anonymous in hollywood

I’m a Writer on Cop Shows. A Lot Doesn’t Sit Right With Me.

How does it feel to make police TV in 2020?

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi
Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

No one has done more to propagate the myth of the hero cop than the writers of network-television police procedurals. On Law & Order and its many, many offspring, you might occasionally see a stray bad apple, but they never spoil the barrel, and cops who break the rules are most often portrayed as crusaders for a greater good. Here, confessions from the writers, directors, and producers of these shows.

A Writer on a Procedural Cop Drama

I was told pretty early on to avoid dirty cops as story points. Policing is presented as a morally good cause. We have heroes who are definitely molded after the shake-you-down, stop-and-frisk, throw-you-up-against-the-wall kind of cop. There are instances when, through our characters, we straight up glorify what should be illegal police practices.

Almost any time I’ve pitched a story that addresses issues of race and the police, it will go through a washing machine of notes, rewrites, and edits that turn it into something else entirely. A lot of the time, those notes are very flippant — “Well, what if he was a she? Or what if that person was gay? Or what if they were Black instead of white?” Identity, racial identity — it’s just a whim.

Anything judged to be overtly political, especially if it’s not in line with the majority of our audience’s politics, will get shot down or altered. You shift a few words and casting choices and a story can feel very different pretty quickly. I’ve seen a Black officer talking about race become a white officer talking about politics.

When I produce an episode, sometimes things get fucked with. I’ll advocate for a mixed crowd in a protest scene and the showrunner will say, “No make them mostly Black.” And it’s not just protests. It could be a mostly Black crowd at a concert where there’s a shooting, which is just yet another image associating Black people with violence.

These shows are such monoliths. The idea of them changing in any fundamental way is hard to get your head around, but I do think change is possible. The conversation among writers and creators on our show has shifted this season — we’re talking about corruption in the force in a way we haven’t before. We’re hiring Black writers and adding recurring Black cast members who regularly have dialogue with our white protagonists so there can be more conversations about race and class, which allows the writers to reflect the conversations happening in the world right now.

A Writer and Producer of True-Crime Documentaries on TV

Writing and producing the show involves researching a murder, going to a small town, interviewing the cops who were involved, interviewing the families, and telling the story. We have to get permission from the police, because without them, we don’t have a story. We are in the hero business. There have been times when I’ve felt complicit in what is, essentially, a police department’s PR campaign. I did once pitch a show about bad cops, where we’d investigate crimes committed by police. That idea was just a complete nonstarter — chuckles around the table. Not because the people I work with are pro-cop or anti–positive change — they just read the room. We know we’re not going to get money to make a show about bad cops because cooperation with the police is essential.

Sometimes while researching a show, I question police techniques or just plain competence. Some murder investigations take way too long. The cops can come across as bumbling. We do a very good job of making them look better than they are. We make the investigations look much more efficient and quicker than they really are. If we show B-roll footage, you’re going to see a cop doing a hero walk and getting into his car like a cowboy; we’re not going to show him swinging a baton at some kid on the sidewalk. There’s always a happy ending.

Fifteen years ago, when I started doing this work, there was an unwritten rule when you were doing research for shows that you didn’t do Black shows. What I mean is, we didn’t write shows with Black victims. Of course, no one had any problem if the murderer was Black or a person of color. But people were more open in saying not to bother researching a story about a kid who gets gunned down in Chicago, or a young woman who was killed by her pimp. We were told: “Remember your demographic.” Our demographic was white housewives, and generally they wanted to see shows about people that looked like them. You’d pitch a show, and if it was a city crime, an urban murder, there was hesitation, and maybe you’d hold out until you found a dentist who killed his New Jersey housewife. So, in a series that had ten episodes, maybe one would be a Black victim, and if the victim was a person of color, they had to be upper or middle class, living in the suburbs.

And the implications of all that is that you’re seeing fewer Black faces on TV, whether they’re murder victims or not. So you get an unrealistic portrait of the world. Now to accuse television of portraying an unrealistic vision of the world is rich. That’s the whole nature of TV. But when you’re talking about a network that’s trafficking in the idea of true crime and reality and documentary, then I think it’s valid to question that.

A Director and Producer of More Than a Dozen Network Cop Shows

I’ve worked on many different kinds of cop shows. There are two basic categories: One involves three-dimensional detectives and uniformed police officers who are flawed and who make mistakes and deal with their biases. Then there are shows that are not as good that present cops as close to infallible and heroic. Those are the only choices you get. What I never get to make are shows in which the cops are actually acting in a criminal way.

Network procedurals typically have current or former police officers who serve as advisers. In my experience, I’ve generally found them to be extremely truthful and less likely to protect the blue curtain. For instance, a cop once told me that you can never trust a police officer on the stand, because that person will always say whatever’s necessary to put the defendant in prison if they believe he is guilty. There is no fear of perjury. That’s gotten me out of jury duty quite a bit, by the way — whenever they ask me if I can be unbiased about cops, I say, “Well, no, because I was told by a prominent ex-cop to never trust them on the stand.”

A Writer-Producer on “a Conservative Cop Show”

On our show, we reinforce the idea that police are good so that the world is exactly the way the people in our audience want to believe it is. We all know who our audience is, so we rationalize it because this is our job. Even if we know it’s wrong.

When we’re casting an episode, as much as I can, I’ll say, “Open casting.” But I don’t want to perpetuate a stereotype. If I can make a victim a POC and a criminal white, I’m going to do that. But then the powers that be start picking at you, and by the time you’re approaching production, you’re exhausted. And you’re just like, “Fine. Forget it. Just do what you want.”

There’s this thing with casting — we have to have a certain number of people of color per season. I don’t really know exactly what the rules are, but they come down from the network and then they trickle down to the writers through the casting department. This can be a problem. Does representation matter if the representation isn’t good? Does it matter if we’re casting more people of color, if it’s always the people of color who are criminals and the white person who is a victim?

There was one time when I tried to write a story about a young white affluent drug addict. I got the script through the writing process until preproduction, which is several months. But then casting said, “We need to diversify the episode,” so I proposed diversifying a different story in the episode, just a straightforward murder. And my boss was like, “No, let’s do your story about the drug addict — just make them Black.” I tried to argue. I told him that the opioid epidemic is a white problem, too. But in the end, we cast a young Black drug addict, and that was not the story I wanted to tell.

A Crew Member on a Popular Procedural

Like a lot of procedurals, we have a police technical consultant. Our show aims to be accurate, and if the director doesn’t know how to block a certain scene, our consultant becomes the arbiter of what is realistic. When we’re depicting gang activity, he’ll determine how those characters are portrayed. So he tells our Black extras and stunt people how to act like gang members. He’ll ask extras about their gang history, and sometimes they’ll actually tell him if they have any. But even when these guys know better how they might behave in a given situation, he tells them how to act. And before one of our cops takes any sort of physical action, he always makes sure we manufacture a reason why the cop would have the right to do it. He’s always saying stuff like, “As a cop, I have the right to shoot you in the back when you’re running away.” That came up after Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by Jason Van Dyke in Chicago.

A lot of that doesn’t sit right with me. It’s always creating an excuse for cops to have had the right to get violent. We always have to make sure we show the guy reaching toward his pocket for a gun. There’s so much I hear from the directors and the consultant that bothers me. They try to do things like not have our cops call Black characters “boy.” It still comes up with our actors — they’ll riff because they’re not satisfied with the writing, and if they say something offensive, someone will jump in and say, “Hey, we can’t say that anymore. We’ve gotten notes on that; it’s racist.” People make it so that our cop characters don’t use those terms anymore. But it would be more accurate if they did, because that’s what real cops do say.

A Writer and Producer With Over a Decade of Experience Working on Network Procedurals

The show I worked on had a predominantly white male pedigree as well as a military and law-enforcement pedigree. One of the toughest experiences I had was writing an origin story about a Black character who was the head of an agency. In real life, all the heads of this particular agency have been white, but it was nice to have this character I’d created: a Black man who was the head of the agency. But we ran into some problems with his origin story — there was a boxing story line and a relative of his who was a prostitute, and all of it raised issues, particularly for the Black actors and producers on the show. So we had a big conversation and asked, “Are we being reckless with tropes?” In the end, we made adjustments until the actor was okay with it. As a writer, you’re putting a lot of responsibility on an actor — they live in their character.

People believe the things they see on TV about how the system works. Think about Law & Order — does it ever give you the impression that these investigations and trials take six months to 36 months from start to finish? For the sake of storytelling, we create myths. I once wrote an episode where three white male police officers tackle a large Black man. The way that story was conceived, the important thing was that the guy was a gigantic strong dude who had accidentally taken meth. He wasn’t designed to be any particular race, but the best actor who auditioned was Black. In the scene, one of the white officers puts his boot on the man’s neck until he loses consciousness and then removes his boot. It’s frightening to look at that now and realize the commentary, which is: “See how he took his boot off his neck after he lost consciousness?” That episode has been on my mind a lot.

A Writer With Experience Working on a Variety of Police Procedurals

I’ve worked for a lot of white men and some right-leaning white men, and almost all the writers in the rooms were white, too. It was difficult to talk about race. I was once a writer on a show that was set in a very diverse city with a large Black community, but we hardly ever talked about race on the show. I was assigned to write an episode for that show about a young Black boy who witnesses a murder and is shocked into silence. I really wanted to talk about the boy’s fear of this white police officer who’s trying to gain his trust, because he’s been raised not to trust this man, based on his position and his job and the color of his skin. But the showrunner, who was white, didn’t have any appetite for that type of storytelling, and we went in a different direction. So the episode becomes a story about a Black boy who instinctively trusts a white police officer, without questioning how that dynamic would really play out or acknowledging systemic racism. It always bothered me and felt completely disingenuous.

The truth is, the day-to-day work of a police officer isn’t exciting enough for television, so we dramatize it. This worries me because I wonder if people will watch and think this is how it really happens. We never show cops getting warrants. You see how this directly correlates with the real world in Breonna Taylor’s case. A no-knock warrant led to her being killed by police, and yet, just like in all the cop shows I’ve written, there have been few repercussions for those officers. We need to take a hard look at our role in this.

These stories have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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*This article appears in the July 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

I’m a Writer on Cop Shows. A Lot Doesn’t Sit Right With Me.