keep all the same people and just decide they are no longer cops. It's an absurd show it wouldn't hurt or change anything really, unlike all the cop dramas."
"Brooklyn Nine-Nine should do a table read of a spec where they all resign from the force and pursue different career fields but keep in touch and donate the proceeds to BLM," another said.
In a response to that tweet, another fan said, "I've seen so many people say they should just all go work at a post office and now I truly could not want anything more."
The show has addressed racial profiling by police before, in the season four episode "Moo Moo," and star Terry Crews told Seth Meyers on Late Night With Seth Meyers that the protests would "definitely" impact season eight.
"We actually all got on a Zoom call just the other day because of what's happening in this country, and we were witnessing so many abuses of power," he said. "We had some somber talks and some really, really eye-opening conversation about how to handle this new season."
Actor Wendell Pierce, who starred in The Wire as Detective Bunk Moreland, recently tweeted some thoughts on how cops were portrayed on the critically acclaimed HBO drama, in response to a discussion in THR that used the word "heroic" to describe the show's characters.
"How can anyone watch The Wire and the dysfunction of the police & the war on drugs and say that we were depicted as heroic," Pierce wrote. "We demonstrated moral ambiguities and the pathology that leads to the abuses. Maybe you were reacting to how good people can be corrupted to do bad things."
In another tweet, he said, "If The Wire did anything right, it depicted the humanity of the Black lives so easily profiled by police and the destruction of them by the so-called war on drugs;a deliberate policy of mass incarceration to sustain a wealth disparity in America that thrives keeping an underclass."
"I know I sound defensive and I probably am, The Wire is personal for me. The Wire is also Art," he said. "The role of Art is to ignite the public discourse. Art is where we come together as a community to confront who we are as a society, decide what our values are, and then act on them."
The protests are already having an impact on law enforcement-related TV that is currently airing. Paramount Network has canceled Cops, the show that follows real footage of cops being called to deal with various crimes, after 33 seasons on the air. A&E has also canceled Live P.D., and last minute, Spectrum delayed the premiere of season two of LA's Finest, the cop series starring Jessica Alba and Gabrielle Union. It was supposed to return on June 8 and has now been pushed to an unspecific later date in 2020.
Both Alba and Union have been filling up their social media feeds with support for the protests in the meantime, while Union also recently filed a discrimination complaint against America's Got Talent, citing "racially offensive conduct" that she experienced on the set.
Actor Griffin Newman, who played a cop in two episodes of Blue Bloods in 2011, started a call for donations he's calling #BlueActorsActBlue, encouraging other actors who play or have played cops to donate some of the residuals they've earned to bail funds through Act Blue, a charity fundraising tool.
Stephanie Beatriz, who has played Detective Rosa Diaz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine since the show started in 2013, responded and matched his donation of $10,000. Leight did the same, as a writer on a cop show.
The entire cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, including Beatriz, Crews, Andy Samberg, Joe Lo Truglio, Melissa Fumero, Andre Braugher, Joel McKinnon Miller, and Dirk Blocker, along with showrunner Dan Goor, then came together to "condemn the murder of George Floyd" and donate $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network, while each individual cast member spent the past couple of weeks tweeting and posting on Instagram to promote and support Black Lives Matter.
Beatriz also participated in #ShareTheMicNow, where celebrities with large followings hand their accounts over to a Black activist to help promote other voices.
Lo Truglio also joined his Reno 911 costars to donate $10,000 to help George Floyd's family, with the donation organized by Cedric Yarborough.
Law & Order: SVU stars Mariska Hargitay and Ice T have been vocal on social media, urging fans to vote and linking to information and petitions. Hargitay also retweeted a message from SVU EP Julie Martin about "re-committing to holding the writers room accountable, telling stories of racial injustice, police misconduct and bias in the criminal justice system."
SVU newbie Jamie Gray Hyder, who plays officer Kat Tamin, has been out protesting, posting videos and photos from the marches she's been a part of as well as information about ongoing demonstrations, and calls to action to get justice for Breonna Taylor and to repeal 50-a, an NYC law that protects police personnel records. The repeal was passed earlier this week.
On Thursday, Hyder also posted a statement to social media "on playing a cop," with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter.
"Yes, it is a weird time to be playing a cop on television, especially as I march alongside the 1,000s in NYC protesting police brutality," she wrote. "I believe the officers we represent on our show are the ones you want to show up in your time of need, empathetic and kind, but sadly fictional."
"Countless survivors of sexual assault have approached me in public and expressed how they wished we were the officers handling their real cases. I do believe there are police like our characters who are good people with good intentions, but that isn't enough when all police are part of an inherently discriminate system," she continued. "I believe our show strives to positively represent the real SVU officers doing good in the NYPD, but I don't think we've shied away from discussing the shortcomings of the criminal justice and law enforcement systems, and the lack of caring for minority and impoverished victims."
"I believe Kat represents a new generation that isn't afraid to ruffle some feathers and speak up against injustice and bureaucracy on behalf of underserved populations," she wrote of her SVU character. "I, Jamie, strive to use my platform to the same end, and I stand as an ally with the women and men of our Black community, today and every day. If she could, I think Kat would be marching right alongside me, but that would be some meta-ass s--t."
It will be a while before most current shows are back in production due to the continuing coronavirus pandemic, but time will eventually tell what effect the current movement has on the TV cops we welcome into our homes on a weekly basis.
(E! and NBC are both part of the NBC Universal family.)