In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer, racialized police brutality has been at the forefront of a national conversation: Thousands of Americans have protested; thousands have signed petitions online and donated to organizations that support black people.
Throughout all of this, people are looking for more ways to condemn the violence they have seen time after time from police officers, who are often not held accountable for their actions. Now, television shows that depict police officers positively are being met with criticism for propagating something called “copaganda.”
Copaganda refers to propaganda that is aimed at making police officers, or cops, look good. The term does not refer to one singular area of media, but rather anything that intends to or has the effect of portraying police officers and the general criminal justice system in a positive manner.
One of the more recent examples of a popular cop show is “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a sitcom starring “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Andy Samberg as a detective at the New York Police Department. The show has been on the air since 2013 and just ended its seventh season in April.
To stay on the air for seven years, a show has to have a good number of loyal fans who continue to tune in week after week. Back in 2018, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” proved the loyalty of its fan base when Fox cancelled the show to national outcry. Celebrities including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sean Astin, Mark Hamill and Guillermo del Toro vouched for the greatness of the show. Within 31 hours of being cancelled, it was picked up by NBC for a sixth season.
Although the number of fans a show has doesn’t exactly equate to the quality of the program — looking at you, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” — “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” has amassed a fair amount of critical success as well, achieving a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.4 on IMDb.
Cop Show Controversy
Despite the allegiance of its fans and apparent success as a sitcom, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is not immune to criticism from those who believe supporting any media that hails police officers as anything but a negative force in society is biased and wrong.
Particularly on Twitter, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was put in the hot seat, with users tweeting that the show is “blatant copaganda” and “it doesn’t matter how good Brooklyn 99 is we gotta stop making copaganda shows.”
One user even suggested in a now viral tweet, “Could Brooklyn 99 just suddenly and without explanation switch to being about a post office.” More than 335,000 likes seems to indicate that a whole lot of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” lovers agree with her.
Could Brooklyn 99 just suddenly and without explanation switch to being about a post office
— Louisa 🌈👭 (@LouisatheLast) June 3, 2020
It isn’t just “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”; “Criminal Minds,” “Law & Order,” “Blue Bloods” and “Chicago PD” were also placed under scrutiny when fans considered whether their favorite television shows were perpetuating a falsely positive image of how police officers function in our society.
Is it wrong?
Here’s the real dilemma: Is it wrong to base a sitcom off of a profession whose officers are 2.5 times more likely to kill a black person than a white person?
There isn’t an easy answer. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” itself has addressed racism a number of times, most prominently in a Season 4 episode titled “Moo Moo” where a detective played by Terry Crews is stopped in his own neighborhood one night by a police officer who doesn’t think Crews’ character looks like he “belongs” in the neighborhood.
The episode goes on to discuss whether systemic change is possible and how to best address the kind of discrimination Crews faced, but the show deliberately leaves the answer open-ended, never suggesting that it holds all the right answers on how to fix racism in police departments.
But for every episode like “Moo Moo,” there is also a story arc like that in “The Bet,” a Season 1 plotline involving a bet between two detectives on who can make the most arrests. Not who can do the most good for a community (no, I don’t know how that would be measured either), but who can put the most people behind bars. This is a major criticism of police departments across the country: They focus more on arrest numbers than serving actual justice.
And the two detectives making the bet aren’t side characters the audience is supposed to scoff at — although “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” also has that in old-school detectives Hitchcock and Scully — they are two of the main characters, who go on to become the show’s main couple.
One could go on and on listing examples of when the show has addressed issues with care and when they have misstepped. It raises the point, however; even if “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” did everything right (and it’s done just about all it can), it’s still a show about wacky, fun-loving police officers that uses the work environment of a police precinct for laughs. It’s still copaganda.
No one has offered a definitive answer as to whether “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and other copaganda shows should be held responsible for the reality of the police profession, and that’s probably because there isn’t one. It’s up to viewers to decide for themselves whether they will continue to watch the adventures of Jake Peralta and his friends while real-life police brutality continues to occur across the U.S.
Whether “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” will address racial police brutality more in its upcoming eighth season remains to be seen, but one thing is certain. The show will have to work extra hard to keep fans coming back in a world where real-life police officers continue to abuse their power and get away with it.