You know the scene all too well: A police officer, unable to get the information out of a suspect, resort to threats that turn into violence. Now, they've got what they need. In the real world it'd most likely be a lawsuit and disciplinary action. On TV, it's the vigilante cop. The cop who wants justice at any means necessary, no matter the oath to serve and protect. There have been countless TV shows like this, and that's what needs to change according to the people who make them.
In an essay with Vanity Fair, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, the co-creator of CBS's S.W.A.T. opened up about what needs to change behind the scenes when it comes to police procedurals. Thomas, one of the few black showrunners, specifically on a broadcast TV procedural, said he's a "rare creature" because of that very fact.
"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."
S.W.A.T. stars Shemar Moore, Alex Russell, Jay Harrington, Lina Esco, Kenny Johnson, David Lim, Patrick St. Esprit and Amy Farrington. Inspired by the TV show and movie of the same name, the new version follows Daniel "Hondo" Harrelson (Moore), a former Marine and S.W.A.T. sergeant in charge of a specialized tactical unit in Los Angeles. Thomas created the series with Shawn Ryan. Ryan created The Shield, an FX series starring Michael Chiklis as a corrupt police officer.
In his Vanity Fair essay, Thomas recounted the history of procedurals, including Dragnet in the 1950s requiring approval by the LAPD, and the opinion once shared by David Simon that black writers are unable to write universal stories (the type most broadcast procedurals strive for).
"Black procedural writers before me often took an approach of wanting to be seen simply as writers, using a ‘colorblind' method that in theory levels the playing field, but in actuality devalues and negates any point of view different from the status quo. If anything is going to change, this mindset must be recalibrated," he wrote. "I take this task personally, and it's one reason I include my middle name on all of my professional credits to clearly indicate that I am a black writer. Instead of using a colorblind approach, increasing empathy for diverse thought and life experiences would be more ideal."
In addition to casting, diversity needs to happen behind the scenes as well. Thomas wrote, "if the voice behind the characters remains consistently and almost exclusively white, diversity is literally only skin deep."
"The goal should be to increase perspectives, both in front of and behind the camera. It would be great to see more police officers portrayed as having the power to empathize, or at least a humility and desire to acquire such an ability," he said.
Thomas said when he hears colleagues ponder whether enough has been done to address the image of the hero cop, "a procedural staple," his answer is clear: "hell f--king no."
"There's a ton of work we still have to do," he said. "The question is, how sincere will we be about putting in that work?"
What can be done instead of lip service?
"We, as creators in Hollywood, have to be willing to expand the point of view from which these stories are told. Instead of focusing simply on what makes our jobs easier and more convenient, real change requires hard and sometimes uncomfortable work, conversations, and consideration," Thomas said. "Failure to do this can have real-life consequences. Ultimately, efforts to improve can and will lead to better TV shows, more nuanced cop procedurals, and, who knows, maybe even impact real-world interactions between police and community."
Law & Order: SVU showrunner Warren Leight was asked the very question at the center of Thomas' piece—What can be done?—and pondered that in a lengthy interview with THR. Leight said in advance of the history-making season 21, he staffed the writers room with new voices, including people who never wrote for television before.
"I put together a new staff and I made a conscious effort to bring in new voices, fresh voices, different voices and it was a radically different writers room than we had seen, even than the ones I put together years earlier. There is a tendency, and I think we're all becoming more aware of our responsibilities about that, to hire people you know," Leight said. "You're putting together a writers team and you go out to the usual suspects, the agents push the usual suspects, and there's an experience level you want your writers to have and because the usual suspects have that experience and the guys who found the doors closed to them don't have that experience, it works against them."
Hiring outside "usual suspects" is a start, Leight said, but there's more to be done.
"I think we've tried really hard in the last year to show how class and race affect the outcomes of justice in society, but I'm beginning to suspect ‘really hard' wasn't enough," Leight said. "This has to be a moment where people make themselves uncomfortable, where people in power have to make themselves uncomfortable."
Law & Order: SVU, the longest-running primetime scripted drama, plans to tackle George Floyd's death and the resulting protests calling for police reform in the new season.
"There are ways, we will find our way in to tell the story. Presumably our cops will still be trying to do the right thing, but it will be harder for them and they will understand why it will be harder for them," he said.
Both S.W.A.T. and SVU were renewed for new seasons. S.W.A.T. has been earmarked for midseason, however when any show will premiere this fall is still up in the air due to the coronavirus pandemic.