Journalism, Politics, Psychology, Society, TV


I just finished listening to “Behind the Police,” the Behind the Bastards miniseries on US policing from 2020. And while I do not agree with a lot of it, I do think it’s important to listen to – or to read its sources – to get more perspective on policing, particularly in the US. The momentum for reform that began in 2020 seems to have completely petered out at this point and we need to remind ourselves that not much was fixed.

But anyway, listening to this gave me an idea. Now, I don’t have the resources to carry out this idea but somebody else does. And I think it would go a long way to actually making reform a legitimate possibility.

True crime is a hugely popular genre; there are more true crime podcasts than you can shake a stick at and there are whole TV channels dedicated to true crime and true crime alone.

But what’s also still massively popular, despite claims by Hollywood that they would try to do better, is copaganda. I don’t know offhand if it’s as prevalent in 2023 as it was in 2020, when suddenly everyone realized that having so many shows on TV that celebrate police – and completely inaccurately portray the job – was a bad idea, but there are still plenty, and plenty of new ones. We have cable, and we constantly see ads for existing copaganda programs – some that were absolutely on the, um, “air” in 2020 – and new ones. Whatever commitment people thought Hollywood (a nebulous idea in itself) made to be better, I think it’s safe to say that it failed. Copaganda still exists all over US and Canadian TV and it is still a really reliable way to get people watch cable.

There’s the infamous quote attributed to Joseph Stalin that has been repeated so many times it is basically a cliché at this point, “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” I think this quote applies to policing, in its way, just like it applies to so much else in terms of how human beings process information about tragedy. We get upset when a single person, or a few people, are harmed or treated unjustly. But most of ignore systemic injustice. Though anecdotes as a rule make for horrible policy, they are extremely useful in changing people’s minds.

To that end, I propose Copz (real title TBD), a true crime show about police misdeeds, everything from outright murder to just petty corruption like using police intelligence tools to stalk your ex’s new boyfriend. Each episode would feature a story about one police officer’s documented abuse of power, how it happened, why it happened, and what the police did about it. Most of these episodes would end with some extremely upsetting detail about how the cop is still on the force, or remained on the force for years afterwards, or got paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars while suspended from duty, and so forth. There are untold numbers of stories about police that could serve as source material, especially if we spread the net wider than just police shootings.

Now, no established network, studio or streaming service would likely touch this with a fifty foot pole. The police as an institution are pretty damn powerful. I think it’s also likely whoever makes the show will get sued by individual cops or police unions or both, even if they get their facts absolutely right.

So I think this project should be adopted by a billionaire who wants to make meaningful change in American society. Now, that billionaire should not have creative control and should give whoever makes the show the creative freedom to tell the actual, documented story, without interference, but a billionaire is probably the only person who could meaningfully stand up to all the lawsuits this show would inevitably attract.

I think a show like this would have an effect similar to copagandra, true crime and shows like Drag Race. Over time, it would change how its viewers viewed the issue. Copaganda has been on US TV for something like 70 years and it’s undoubtedly had a massive influence on how we think about cops and how we believe they behave. (Compare the case solved rates of most police shows with reality for one very easy example of how not true to life copaganda shows are.) True crime shows – and 24 hour news – have convinced numerous people that crime is everywhere, that crime is not actually decreasing, and that there are killers around every corner waiting to abduct, rape and murder any and all white women. Drag Race and shows like it have slowly opened the yes of at least some people to difference as something valuable and vital, rather than something strange and threatening.

I think Copz (real title TBD) has the potential to change people’s minds about the police, to make people who don’t already think critically about the role of police to do so.

To be clear, I don’t believe in defunding the police. I think that idea is kind of crazy as I strongly believe that some human beings will commit violence regardless of how society is structured. But I do believe that many jobs the police currently do in many or most jurisdictions in North America do not need to be handled by the police. The libertarian economist Alex Tabbarok made this point about speeding tickets but I think this point applies to many things police currently do. And there are numerous situations involving police that do not require the force or weapons the police routinely bring to bear. (For example, the vast majority of uses of SWAT teams in the US is to serve warrants, whether or not there is any reason to suspect the suspect has a weapon.)

But very few other people agree with this, even after everything that happened during the pandemic. I think a show like Copz (real title TBD) would got a long way to making enough people see some of the problems inherent in the current policing system. But only a reform-minded billionaire can make it happen.

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