Like most people genuinely seeking to learn at the beginning of the 2020 wave of Black Lives Matter Protests, I picked up the first thing by Dr Angela Davis I could access. ‘Are Prisons Obsolete’ to be precise. Going into this read I knew I was going to be uncomfortable at the very least. Even as a black woman, there are still many ways in which I experience privilege within society that I knew were about to be unearthed. Dr Davis challenged a lot of the things I believed were true within pages of her discussion, making me realise that although I was fully aware the police as an institution was deeply flawed, racist and damn near cultish, I still thought we needed them. I had never imagined a future for the black liberation in which the police didn’t exist in its entirety; I just thought there’d be a perfect version of them. The version that has been force fed to us through countless forms of propaganda, the biggest one being television.
On pages 17 & 18 of ‘Are Prisons Obsolete’, Dr Davis says, “The history of visuality linked to the prison is also a main reinforcement of the institution of the prison as a naturalised part of our social landscape. The history of film has always been wedded to the representation of incarceration....Thus the prison is wedded to our experience of visuality, creating also a sense of permanence as an institution. We also have a constant flow of Hollywood prison film, in fact a genre. ”
As soon as I had digested what these words meant, Jake Peralta’s face followed by a stream of other fictional TV law enforcement immediately appeared in my thoughts. It took me a while to give ‘Brooklyn 99’ a go in the first place; mainly because I just didn’t think it would be that gripping as I’d seen so many cop/detective/crime shows before. In fact, virtually all the media we have digested in our entire lives features police in one way or another, even when they’re not part of the plot itself. Entire genres and franchises as Dr Davis points out such as CSI & NCIS had a small but consistent presence in everything I watched as a kid. Police officers up until now have had an incredibly permanent place in my psyche mainly because TV tells us that for the majority of the time , they keep us safe.
Brooklyn 99 is a police precinct in New York City that is governed by a gay black man with a very annoying but lovable Jewish man for a protagonist. Jake Peralta, although extremely childish, is by all standards the ideal cop just like everyone else he works with. Throughout the show any mistake he made was always with good intentions or in order to serve a greater purpose. They care about justice alone, work hard on their cases so when they accidentally tackle and arrest the wrong person, it’s funny and harmless. It doesn’t play out like an abuse of power or even look remotely malicious because they were doing their jobs.
Other shows reinforce the good cop narrative by exacerbating the personas of the bad guys they’re hunting and often amplifying harmful tropes about mental health in the process. We’ve seen episode after episode on shows like ‘Castle’ and ‘Lie To Me’ with serial killers that are schizophrenic or possessing other personality disorders villainized in order to create larger than life characters for the police to outsmart. The existence of these characters leaves the audience with a new and heightened sense of fear for already marginalised groups of people making the schema that has us believing that mentally ill people pose a threat to our safety more accessible. Furthermore as these big bad evils get outsmarted by our favourite officers and detectives, we’re left with a sense of justice as they get locked up, reminding us yet again that these people do not deserve freedom under any circumstances and the police as an institution are the only ones who can truly protect us.
The truth is, society is actually much safer than these shows and the news would have you believe. Don’t get me wrong, rapists and cold-blooded murderers are very much alive and well, but they also don’t make up for a huge percentage of crime. And for being two of the few crimes that don’t have poverty as the main driver; they’re conviction rates are abysmal. In essence, most of the crime that occurs is completely solvable with access to resources and education and the crime that can’t be resolved by these isn’t even being adequately handled by the police. When I think about ‘Brooklyn 99’, the people in it, what they apparently manage to achieve within their community, one can only come to the conclusion that statistically, they don't exist. In 2019 taxpayers funded $68,688,423 as the cost of misconduct lawsuits in New York City alone. To put in simpler terms, that is how much the lawyers cost to defend New York city police officers in lawsuits against civilians. Misconduct lawsuits that include, but are not limited to cold-blooded murder, rape, assault (sexual and otherwise) and severe injury due to excessive force.
Jake Peralta and his friends are made to seem like they do no wrong because of their genuine desire to help. So every time they give someone a criminal record for stealing a bike or dealing drugs we are filled with a twisted sense of justice that is rooted solely in capitalism; a system that has somehow managed to paint someone who has had to steal or deal narcotics in order to feed themselves as the bad guy. Dr Davis highlights how crime is a direct result of a lack of resources and poverty and how they still choose to ‘solve’ these issues by building more prisons and putting more police on the streets; it becomes clear that safety has never been their priority, but rather incarceration is. The cycle is efficient and deeply profitable to the benefactors of capitalism as a structure. Lack of resources and funding e.g. food and education (human rights) leads to crime which leads to incarceration (with a dash of harsher sentences entangled with racial biases that lead to communities that are already directly disenfranchised being more subject to this cycle) resulting in more crime, which leads to more incarceration. Without going into so much detail, the prison industry is essentially modern day slave trade happening in broad daylight. The more people they put there, the more individuals in society’s workforce they can pay next to nothing for their labour. This then supports their diversion of funding from helping these communities riddled with all the so called crime (again, just poverty for the most part) towards the punishment of the people forced to survive with little to no support.
This genre of television has us believing so much in the good cop rhetoric that we don’t dare to imagine a world where police aren’t needed in the first place. A world where we don’t trust an institution that was directly birthed in order to patrol and re-enslave the recently freed slaves to ensure our safety. The 13th amendment states "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Which, without so much as an attempt at coded language, explicitly states punishment for crime as a form of slavery permitted to exist in the United States. Around 22% of the entire world’s prison population reside in the US, that’s 2.3 million individuals in legal servitude to the American government according to “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020” published on ‘Prison Policy Initiative’, and although I’m still working on imagining a world where I don’t desire to see perpetrators of certain crimes necessarily completely lose their freedom, a majority lost their lives for no reason.
These realisations didn’t come easy to me not just because I’ve realised the part I’ve played in upholding ideologies about what justice is, but also because I really love a lot of these shows. But they can’t be held as a standard for what policing should be. Because policing just shouldn’t be. These shows stop us from imagining a world where people have access to professional help and psychological rehabilitation that would prohibit them from desiring to hurt one another and children. Them pretending that a man like Jake and a police precinct like Brooklyn 99 existing is the goal distracts us from seeking to build a world where individuals are taken care of by institutions in a way that doesn’t criminalise a means to survival. And to be honest, survival should not even be a goal, but a given.