For those of you who don't know, I actually got my bachelors degree in criminal justice forever and a day ago at Indiana University. I worked as a security guard through most of my later college years, and though I had some vague notion of maybe going into law enforcement post-graduation, my real motivator was because I wanted to write more accurate detective stories. Since doing all the research on laws, police procedure, and figuring out how things worked behind the scenes was going to take a huge amount of time and effort anyway, I thought I might as well get a B.S. for doing all that work.
When I first started my degree I already knew academically that cop shows, procedural crime novels, etc. were skewed in how they showed events. Much like how war movies and action films hyped things up and made them more exciting, I knew you had to keep the audience entertained if you wanted them to keep watching. It wasn't until I got into the nitty-gritty details of how law enforcement did (and sometimes didn't) work that I started noticing patterns in our entertainment where cops feature as protagonists.
That it is, for the most part, fucking propaganda.
|In position, we heard there was a guy with a sign.|
What is Copaganda?
The short version is that copaganda is the focus on police-friendly narratives that play up the idea that they are here to help, and that they are heroes. Stories about how cops kneel in solidarity with protesters are often run by the mainstream news, who leaves out that the same cops then attacked protesters once the cameras were off. It's how most of us had no idea what civil asset forfeiture was until John Oliver ran a piece on it on Last Week Tonight. It's about how over and over again we hear about "a few bad apples" when behavioral reports are repeatedly hidden from the public, and officers fired for violence or abuse of authority are often hired back at different departments, no questions asked.
Copaganda applies to fiction, too, and we have swallowed a lot of it over the years.
For those who haven't seen the above video, the short version is that cops (the sort we think of today), were often subjects of ridicule during the early part of the 20th century in fiction. Even before that, they were usually seen as problems to be dealt with, if they were mentioned at all. While Westerns might have a heroic sheriff or deputy, that was a very different kettle of fish. Private detectives, amateur sleuths, and even criminals all got leading roles, while police were usually the comic relief.
As the era of Prohibition came about, though, Hollywood and the police entered into a kind of devil's bargain. Hollywood was riddled with morality scandals (as well as actual crimes committed by many of its leading figures), and they needed somebody on their side to clean up after them and keep it out of the public eye. Police had been losing a public image war pretty hard, and they needed help polishing up their appearance in the eyes of the public. So one hand washed the other.
This didn't lead immediately to police detectives becoming leading men you could trust, but it did mean that cops were often treated as serious background characters in Hollywood's pieces (especially where the LAPD were involved). Even if the film focused on a private eye, such as the infamous Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, the actual police would be seen as doing their jobs and trying to actually fix things. This, of course, exploded when Dragnet basically invented the police procedural, first as a radio show, and then as a TV show.
Side note, while Dragnet claimed the cases presented were based on real police cases, Jack Webb was often more than happy to buff out some details here, or sweep problems under the rug. In return the LAPD was far more open with case files, equipment, personnel, etc. that could then be used to help stage a "dramatic re-enactment" of one of their cases. This is a lot like how the U.S. government is happy to provide gear, techs, training, etc. to Hollywood film studios for action movies as long as they aren't overly critical of the U.S. and its foreign policy decisions. Same shit, different Hollywood day.
|Follow the money, as they say in mystery novels.|
Dragnet, of course, is the granddaddy of a lot of today's copaganda entertainment, and the "special" relationship that TV shows and movies have with the police hasn't stopped since. If you're looking to see exactly how strong that relationship is, ask yourself how many times Internal Affairs agents are depicted as the good guys, how often "extreme" interrogation methods yield bad information, or how often police brutalize the wrong suspect (especially when that isn't a plot point, but rather just something that happens on the regular). These things, along with the stereotype of the, "loose cannon who doesn't play by the rules but gets results!" are all distinct flourishes that frame our fiction from a usually pro-cop frame.
It also contributes in meaningful ways to how we think of cops, and what they can and can't do.
That is, after all, the goal of copaganda.; to make us think of them as heroes putting their lives on the line (even though they're 16th on the most dangerous jobs list behind taxi drivers, roofers, and truckers), or to immediately try to see things from their perspective. If you find yourself rushing to defend a cop who hit his wife, or who assaulted a suspect, or who shot someone who was unarmed, ask yourself why. Then ask yourself if the assumption you're operating off of is a product of facts, knowledge, and experience, or if it's because it fits the narrative we've seen in our cop stories (which are all the information a lot of us have about police work).
Let's Take a Break From The Badges, Shall We?
Police, as characters, are really easy to write. It's one reason you can barely flip more than five channels before coming across a Dick Wolf show that's been running for nine seasons. After all, it's the cops' job to walk right into your plot, and to solve it as best they can.
But even that part isn't actually realistic if you look at the numbers, sadly.
Can you still write stories about cops? Absolutely you can! It's your book, and you can do whatever you want. However, it's important to look around at the world you're living in, and the facts in front of you, and to ask how much artistic license you're going to need to take to make this story work... and then how much more you'll need to make it palatable.
My advice for folks who don't want their work to be classified as copaganda (or to be ignored as just another pro-cop novel, if you're looking at things from a sales perspective), is to go back to the pre-1920s days and change the protagonist's profession. Make them a private eye, a gun-for-hire, or even an ex-cop who does work on the sly for people who can't get the regular police to look into their cases. If you want to go crazy with it, though, change the setting entirely so your main character is a cat who solves problems regarding packs of dogs putting the squeeze on local residents (the plot of my upcoming book Marked Territory from Ring of Fire Press, for those who are curious). Failing that, make it a sci-fi or fantasy story about police work (though this is not a guaranteed fix, and works best for stories like the film Robocop where the work has a lot to say in the subtext).
The stories we tell have messages, and they can resonate with our readers. That said, one of the most honest things you could do if you wanted to write a cop story for today's audience would be to give us something unvarnished, and which doesn't put a spit shine on things. Let the reader see the corruption, the grift, the power games, and the compromised morality, even if the story isn't about that. Talk about political pressure, and about the true masters the police have to serve in society. And if you really want to catch readers' attention, talk about what actually happens to good cops who try to make a difference.
Because those stories are heartbreaking, and are rarely told.
Also, since I mentioned it, don't be afraid to watch Robocop again in a post-ACAB world. It holds up quite well, and as I recently said in Robocop is Lawful Good, you can use him as an ideal mold for making a heroic, though tragic, cop character... at least in the first film.
Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!
That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my short story collection The Rejects!