Police, Media, and Popular Culture
Summary and Keywords
The relationship between the police and the media is complex, multidimensional, and contingent. Since the development of modern-day policing, the police and the media have interacted with one another in some way, shape, or form. The relationship has often been described as symbiotic, and can be characterized as ebbing and flowing in terms of the power dynamics that exist. For the police, the media present a powerful opportunity to communicate with the public about crime threats and events, as well as police successes. For the media, crime events make up a significant portion of media content, and access to police sources assists journalists in constructing such content. But the police–media relationship is not always cosy, and at times, tensions and conflicts arise. The increasing professionalization of police media communications activities has further challenged the nature and scope of the police–media relationship. Not only has the relationship become more formalized, driven by police policies and practices that are concerned with managing the media, but it has also been challenged by the very nature of the media. Changes to the media landscape have presented police organizations with a unique opportunity to become media organizations in their own right. The proliferation of police reality television programming, together with the rise of social media, has served to broaden the ways in which the police engage with the media in the pursuit of trust, confidence, and legitimacy; however, this has also opened the police up to increasing scrutiny as citizen journalism and other forms of counterveillance challenge the preferred police image.
The Police-Media Relationship
Literature in the area of policing and the media is prolific, diverse in scope, and addresses a range of approaches, perspectives and issues to do with the police–media relationship (Mawby, 2007). Some scholars have focused on the impact and influence media messages have on their audience (see, e.g., Dowler & Zawilski, 2007); others have examined representations of the police in the media (see, e.g., Chermak, 1995; Chermak & Weiss, 2005; Jiggins, 2004, 2007). The key focus here is on how the police themselves manage and curate their relationship with the media, and how this manifests in a range of media formats, including police social media and reality television pursuits.
As Lee and McGovern (2013, p. 14) argue, “Associations between policing organizations and the media can be traced throughout the history of police services,” police having long been a source of fascination for the modern media (Finnane, 2002, p. 134; Kiel, 1989, p. 254). The relationship between the police and the media is one of symbiosis; each needs the other to meet their convergent and divergent goals and objectives (Freckelton, 1988). The relationship is also dynamic, complex, and multidimensional (Putnis, 1996). As Chibnall saw it, the relationship is “reinforced by a reciprocation of help and co-operation” (1975, p. 54). This exchange relationship can be beneficial for both parties. For the police, it can result, among other things, in information getting into the public domain quickly and effectively, alerting the public to crime risks and hopefully resulting in the prevention and detection of crime; for the media, structured access to the police can result in their obtaining information that is pivotal to a story, ideally drawing in audiences and all-important advertising dollars (see, e.g., Putnis, 1996). Equally, however, the relationship can be filled with tension, mistrust, and suspicion (Jiggins, 2007). As Putnis (1996) put it, the police–media relationship is such that “patterns of mutual dependency coupled with attempts at control, suggest that the relationship is inevitably enduring yet also inevitably unstable” (p. 211).
Internationally, the literature in the field of police–media relations has a long history; studies were conducted as far back as the 1960s and 1970s showing the political and power struggles that have long existed between the police and the media (see, e.g., Chappell & Wilson, 1969). Key authors, such as Mawby (1997a, 1997b, 1998, 2001a, 2001b, 2001c, 2002a, 2002b, 2003, 2007), Lovell (2001, 2002, 2003; Lovell & Kelling, 2000), Ericson (1989, 1991, 1994; Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1995; Ericson & Haggerty, 1997; Doyle & Ericson, 2004); and Schlesinger and Tumber (1992, 1993a, 1993b, 1994), have written extensively on varying aspects of the police–media relationship.
One area of police–media relations that has attracted academic attention has been the exploration of the dynamic ways in which these relationships operate and the power struggles that exist (Boyle, 1999a, 1999b; Feist, 1999; Reiner, 1997). Numerous academics have attempted to assess who in the relationship holds the most “power.” Scholars such as Altschull (1975, p. 431) and Schlesinger and Tumber (1992, p. 188) have been critical of the ways in which some models of research into police–media interactions have inadequately accounted for “the complexity of the relations between sources and media in the crime and criminal justice fields” (see also Schlesinger, Tumber, & Murdock, 1991); others, however, believe that it is the police who have the advantage in the relationship. Doyle and Ericson (2004, p. 472; see also Chermak, 1995) believe that the relationship is much more complex and diverse than some scholars have accounted for and that the police and media sometimes help each other and sometimes work at cross purposes.
In one of the earliest studies into the production of crime news, Chibnall explored the nature of the police–media relationship in the context of the news-making process (1973, pp. 75–76; 1975, p. 49). Focusing on crime reporters, Chibnall (1975, p. 51; 1973, pp. 77–78) identified their historical reliance on police sources for information and story framing. He argued that this reliance could be highly problematic for reporters and that the promotion of police interests via the media, especially on the back of a good police–reporter relationship, could be favorable for the police (Chibnall, 1975, p. 57; 1973, p. 85). Chibnall surmised that it is the police who have the upper hand in these relationships, because ultimately, they are the ones in possession of the information reporters need to broadcast stories (1975, p. 59; 1973, p. 88).
Writing in the 1970s and 1980s, Fishman (1981, p. 372, 1978), like Chibnall, believed that the stories journalists reported on were to some degree predetermined by the information they had been given by police departments. Examining the New York City Police Department’s newsroom, Fishman found that it was the police who judged the extraordinariness of events in terms of their newsworthiness, anticipating media interest in particular incidents (Fishman, 1981, pp. 378–380, 1978). As the primary definers of news items, police were thus able to control their press image, maintaining perceptions of the department as competent, and at the same time perpetuating the media dependency on the police for crime news (Fishman, 1981, pp. 381, 387, 1978). For Fishman, such practices could have a major impact on the reporting styles and perspectives journalists as they carry out their duties.
Innes (1999, 2001) has also examined the instrumental use of the media by the police, focusing in particular on using the media as an investigative resource in murder inquiries. Like Fishman, Innes (1999, p. 269) argued that the media are unable to produce news in isolation from “the events, institutions, and people who act as both sources of and conduits for” the media, with police aware of the instrumental and expressive functions that images projected by the media can have for them (Innes, 1999, p. 284, 2001). Innes’s analysis provides an important understanding of the ways in which the police attempt to use and influence the media in ways that benefit them (see also Feist, 1999).
The Professionalization of Police Media Communications
The advantages of being able to control the messages and information being disseminated to the public via the media is not lost on police organizations; and the interrogation of the police–media relationship by academics has also shown the increasing importance of media engagement to police around the world (see Davis, 2000, 2003; Leishman & Mason, 2003). As Lee and McGovern (2013, p. 16) argue, over the course of the 20th century, police organizations were required to rethink their approach to dealing with the media. At the same time, as Schlesinger and Tumber (1994, p. 7) have noted, the field of crime reporting has also evolved, as changes in law, police and government policy have been paralleled by a more competitive media market, affecting both the police and the press. This has undoubtedly altered the sphere of police–media interactions.
Whereas it was once common for police to resist communicating with the media, from the 1980s onward, police departments came to see the benefits of proactively engaging with media. Schlesinger and Tumber (1992, p. 193), for example, have suggested that police in the United Kingdom developed and reorganized their media activities to align with the apparent need for police to improve their image. Such developments occurred “as part of a broader professionalization strategy during the reform era across all aspects of policing embraced by many Western policing organizations” (Lee & McGovern, 2013, p. 16). Examining the growing importance of media relations within U.K. police forces, Boyle (1999a, 1999b) argued that “thinking strategically about image and media management has become central in the development of operations aspects of policing,” signaling a new phase in police–media relations and the professionalization of media relations in police departments (1999b, p. 231).
According to Chermak (1995), economic constraints facing the news media increasingly shaped the relationship, resulting in a news media that relied more heavily on readily available sources, allowing police to have more control over the information being disseminated to the media (pp. 21–22). As Chermak has pointed out, news organizations are limited in their ability to scrutinize the police because of their relationship with them; a relationship that police organizations are increasingly trying to manage and control through the deployment of public-relations officers and organizational propaganda (p. 38; see also Crandon, 1993; Crandon & Dunne, 1997). Ericson et al. (1989, p. 92), found that the police want to control the knowledge of their activities so that, at least publicly, they appear to be operating legitimately and are thus accountable. Such attempts to control the dissemination of information typically result in enormous increases in the expenditure of activities and resources that legitimize organizational activities. Ericson et al. highlighted that whereas this was once a reactive process for police, increasingly these activities had become proactive strategies; police saw the strategic advantage of controlling knowledge and information about policing activities and their public image (pp. 92–93). The irony here, as the authors also pointed out, is that as police organizations became more “open” in their communications with the media, they also became more closed by proactively and selectively feeding their knowledge to reporters (pp. 93–94).
Police Media Units and Public Relations Departments
One of the most important developments for the professionalization of police communications activities has been the introduction of police media, communications, and public-relations departments within police organizations. As Lovell (2002) stated:
Police are now beginning to maintain media-relations offices staffed by public information officers trained in media communication and journalism whose primary responsibility is to engage the news media to advance the goals of the police organization. (p. 2)
According to Lovell (2003) the mass media is central to the administrative and strategic reforms of the police, and contemporary police–media relations are characterized by an increasingly proactive approach to media interactions. One manifestation of these proactive communications activities has been the phenomena of media-relations units, departments responsible for handling communications with the media. Staffed by both civilians and sworn police with varying degrees of professional training in public relations, media, and communications, such units serve a variety of reactive and proactive functions, but broadly speaking, Lovell identifies two key purposes: firstly, to foster formal relations with journalists so that that the police can educate them, and therefore the community, on matters of police practice; and secondly, to assist the police in shaping news content and thus to exercise what Lovell (2003) terms “impression management” (p. 137). These units have become “central to both the police organisational structure and the daily function of routine police work” (p. 139).
Mawby (1998) contends that the first police press office was established, in 1919, at Scotland Yard, creating the first official channels of communication with journalists (p. 26). Since then, the institutionalization of media units in police organizations has expanded across most Western forces, with many such departments featuring prominently in the organizational structure of policing agencies. Today, the role of the media offices has developed, and among other things, they are
responsible for maintaining media relationships, developing media and communications policies, promoting police good news stories and monitoring and responding to media stories … they also liaise with prospective programme makers and offer advice on media matters to officers. (Mawby, 1998, pp. 26–27)
In sites such as Britain, the founding of the Association of Police Public Relations Officers (APPRO), and the development of media strategies and policies by police forces, have further solidified this professionalization. Whereas such offices once responded reactively to issues, the modern-day police media department engages in proactive communications, using strategic and policy-driven objectives to guide its work (Lee & McGovern, 2013; Mawby, 2007, p. 157). These strategic priorities include wide-ranging activities, from providing the media with key investigators whom they can question about the details of a case to appointing police as “collaborators” or consultants on fictional crime drama series to ensure that the police are portrayed “accurately” (Mawby, 2007, pp. 157–158; see also Colbran, 2014; Lee & McGovern, 2013; Reiner, 2000a). In some circumstances, police media departments essentially operate as their own media organization, for example the NSW Police Force, in New South Wales, Australia, operates its own multimedia production unit, employing a number of full-time camera operators and producing professionally created content for dissemination to media outlets and online platforms (see Lee & McGovern, 2013). Mawby (1997a, 1997b, 1998, 2001b, 2001c) contends that at the most basic level, the essential function of press offices is image work, whereby police employ public relations, communications, and marketing strategies to promote, project, and protect the image and reputation of the department. In this way, rapidly developing technologies; increased visibility; intense scrutiny; and commanding political, managerial, and media pressures have all combined to compel police to be economically and managerially efficient and effective, while also satiating media demands and presenting a positive police image (Mawby, 2002a, p. 309; see also Mawby & Worthington, 2002).
Police on Film and Television
Authors such as Robert Reiner (1997, 2000a, 2000b) have examined the “pattern and implications of media presentations of the police” and how these images are of “considerable importance in understanding the political significance and role of policing” (Reiner, 2000a, pp. 138–140). Reiner (2000a) believes that images of policing constructed in the media are vital in attaining the minimum of “consent” (p. 139), which is essential for preserving police authority. It is through the “factual” and fictional presentations of police in the media, Reiner (2000a), says, that the police role is broadly legitimated, presenting police as “necessary and for the most part effective” (p. 162); however, he feels it would be a mistake to overemphasize this legitimizing function (p. 162).
It is tempting to view representations of policing in popular culture as monolithic in their reverence for law enforcement, but contemporary portrayals demand a more nuanced interpretation. Tracing the history of law enforcement in popular culture, criminologist Ray Surette discovered three broad stereotypes: lampooned police, G-men, and cops. Surette explained that films in the 1920s were likely to portray police using slapstick humor or “vaudeville styled … escapist entertainment” (Surette, 2011, p. 86). By the 1930s, portrayals of more competent, tough-as-nails federal agents had replaced the buffoonish officers of the past. This was, in part, an effort to inject realism into the morality plays pitting heroic agents against malevolent criminals. These portrayals, though, were directly impacted by the interests of the Hollywood film industry (Surette, 2011). For example, during the 1930s, the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code) provided guidelines for filmmakers designed to protect the moral sensibilities of the moviegoing audience. The guidelines prohibited any material that was perceived to “lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin” (Hays Code, 1930). As a result, movies were limited to showing positive images of crime-fighters; and sympathetic portrayals of law violators were prohibited. Film historian Drew Todd explained the precarious position of filmmakers at the time who produced such films as Scarface and Public Enemy that ultimately glamorized gangster life in the 1930s. Prefacing their films with anticrime demands that the government take action against the menace of crime rang hollow given how readily viewers identified with the criminals (Rafter, 2006).
Nonetheless, with a trend toward more realistic portrayals, the film and television industries and police organizations shared mutual interests in production. Journalist Alyssa Rosenberg (2016, October 24) wrote:
The increasing complexity of Hollywood productions created strong logistical imperatives for the movie business to play nice with police … movie studios needed permits to shoot on city streets, and police officers to enforce those permits, roping off thoroughfares and working off-duty as security.
Early television procedural dramas benefited from the cooperation and endorsements of police officials, including on shows such as Dragnet and J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. These shows offered a perceived degree of authenticity that has been an aspirational component of crime dramas into the 21st century, even as those fictional portrayals grew more nuanced (Rosenberg, 2016, October 24).
Portrayals of policing increasingly shifted from federal agents to local police officers on the beat. Rosenberg (2016, October 26) documented how during the 1950s and 1960s, even as policing was being portrayed as more professional, it was also likely to be portrayed as social service oriented. The concern for community, or perhaps for an imagined community that never was, offered the potential for exploration of the social causes of crime and rehabilitation. Nonetheless, as Surette noted, police procedurals constructed crime as a threat to “middle-class lifestyles while encouraging a faith in expert police knowledge as the crime solution” (Surette, 2011, p. 90).
By the 1970s, rising crime rates and social upheaval impacted the public’s perception of crime and crime control. Public confidence in the legitimacy and efficacy of policing was tested (Lovell, 2003). One of the most iconic portrayals depictions of a police officer, reflecting the tension between concerns for public safety and those of due process, was Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971). By pursuing a serial killer by any means necessary, the film’s heroic cop ultimately promoted lethal retribution in the service of the greater good. The film was critical of the ways in which due process benefits criminals and offered Callahan’s vigilantism as the preferred solution in the failed system. Surette (2011) noted that local police were by this time being portrayed “as aggressive, crime-fighting, take-no-prisoners, frontline soldiers in the war on crime… . The criminals were clearly enemies, not citizens who had broken the law, and they had to be defeated as opposed to being deterred or rehabilitated” (p. 90). As scholars have noted, since the 1970s, a range of cop films featuring rogue cops, honest cops, buddy cops, and female cops have permeated the landscape (Rafter, 2006; Surette, 2011, p. 90). Portrayals of the use of deadly force by the police have ranged from glorifying vigilante justice to a perceiving it as a necessary evil that weighs heavily on the officer’s psyche. However, popular culture rarely questions the legitimacy of using force. Television dramas are particularly unlikely to show police misconduct and tend to portray the police use of force as justified (Donovan & Klahm, 2015). Rosenberg (2016, October 26) explained the consequences, “The result is a cultural narrative that simultaneously whitewashes the behavior of police officers and sets a bar for competence and coolness under extreme pressure that real cops can’t possibly meet.”
The cumulative portrayal of aggressive policing over the years holds racial and gender implications. The increased media attention to instances of questionable use of deadly force by police in various cities around the country has led to the Black Lives Matter movement and to a gap between perceptions of police legitimacy that differ by race and ethnicity. Although police departments actively recruit racial, gender, and sexual minorities, there is still a palpable sense that policing is a white man’s world, and as a result, public confidence in and the legitimacy of police are likely to suffer, especially among members of minority communities (Aiello, 2014; Newport, 2016; see also Meares, Tyler, & Gardener, 2015, for discussion of the importance of procedural fairness). Images of crime-fighting in popular culture have long been criticized for reproducing hegemonic masculinities. This concept refers to the performance of masculinities and femininities that serve to reinforce cultural ideals about “real” men and “real” women. In this context, crime-fighting entails particular gendered performances that reinforce hierarchical intersections of race, class, and gender. For example, men are expected to exhibit masculinities that stifle emotion and compassion in favor of aggressiveness and toughness—traits that are highly praised in law enforcement. Similarly, women are expected to enact femininities that exhibit submissiveness, quietness, and gracefulness—traits that are in contrast to those demanded of male law enforcement officers (Connell, 1987). Given the history of policing as a patriarchal institution, the portrayals of police officers in American film and television have been dominated by straight white males who, like the fictional Harry Callahan, privilege the use of force over other forms of conflict resolution.
In their examination of cop films from 1971 to 2001, Wilson and Henderson (2014) found that among representations of municipal police officers, white males were dominant. Rarely were African Americans featured as lead cops; instead, they were most often portrayed in a partner role—of a white partner on whom they were dependent. The authors also found that portrayals of African Americans more frequently devolved into “comedic caricatures” compared to white officers, who were portrayed as more serious (p. 57). Additionally, few films adequately addressed the double marginality that black officers experience as they strive for acceptance by both their communities and their fellow police officers (Wilson & Henderson, 2014). In an earlier study, Wilson, Longmire, and Swymeler (2009) found that LGBTQ police officers were notably absent from the genre, finding only one film featuring a gay officer, and he was notable for his sadomasochistic behavior and abuse of power. The authors pointed out that cop films also avoid interactions with the gay community, leaving an unfavorable impression of both LGBTQ officers and a relatively invisible LGBTQ community.
Much like their real-life counterparts, fictional female police officers must prove their mettle, all the while exhibiting normative feminine characteristics. For example, pop-culture female officers are expected to be attractive, if not glamorous, and exhibit feminine characteristics while fighting crime but also to be aggressive when necessary. Rosenberg noted how powerful those normative expectations can be. She wrote of the female officer featured on the show Homicide, “Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) … was a groundbreaking character, but audiences didn’t know how to respond to a tough, unglamorous female cop in 1993; she was ultimately replaced” (Rosenberg, 2016, October 28). In contrast, Kima Greggs, the gay black female officer featured on The Wire was initially supposed to be killed off during season one (Dockterman, 2014). Instead, she survived a gunshot wound, and though she encountered much resistance among her fellow officers, she was ultimately portrayed as a competent, “badass” cop. Rosenberg (2016, October 28) noted that the show
bolstered [Greggs] credentials by showing that she was quick to fight, she would prove that she was just as blue and just as vulnerable to cops’ pathologies as any white man: In later seasons, she would become an absent parent and emulate [fellow male officer and show protagonist] McNulty’s womanizing.
In comparison to rates in the real world, females are overrepresented as federal agents in television shows (Garland, Blackburn, Browne, & Blanfort, 2017). Yet persistent gender stereotypes remain. In their study of top-rated television shows from 2000 to 2013, Garland et al. (2017) found that female agents were generally portrayed as qualified; however, their competency was consistently questioned, and it was not uncommon for them to experience various forms of sexual harassment. Double standards about sexual behavior and relationship status remained a common theme, with women struggling to “have it all” balancing family life with work demands in ways that are not regularly interrogated among male protagonists (Garland et al., 2017). Constrained by our cultural imaginations around masculinities and femininities, we continue to be provided with a relatively narrow range of “who or what type of person” a police officer is, in ways that reproduce hegemonic masculinities.
Policing and Reality TV
As impactful as fictional programming may be, during the late 1980s and 1990s one of the most significant contributions to our cultural understanding of policing emerged by way of reality television (Fishman & Cavender, 1998; Phillips, 2014). During this time, in the United States, shows such as Unsolved Mysteries, Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, LAPD: Life on the Beat, and Top Cops debuted. Of the early shows, both Cops (1989) and America’s Most Wanted(1988), became American mainstays. The shows dramatically altered public perceptions of the police and transformed the relationship between police and the media. In 2013, the Fox Network canceled Cops, but Spike TV quickly picked it up, and continues airing it (Andreeva, 2013; Jurgensen, 2013), positioning it as one of “the longest-running entertainment series on prime-time network television” (Cops.com, 2017). America’s Most Wanted, hosted by victim advocate John Walsh, ultimately did not fare as well, and Fox canceled the show. It was revived for a brief run on Lifetime, but was canceled in 2013 (Cochran, 2013).
Since the 1990s, television cable networks have devoted much of their airtime to crime- and justice-related reality programming. Notably, shows featuring law enforcement, such as The First 48, Police POV, DEA, Female Forces, Mall Cops: Mall of America, Boston’s Finest, the SWAT, and Police Women of …, continued the tradition of providing the kind of police point-of-view verité footage popularized by Cops, but none maintained the longevity of the original. Police reality programming has littered the screens internationally, too. In Australia, for example, The Force, has been on air for over 11 seasons, situating it as one of the most successful reality franchises on Australian television (see Lee & McGovern, 2013).
Cops spearheaded the virtual experience of a ride-along in a way that was groundbreaking and irresistible to many viewers. Scholars have documented the myriad techniques the creators of Cops employed to manufacture reality, from the sound editing that simulates the flow of time to the careful and spare use of officer narration to the cinema-verité-style of filming. This manufactured reality privileging the officer’s point-of-view presents a worldview that pits police officers against villainous street criminals. Devoid of portrayals of excessive use of force or police misconduct, the show provides a clear narrative of heroic crime-fighters battling “bad boy” criminals to a successful and satisfying conclusion.
This formula reinforces a crime-control ideology that proves inspirational to officers and police departments, who eagerly participate in the show. Similarly, the show has been influential among those interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement (Doyle, 1998, 2004). Notably, it is not necessarily the so-called unfiltered reality that viewers find compelling, but the worldview—the promotion of crime-control ideology that, in turn, reinforces the legitimacy of policing—that draws support from viewers. Researchers have found that reality TV viewers, rather than watching the shows with unquestioning acceptance of their absolute reality, view them with a skeptical eye and are keenly aware of manipulation (see Lee & McGovern, 2013). However, in their study of viewers, Oliver and Armstrong (1995) found that crime-based reality shows tend to attract viewers who “evidenced higher levels of authoritarianism, reported greater punitiveness about crime, and reported higher levels of racial prejudice” (p. 565).
Scholars have documented that one of the most significant elements of law-enforcement-based reality TV shows is this reinforcement of crime-control ideology (Doyle, 2004; Fishman & Cavender, 1998; Valverde, 2006). As sociologist Aaron Doyle (1998, 2004) explained, crime-control ideology reinforces an us-versus-them mentality in which suspects are presumed guilty and dire criminal threats necessitate tougher criminal justice measures. In this context, due process concerns are minimized, and the police become “the thin blue line between them and us” (Doyle, 1998, p. 97). Most notably, Cops presents a particular type of racialized criminal threat occurring in a particular lower-class social context (e.g., street crime in locales exhibiting social and physical disorder), which reinforces the notion that tough-on-crime law enforcement is the solution.
Scholars have criticized Cops and other law-enforcement-based reality shows for perpetuating crime myths, particularly in regard to racial and ethnic portrayals of both suspects and officers. Monk-Turner et al. (2007) found that in the episodes of Cops they analyzed, the show was male-dominated in ways that were also racially problematic. Black men were overrepresented among those depicted as criminals and rarely presented as police officers. Women of color were largely absent from the show altogether (Monk-Turner et al., 2007; see also Kooistra, Mahoney, & Westervelt, 1998). In their study of Cops and World’s Wildest Police Videos, scholars Prosise and Johnson (2004, p. 84) pointed out that the more significant implication of these portrayals is that they reinforce discriminatory policing practices, such as racial profiling. By featuring pretextual stops based on “officer intuition” as a successful policing tactic that leads to arrests, the show irresponsibly justifies racial profiling:
Because these reality TV programs all but eliminated examples of police-suspect interactions that do not result in arrest or evidence of a more serious crime, the anecdotal form implies that police suspicions are always correct and thus the stops are invariably legitimate, simply products of good police work that makes society safer. (p. 85)
The extent to which the process of filming itself impacts police officers’ strategic decisions has been of concern. What is certain is that the tightly coupled relationship between policing and the media has been increasingly scrutinized and that the consequences of conflating the police and media roles can have disastrous results. For example, scholars have noted that production concerns shape behavior of law enforcement as police take a more active media role and that members of the media may be compromised as they serve as more active agents of law enforcement (Fishman & Cavender, 1998; Hallett & Powell, 1995).
In 2014, in Omaha, Nebraska, police officers responded to a robbery in progress at a Wendy’s restaurant. On arriving at the scene, they heard gunshots, and three officers returned fire toward the suspect (it was later discovered the suspect had fired an “Airsoft pistol that fires plastic pellet bullets”) (Fernandez, 2014). In the process, a Cops crew member, 38-year-old sound supervisor Bryce Dion, was shot and killed by one of the officer’s stray bullet (Fernandez, 2014; Parker, Pierce, & Verrier, 2014; Vaughn & Fitzsimmons, 2014). Unintentional killings in the context of filming television shows are rare, but a lawsuit in the aftermath of the incident alleging that the officers were negligent highlights the danger that productions will impact policing. The Chicago Tribune reported that the Dion family’s lawsuit against the city of Omaha alleged that “a lack of communication and coordination among dispatchers and all officers arriving on scene contributed to Dion’s death, and also blames the decision to invite the filming crew to go with officers” (Tribune News Service, 2016). Other legal issues involving similar shows have emerged in multiple lawsuits alleging failure to obtain appropriate releases from those depicted as suspects (Female Forces, America’s Most Wanted) and for withholding footage from the courts (The First 48; Correa, 2010; Mannix, 2016; United Press International, 1993).
The dangers of conflating entertainment media with policing reached its apotheosis with NBC’s To Catch a Predator. The show, hosted by Chris Hansen, fused vigilante justice, law enforcement, and questionable journalistic practices in an effort to whip up moral sentiment against a much maligned social pariah, the sex offender. In cooperation with law enforcement and the civilian vigilante group Perverted Justice, the show set up various online sting operations designed to attract predators targeting underage victims. The suspected predators were lured to a decoy house under the guise of meeting their targets in person, and upon arrival were subjected to Hansen’s “interrogations” and later arrested. While the show was known for heaping shame and humiliation on alleged predators, it was also known for its questionable ethical practices. For example, it came under fire for its dubious practice of empowering civilian vigilantes and for veering too close to practices of entrapment. The show’s own producer filed a lawsuit, later dismissed, alleging ethical violations by the show, Perverted Justice, and law enforcement. She alleged that she was fired for publicly acknowledging her concerns (Dittrich, 2009).
The show was heavily criticized for its contribution to a botched attempted arrest that ended in the suicide of Bill Conradt, an assistant district attorney, who was caught in an Internet sting exchanging messages with a presumed underage decoy. Conradt never traveled to the decoy house to meet in person; nonetheless, the police carried out a SWAT-team raid on Conradt’s house that ended with his suicide by a firearm. Many viewed the move to send in a SWAT team as entirely unnecessary and sensationalist, done for the benefit of the cameras (Dittrich, 2009). Conradt’s family filed a lawsuit that was settled out of court. A federal court judge had stated that the show
placed itself squarely in the middle of a police operation, pushing the police to engage in tactics that were unnecessary and unwise, solely to generate more dramatic footage for a television show… . A reasonable jury could find that by doing so, NBC created a substantial risk of suicide or other harm, and that it engaged in conduct so outrageous and extreme that no civilized society should tolerate it. (Gold, 2008)
The heyday of “police reality television” as it emerged in the 1980s has waned, although some of the old guard remain and carry with them a similar crime-control ideology, as well as the continuing ethical dilemmas that are a consequence of conflating the role of policing and that of the media. As already noted, new episodes of Cops still air. John Walsh transformed America’s Most Wanted into The Hunt with John Walsh (2014); and through the use of crowdfunding via Kickstarter, Chris Hansen reinvented To Catch a Predator, launching Hansen v. Predator in 2016. Internationally, police organizations have actively engaged with television opportunities, partnering with production companies to pursue a style of programming known as the “observational documentary” as a way of meeting corporate communications goals (see Lee & McGovern, 2013). These partnerships often give police veto power over what makes it to air, providing them with an opportunity to craft the police image in ways that facilitate corporate media messages. In Australia, programs such as RBT and Highway Patrol, are part of a range of media strategies that seek, among other things, to educate the public about crime risks, demonstrate good police work, deter people from engaging in criminal activity, and build trust and confidence in the police (Lee & McGovern, 2013).
Beyond television programming, changes in the broadcasting industry more generally, advances in technology, and new developments in policing practices that are centered around public relations have led to substantial changes in how the “reality” of policing is presented to the public. The police are no longer tethered to networks and broadcast television and can control their own messaging by distributing footage via their own social media accounts. In this way, their involvement in “reality television” programming set the police on a path that made the engagement with social media a natural progression in the pursuit of image management.
Police and Social Media
More recently, police media engagement has taken on a new dimension, one which seemingly bypasses traditional media formats and allows police to communicate directly with the public. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Periscope, and YouTube, are increasingly being adopted by police organizations as an additional mode through which they can pursue their media and public relations objectives (Lee & McGovern, 2013, p. 115). With social media now part of the everyday landscape, it is hardly surprising that police organizations, along with a range of other government agencies, have made use of these platforms as a way of communicating with their “customers.” Early police efforts on social media may have been somewhat clumsily executed, but in the space of a few short years many police organizations have developed quite sophisticated practices and policies in relation to their social media activities at a time when the traditional media landscape is undergoing significant challenges (Lee & McGovern, 2013). Social media now sits alongside traditional police media activities as a way of disseminating information, sharing stories about successful police work, and enfolding citizens within the policing agenda; indeed, using social media has become part of the community policing project; police forces in Australia, for example, employ Facebook as a virtual “Neighbourhood Watch” scheme. For some police organizations, social media work has become a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week operation, as Twitter and Facebook have become key sites for breaking police news, straight from the source. In many respects, such activities have, at the very least, minimized the need for traditional media exposure to alert the community to police messages. As well as playing a vital role in communicating risks to the public, as was seen during several natural disasters in Queensland, Australia, in 2010 and 2011 (Lee & McGovern, 2013), police have more recently employed humor to engage the public. As journalists Hunt (2017) and Butler (2017) explain, memes and humorous content has become part of a new social media approach, once which aims to increase the levels of engagement police have with the public on these platforms. As Lee and McGovern (2013) argue, police “image work on social media platforms not only demonstrates the dramaturgical nature of policing, but it also indicates the increasingly blurred line between operational policing, public relations and entertainment” (p.125).
Police Use of Force and Social Media
While policing organizations have embraced social media as tool for image management, its impact on police-community relations is perhaps most notable for bringing attention to instances of police brutality or other questionable uses of force. Unlike the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers that was captured on camera by a witness in 1991, delivered to a local Los Angeles news station, and later rebroadcast on CNN, mass media outlets are no longer the initial or primary means of dissemination (Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993). Instead, social media provides a direct outlet for the distribution of user-generated content, and police–citizen encounters are frequently captured and distributed via social media accounts. Police resistance to these “unauthorized” visuals, for example, by cracking down on the very act of recording police actions, has been described as a form of political struggle over the power of visibility and state power (Wall & Linnemann, 2014).
On July 6, 2016, Diamond Reynolds used Facebook to live-stream the aftermath of the shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile. The couple had been pulled over for a broken tail light, and according to reports, within about “one minute after the traffic stop began,” Castile was shot by a Minnesota police officer. Reynolds used Facebook to document what was transpiring in real time (McCarthy, 2016). The killing of Castile occurred just as the United States was reeling from another police shooting, which had occurred a mere 24 hours earlier, when Alton Sterling was held on the ground and shot by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Two bystander videos of the incident were made public, and as in similar incidents in which questionable force was used by police, public outrage and protests followed (Fausset, Perez-Pena, & Robertson, 2016; Lowery, Andrews, & Miller, 2016).
In the United Kingdom, footage, captured by an American businessman, of Ian Tomlinson being struck from behind on the leg with a baton by a police officer and then pushed to the ground called into question the police version of events following Tomlinson’s death near a protest zone (Lee & McGovern, 2013). In Australia, footage captured by members of the public and circulated on YouTube of an alleged violent incident involving a NSW Police Force officer and a Sydney Mardi Gras reveler “seemed to contrast with the carefully constructed image of the NSW Police Force” (Ellis & McGovern, 2016, p. 957).
Viral videos like these are no longer “remarkable” occurrences. Instead, they occur far too frequently and spark what Hans Toch calls a “clamorous chorus.” In the era of social media, those who are indignant transition from being mere bystanders to active spectators by morally condemning perceived abusive behavior and agitating for reform (Toch, 2012). Toch suggests that the “virtual crowds of today” engage in a chorus of discourse that ultimately questions police legitimacy and critically addresses the racial tensions that continue to manifest in police–community relations.
In July 2014, bystander Ramsey Orta filmed the killing of 43-year-old Eric Garner by New York police officers. The officers were attempting to arrest Garner for allegedly selling “loosie” cigarettes and put him in a chokehold (Daily News, 2015; Mathias, 2016). Although the video depicted Garner repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” the officers failed to heed Garner’s pleas, and he died while being transported to the hospital (Bloom & Imam, 2014). Garner’s statement, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for those protesting the excessive use of force by the police. If not for the video, it is unlikely that Garner’s case—and others like it—would have drawn national and international attention.
In fact, instances of excessive use of force by the police that minorities experience with relative frequency but are not necessarily documented provided the broader context for the Black Lives Matter social movement. The rallying cry of the movement emerged not from a police shooting, but from a deadly encounter in a Florida neighborhood between George Zimmerman and 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, in 2012. Zimmerman believed Martin, who was in possession of a bag of Skittles and a drink, to be “suspicious.” In direct opposition to the instructions given to him by the 911 operator, Zimmerman pursued Martin, confronted him, and shot him dead, subsequently claiming self-defense (CNN, 2017; Johnson, Warren, & Farrell, 2015). After “weeks of protests, marches, and demonstrations,” Zimmerman was arrested, charged with second-degree murder and ultimately acquitted. The context of the sentiment fueling the Black Lives Matter movement was described by activist and scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2016), as the “gathering tension over unpunished killings by police … There’s a growing feeling of being fed up with the vicious racism and brutality of cops across the country and the pervasive silence that shrouds it—and people are beginning to rise against it” (p. 149).
The “clamorous chorus” that has emerged in response to the myriad “unauthorized” recordings of encounters between citizens and the police has altered police operations and resulted in a clash of debates over police legitimacy (Chagnon, Chesney-Lind, & Johnson, 2016; Pyrooz, Decker, Wolfe, & Shjarback, 2016; Toch, 2012; Wolfe & Nix, 2015). As Desmond, Papachristos, and Kirk (2016) argue, “High-profile cases of police violence against unarmed citizens can undermine the legitimacy of legal authority” (p. 857), an issue that gets to the heart of police efforts to foster a positive image in the media and could arguably be behind the rolling out of body-worn cameras in police departments worldwide.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
The relationship between the police and the media continues to evolve as both institutions face challenges and opportunities in their operations. As long as traditional news media continue to be a major source of information for the public, the police and media will continue to operate in a reciprocal manner, even as power struggles between both organizations remain. The emergence of social media is increasingly changing the dynamics, affording police organizations more control over their own narratives and images. On the flipside, however, such advances have also led to greater scrutiny of the police by members of the public. Police organizations are thus more sharply focused than ever on image work, and consequently, they are dependent on the entertainment qualities of media, regardless of the medium.
Many forms of popular culture continue to promote crime-control ideology and as a result legitimize policing, even in instances of questionable discriminatory practices, but it is increasingly apparent that narratives in the early 21st century are more likely to offer nuanced perspectives on policing than in the past. Similarly, although the portrayals of police officers continue to reinforce hegemonic masculinities in ways that narrowly construe what crime-fighting is and who is capable of being a police officer, there are efforts being made to increase diversity in ways that challenge those constructions. There are possibilities that policing can be portrayed in ways that move beyond aggressive crime-fighting and the concomitant resentment of due process to recognition of the importance of community and service-oriented police work. Likewise, increases in diverse portrayals of police officers can move beyond the traditional conceptions of “white male crime-fighting” and instead embrace the intersectionality of officers, more closely resembling their lived experiences and engagement with their respective communities.
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