The Myth of Civil Rights on Television

My ongoing fascination with law enforcement on television has been stoked most recently by Almost Human, the Fox drama on policework in 2048, when human cops are partnered with androids in a hell-like version of Los Angeles that’s become plagued with crime and social inequity. As always, I find it fascinating that most television depictions of law enforcement and the justice system are told from the point of view of authorities, not civilians and victims, and it’s a telling testimony to the way in which pop culture influences society; with people consuming such programmes for entertainment, people are also getting a steady diet of pro-police propaganda.

Such shows routinely show the abuse of prisoners, suspects, and witnesses, and this is depicted as not only necessary but sometimes actively good. We see interrogators and police officers as heroes when they hit, emotionally abuse, and torture people in order to collect information and collect a point. We cheer when prisoners are framed, when cases ‘go the right way’ even if it involves corruption, abuse of evidence, and other misdeeds. As witnesses, we become complicit in the abuse of innocent people, and in the perpetuation of the idea that law enforcement officers can do no harm and are primarily beneficial to society.

One thing I’ve been struck by recently in law enforcement shows is the self-referential commentary when it comes to prisoners exercising their civil rights; a character will say, for example, that a prisoner ‘would have learned to lawyer up if she ever watches cop shows.’ The writers are referencing the idea that members of the public take lessons away from cop shows (as, for example, in the CSI effect, the explosion of interest in forensics that accompanied the pop culture phenomenon of the CSI franchise) and apply them to their own lives. And in a sense, that throwaway comment by a character is right: almost anyone who has watched a cop show at least a few times does in fact know enough to ‘lawyer up,’ requesting that an attorney be present before answering any questions submitted by police officers.

What I find more intriguing and curious, though, is the lack of broader discussions of civil rights in cop shows, and I do not think this is unintentional. Suspects, prisoners, and others rarely seem to exhibit knowledge of their larger civil rights, nor do law enforcement officers bring it up, and thus viewers remain blissfully unaware that they have access to more civil rights than simply being able to request a lawyer and being able to go after a certain period if they haven’t been charged with a crime.

For example, a number of civil rights surround searches of homes and vehicles, and while we sometimes see token protest over home searches and insistences on warrants, we rarely see similar defenses of vehicles. Vehicles are routinely searched without warrants or probable cause and characters never protest, nor do we see any of the evidence collected in illegal searches being questioned or excluded from trial by officials who are aware that it was not obtained in legal searches.

We also don’t see many cases of defense attorneys challenging evidence and succeeding in having it excluded; all evidence is good evidence in the mind of law enforcement shows, and thus viewers may come away with the false takeaway that once something has been collected, it stays on the record forever and can be used in court against them. While words like ‘hearsay’ and ‘circumstantial’ are sometimes thrown around in television courts for the purpose of advancing a storyline, ultimately, evidence is usually allowed to stand, and juries usually convict, because the good guys are the ones on the law enforcement side.

The depiction of law enforcement as unilaterally good even when they do bad things is troubling for those, like me, who do not endorse ‘anything for a cause.’ Everyone has equal civil rights in society, including murderers and rapists, who deserve a right to a fair and untainted investigation, a fair trial, and equal treatment in the courts. They are, after all, innocent until proven guilty under the law, and it is the responsibility of police officers and other law enforcement authorities to run a clean investigation and, if they’re guilty, to put them away in a fashion that can be said to be above reproach.

From a purely practical point of view, problems with a case can come back to haunt a conviction, which may be vacated by a judge on appeal if arguments against the original case are compelling enough. Thus, our supposed good guys who manage to successfully put a rapist away or bring a murderer to justice actually fail in the end as a result of their corner-cutting and abusive tactics. In a larger ethical and social point of view, if law enforcement are truly righteous and trustworthy, they shouldn’t have to resort to violating civil rights to get their jobs done.

And television depictions of law enforcement should be unafraid when it comes to depicting civil rights and the exertion of same. Since many people aren’t going to learn about civil rights in any other way, why not incorporate it more comprehensively into television dramas? Not only would it create more drama and tension, but it would also add to opportunities for discussion and critique among audiences. For that matter, why not twist the traditional framing and tell a story from the point of view of the accused, rather than the police? What about a miniseries featuring someone harassed by law enforcement and trapped in the justice system, like Sundance’s Rectify? Why must we always hear from police, but not the other side?