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The Case for a Content Warning for Bad Policing

We watch with great joy when the police officer pulls over the bad guy, then strolls to the back of their car and smashes the taillight to create probable cause. We don’t flinch when the detective unplugs the camera during an interrogation so that he can “turn up” a suspect with a phone book or when officers advise sympathetic suspects to use the term “I feared for life” to avoid prosecution. Under the guise of not letting the bad guys away, we are treated to protracted chase sequences where officers cause thousands of dollars in property damage. The exchange in the 2020 film “Bad Boys for Life” highlights the casualness of property destruction and extreme violence done in the name of policing:

Captain Howard: Look at all this carnage!

Mike: Aw come on Cap, I didn’t do all this shit. They did this to each other.

Captain Howard: Wait, wait. You didn’t shoot anybody?

Mike: Well, come on Cap, you know I shot somebody.

Pre-program warnings and ratings aim to inform viewers about the content they are about to consume. So, in the spirit of a more informed viewing public, perhaps it is time to list “bad policing” in pre-program warnings and use it as an element of MPAA ratings. In the four years since the murder of George Floyd, there have been numerous conversations about how police officers interact with the public.  The Black Lives Matter movement has kept the conversation in the public discourse. Evening news continues to present narratives where the interactions between the public and the police lead to negative outcomes. So maybe it is time to call out “bad policing” as a narrative device.

In 2017, HealthyChildren.org released a report entitled “Glamorizing Addiction: The Problem of Smoking in Movies”. This report contributed to the rise of public concern with the depiction of smoking in entertainment narratives, making claims that film narratives were guilty of glorifying smoking and seducing young people to take up the habit. In response, Congress convened hearings on smoking in film and television programming. This was not the first time the public and Congress had raised concerns regarding the depiction of smoking, but this was the first instance of it happening in the era of streaming, declining box office revenue, and 24-hour news cycles.

Streaming services did not resist adding smoking to the warnings at the beginning of episodes. Netflix, which received a great deal of negative attention for smoking in their program “Stranger Things,” responded to the smoking concerns by requiring that all programming that wanted the TV-14 rating would have no depictions of smoking. In 2019, the MPAA added smoking to the items that could impact a film's rating. While the MPAA added smoking to the list, it did not agree with those who wanted any depiction of smoking to earn the film an R rating. This new classification of smoking has led to a significant reduction in the depiction of smoking in films. Since 2019, content creators have been forced to question whether the depiction of smoking is essential to the narratives they want to tell.

So why not add a rating for bad police?

The post-George Floyd era presents an excellent opportunity to discuss how entertainment can create a space for dialogue and education. Audiences could use some help in understanding the concept of qualified immunity as they debate police behaviors. “Qualified immunity” is a legal term that has been bandied around a great deal in policing conversations with a limited explanation of legal ramifications to citizens. We could also use some tools to help us identify and respond to “Copaganda”.

Copaganda is not a new phenomenon; however, the current times indicate the need for greater awareness and understanding of its power to shape political and cultural discourse. Copaganda can be applied to media narratives that operate almost entirely from the perspective of law enforcement, such as programs like "Cops," "The Shield," "Miami Vice," and movies like "Dirty Harry," "Bad Boys," and "Beverly Hill Cop."

These narratives offer no space for critiquing policing while presenting numerous examples of “bad policing.” Not only do these narratives privilege the perspective of law enforcement, but they also often present communities as crime-ridden hellscapes that need a strong police presence, thus justifying “bad policing.” Media critic George Gerbner coined the term “scary world syndrome” for those who begin seeing the world outside their home as dangerous and hostile. This “scary world syndrome” can make citizens more accepting and less critical of police behaviors, allowing “Copaganda” to have a significant influence on public debates around policing. Giving the audience tools to critique media should be seen as a positive.

Film and television narratives play an important role in how the public engages with important political and cultural conversations. Content creators' willingness to address the role of smoking has had a noticeable impact, with fewer people, particularly young people, taking up the habit. Perhaps a greater awareness of “bad policing” would lead those who create entertainment to think carefully about how it is used in the narrative.

Creators would have to provide the audience with more context around policing decisions and spend some screen time on the consequences of decisions.

Perhaps it is time for the normalization of “bad policing” to receive a bit more scrutiny from content creators. Greater scrutiny and labeling of “bad policing” present the audience with tools to engage the content, and we should welcome the prospect of a more nuanced policing conversation. Or maybe the audience will always be comfortable with “bad policing” if it's restricted to the bad guys who “deserve” it, and it scratches our escapist itch.

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