In 2020 the police killings of George Floyd and other Black people spurred many Americans to take a hard look at the police. Including the police on TV.
Two ride-along reality programs, including the decades-old “Cops,” were taken off the air. The police comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” rethought its final season. As critics called for a radical re-examination of what some called “copaganda” shows, the actor, writer and director Issa Rae told The Hollywood Reporter that if she were writing one, she would make it about community policing. “Hopefully,” she said, it would be “a boring, uneventful show that would get canceled.”
Two years later, it is clear that rumors of the cop show’s demise were greatly exaggerated. “Cops” is back, now on the Fox Nation streaming service. Eighteen crime-related programs are slated for prime-time slots on the major broadcast networks; three of the five most-viewed scripted network shows last season featured law enforcement (a fourth was about firefighters). The industry’s attitude was perhaps summarized at the Emmy Awards ceremony in September, when stars from the “Law & Order” franchise were introduced by the comedian Sam Jay as “two cops no one wants to see defunded.”
But beneath the surface, there are signs that the genre has been evolving in response to the current climate, which saw public trust in law enforcement reach a record low two years ago, even as a political backlash to some of the sharpest slogans, like “Defund the Police,” began to form.
A new hourlong police drama called “East New York,” which premiered Sunday evening on CBS, is part of a wave of crime shows that have been developed or rethought since Floyd’s death. It aims to explore the world of law enforcement in a more nuanced way, even featuring plotlines about, yes, community policing. One of its stars, Jimmy Smits, who was on the more in-your-face “N.Y.P.D. Blue” in the 1990s, said he was drawn to “East New York” by the chance to tell a different kind of policing story.
“The whole idea of law enforcement’s role with regard to, ‘To protect and serve,’ to be a guardian as opposed to a warrior, the idea that law enforcement is supposed to be in the community to protect it, is something I think we’re estranged from,” said Smits, who grew up in the real East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood, and who plays a police chief on the show.
Just as the breakup of the Soviet Union did not signal the end of history and the Sept. 11 attacks did not end irony, suggestions that the police killing of George Floyd might doom the traditional cop show were overstated. But series like “East New York” raise the question of whether cop shows can answer calls for reform — of both policing and television’s depictions of it — without losing the viewers that have kept them so popular.
“Cop shows have been around since the Flood — it’s always been a part of television programming,” said William Finkelstein, an “East New York” co-creator and executive producer whose writing credits include the genre landmarks “Law & Order” and “N.Y.P.D. Blue.” “But in the wake of George Floyd and the enormous outrage that evoked, particularly as it was directed against cops and policing policy, the question was: ‘How do you do a cop show?’”
On cable and streaming, in some cases, one answer stands out: The same as before. “Cops” had run since 1989, first on Fox and then on Paramount Network, before it was taken off the air in June 2020; now it is a favorite of Fox Nation viewers, who watched the start of a new season Friday night.
“Live PD,” a popular live ride-along show, was taken off A&E in June 2020. But a similar program from the same production team is now being shown on Reelz. A&E has sued Reelz and its producers over the new show, “On Patrol: Live,” arguing that though A&E suspended “Live PD” “during that critical time in our nation’s history,” it reserved the show’s rights. Reelz “believes the suit is without merit and remains committed to ‘On Patrol: Live,’” a spokesman, Aaron Martinez, said.
The ride-along genre can still find audiences, proponents say. “There’s been a counterreaction to the sweeping, ‘Defund the police, cops are bad, cops are the enemy,’” said Geraldo Rivera, a Fox News co-host whose 1980s crime specials helped pave the way for “Cops.” He said he felt the program had changed since the days when it was criticized for depicting alleged perpetrators who were disproportionately Black.
The police procedural dates back to the earliest days of television: “Dragnet,” featuring the “just the facts” Los Angeles sergeant Joe Friday, made the leap from radio to NBC in 1951.
Through the decades cop shows grew grittier in dramas like “Hill Street Blues,” “N.Y.P.D. Blue” and “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which was based on David Simon’s nonfiction book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” about policing in Baltimore. “Law & Order,” with its ripped-from-the-headlines approach, added prosecutors to the mix. “The Wire” took crime drama to new heights. And for two decades “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its many spinoffs and imitators have showcased the use of cutting-edge forensic technology by dispassionate crime solvers.
“Criminal procedural series are ideal programming in that we could always repeat them, since they were self-contained episodes with formulaic stories that make them ideal for audiences to watch them over again,” said Nancy Tellem, a former president of the CBS Television Entertainment Group.
Critics have argued that these shows’ subjects and story lines have normalized bad or even illegal police work. In early 2020, before Floyd’s murder, Color of Change, a group that promotes racial justice, published a report finding that television shows often portrayed police officers conducting illegal searches, tampering with witnesses and racially profiling suspects, and often did not frame such actions as worthy of condemnation.
But in the past two years, some cop shows have occasionally acknowledged the critiques lodged against them. On an episode of CBS’s “S.W.A.T.,” a Black sergeant is asked to perform outreach to the Black community. On NBC’s “Chicago P.D.,” a Black cop butts heads with a racist white cop. The final season of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which aired on NBC, opened with an episode in which an officer quits in response to the killing of Floyd. On ABC’s “The Rookie,” a main character becomes a union representative, offering a different perspective on policing.
“The aspirational quality of the first two seasons met the reality of what policing is now,” said Alexi Hawley, the creator and showrunner of “The Rookie,” referring to a rethinking following the summer of 2020.
But critics maintain that the strictures that have made cop shows good television limit their ability to respond to the moment in more than a superficial way.
“They do address these things now,” said George Pelecanos, the detective novelist who has written for HBO crime shows including “The Wire” and “We Own This City.” “But it’s all in the context of episodic television: We have a cop who plants evidence or is abusive, but by the end of the hour that guy’s going to get kicked off the force. It was one bad apple.”
“East New York,” which is produced by Warner Brothers Television, retains traditional aspects of the procedural — cops and robbers, interrogations and shootouts — while conspicuously introducing other elements.
In the first episode, a Black deputy inspector played by Amanda Warren is put in charge of the fictional 74th Precinct in East New York, a largely Black and Latino, lower-income area that regularly saw more than 100 murders a year in the early 1990s but where crime has since fallen. Pledging to see if some of the ideas she developed when she was a patrol cop could actually work, she upbraids detectives who fail to pause an interrogation as soon as the suspect asks for a lawyer and, at one point, suggests that an officer should move into a public-housing project in the precinct. The housing plotline, said Mike Flynn, an executive producer and co-creator, was inspired by a 2018 New Republic article about community policing in Rockford, Ill.
Flynn said he was intrigued by the article’s depictions of day-to-day interactions between police officers and community members. “Oftentimes we see cops in the news or when bad things happen,” he said.
In the show, Smits plays a high-ranking chief named John Suarez who tries to balance his wish to give Warren’s character space to try her ideas with his personal ambition in a system used to the old ways.
On a recent afternoon on a Brooklyn street corner, Smits and the actor and playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson shot a scene intended for an upcoming episode in front of a century-old Roman Catholic church. As a boom microphone hovered overhead, the chief lamented that a young cop in plain clothes had been pulled over for, in essence, driving while Black.
“Sometimes it feels like we haven’t made any progress at all,” he says.
“A lot of us watched you rise — the stars on your collar,” replies the veteran played by Santiago-Hudson, who is Black. “I’d say there’s been plenty of progress.”
“But I don’t live in my uniform,” Smits’s character responds grimly.
Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, a professor of media studies at DePauw University who has studied cop shows, said that “East New York” sounded promising but that its ultimate jury would be viewers. “TV history is full of shows with amazing sensibilities, asking super-tough questions, and then getting canceled because there’s no audience,” he said.
From inside the writers’ room of “The Rookie,” Hawley made a similar point. “I’m proud we managed to become a show that had more depth but still felt like our show,” he said. “We’re not helping anybody if people turn us off.”