Crime Fiction Is Complicit in Police Violence

From Electric Lit:

Every genre has its preoccupation, and the central preoccupation of crime fiction is justice. But in this moment of political upheaval, where our notions of justice are subject to intense scrutiny, we must ask what role has crime fiction played in getting us here. 

In a traditional mystery, the plot begins with a crime and we follow a character seeking to find out what happened. We are satisfied when we finally find out who did it and the guilty party gets their comeuppance. This effective plot structure has time-tested stakes and conflicts. We can explore political issues that drive or motivate individual acts of violence or law-breaking. Cops, private eyes, FBI agents, amateur detectives, attorneys, forensic scientists and others can all get in on the action. 

Crime fiction has also been a site to explore the shadow side of the law: corruption, brutality, and misuse of authority. Many endings are not so neat, with ambiguities and gray-area solutions. 

Yet overall, the genre has validated the underlying assumption that police are the good guys, and if they’re not, they should be. There is no widespread critique or questioning of the whole paradigm of police and prisons as a system. And even less envisioning of any alternatives. 

The typical perspective of police procedurals has helped create the myth of police as heroes. White male police have dominated decades of crime literature, TV, and film, with Black people and people of color stereotyped as violent criminals. Since the first half of the twentieth-century, our popular culture has shown the world of crime from a white male perspective and has validated white male characters’ right to use violent and deadly force according to their own judgment.

Intentionally or unintentionally, crime fiction has been a propaganda machine of fictional stories to back a central lie of our culture: that police are here to protect and serve everyone. In the current political moment, when this myth has been exposed, TV shows are being cancelled. Unscripted TV shows like the COPS and Live PD are being taken off the air, despite their success, because the producers know they are heavily edited narratives that manipulate viewers. 

In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “How White Crime Writers Justified Police Brutality,” author John Fram traces how fictional police shows, from the ‘50s to the present, have had to be produced in partnership with police departments. Show creators were keenly aware that they would need to provide an overall sympathetic portrayal of the police in order to survive. Yet as Black people have been saying for a long time, the good guy vision of police is a cultural myth. And the latest police murders of Black people are not an aberration, they are a natural consequence of the systemic racism embedded in the institution. George Floyd’s death actually means that the system is working as it should.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The OP neglected to mention that, before crime fiction, police brutality and race-based violence were unknown.

While PG does not defend the improper use of force by anyone, police officer, bank robber, participants in bar fights, etc., etc., the author of the OP operates under an unspoken premises that a great many people of every race and ethnicity who write this type of article do:

  1. The author is the only one who sees things as they really are. Everybody else is an idiot who believes everything he/she sees on television or in motion pictures is true.
  2. The author never comes to conclusions which are incorrect based upon what the author has heard, read, seen in various places, etc.
  3. The author is the one of the very few who is in a position to sort others and their behaviors into clear-cut categories of good/not good.
  4. The author is a mind-reader, capable of discerning the thought processes of others, how and under what influences their thoughts are formed and identifying the flaws in those thought processes and their creation of which the individual with those thoughts is unaware.

10 thoughts on “Crime Fiction Is Complicit in Police Violence”

  1. What well-known author has books with white cops and black people and people of color stereotyped as violent criminals?

    I know Patterson has a black cop with lots of white crooks.

    • If your only TV watching was of modern fictional cop shows – you’d be reaching for your concealed weapon every time you encountered a white person.

      As for the “reality” shows – well, they do show reality, to be honest. But a limited one. Crime rates, especially violent crimes which are the “dramatic” fodder for TV shows, are largely a symptom of poverty (exacerbated in most cases by serious cultural defects). Where are the biggest and densest swathes of poverty? In highly urbanized areas, and most concentrated there among “people of color.”

      There are some rural areas, populated mainly by Caucasians, that have crime rates just as high as in, say, the south side of Chicago. That is the rate, though. Trying to film a “reality” show in one of those places would barely yield enough “good” footage for an episode in a year of hanging around the police station. They can’t pay crews that long, and won’t when they can get just as much material in just one tough city precinct in less than a week.

      I view garbage articles such as this one as reacting to unpleasant reality by trying to sweep it under the rug, hoping that nobody else notices. Not at all helpful – especially to the victims of crime (which are also mostly “people of color” in urban poverty belts).

  2. I would add a fifth axis of ignorance to PG’s list:

    5. The author has no experience with or knowledge of any non-US practices, and doesn’t wish to acquire it.

    Consider, for example, the difficulty in trying to find Polizei in East Berlin in 1984. Or trying to find a uniformed cop not holed up in his stationhouse — waiting to be deployed in squad-or-larger strength — in Baghdad or Moskva in 1989. Now try to convince me that these weren’t “police states.”

    My point is that as bad as things can be in the US, they can certainly be worse. Much worse; just try being obviously of Algerian descent in the area around Metz and Strasbourg, especially if you’re involved in a traffic incident… which is not intended to make anyone complacent about how good we’ve got it Over Here. Perhaps the one-eyed man can rule the kingdom of the blind, but we should be striving for two good eyes (and appropriate corrective lenses).

  3. Somebody ought to notify Tipper Gore; I’m pretty sure she has a copyright on this particular brand of st…silliness.

    As for the roots of big city crime, go research Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warnings about Johnson’s urban policies. Which Nixon proudly embraced, compounding the mess. For exfra points, compare the structure of urban families pre-Great Society vs the present.

    Those are the real accomplices of inner city crime.

    • Yeah, its all the fault of fiction writers and cops, right?

      Or, maybe:

      https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/12/12/u-s-children-more-likely-than-children-in-other-countries-to-live-with-just-one-parent/
      ——-
      Almost a quarter of U.S. children under the age of 18 live with one parent and no other adults (23%), more than three times the share of children around the world who do so (7%).
      ——-
      While U.S. children are more likely than children elsewhere to live in single-parent households, they’re much less likely to live in extended families. In the U.S., 8% of children live with relatives such as aunts and grandparents, compared with 38% of children globally.
      ——
      Breakdown by race?
      67% -African American kids
      53%-Native american kids
      41%-Hispanic kids
      24%-“Non-hispanic” white kids
      16%-Asian kids
      —-

      Finally, from The Moynihan Report, 1965, via Wikipedia:
      —–
      In the introduction to his report, Moynihan said that “the gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening.”[6] He also said that the collapse of the nuclear family in the black lower class would preserve the gap between possibilities for Negroes and other groups and favor other ethnic groups. He acknowledged the continued existence of racism and discrimination within society, despite the victories that blacks had won by civil rights legislation.[6]

      Moynihan concluded, “The steady expansion of welfare programs can be taken as a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure over the past generation in the United States.”[7]

      More than 30 years later, S. Craig Watkins described Moynihan’s conclusions in Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema (1998):

      The report concluded that the structure of family life in the black community constituted a ‘tangle of pathology… capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world,’ and that ‘at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.’ Also, the report argued that the matriarchal structure of black culture weakened the ability of black men to function as authority figures. That particular notion of black familial life has become a widespread, if not dominant, paradigm for comprehending the social and economic disintegration of late 20th-century black urban life.[8]
      —–

    • Yeah, its all the fault of fiction writers and cops, right?

      Or, maybe:

      https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/12/12/u-s-children-more-likely-than-children-in-other-countries-to-live-with-just-one-parent/
      ——-
      Almost a quarter of U.S. children under the age of 18 live with one parent and no other adults (23%), more than three times the share of children around the world who do so (7%).
      ——-
      While U.S. children are more likely than children elsewhere to live in single-parent households, they’re much less likely to live in extended families. In the U.S., 8% of children live with relatives such as aunts and grandparents, compared with 38% of children globally.
      ——
      Breakdown by race?
      67% -African American kids
      53%-Native american kids
      41%-Hispanic kids
      24%-“Non-hispanic” white kids
      16%-Asian kids
      —-

      Finally, from The Moynihan Report, via Wikipedia:
      —–
      In the introduction to his report, Moynihan said that “the gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening.”[6] He also said that the collapse of the nuclear family in the black lower class would preserve the gap between possibilities for Negroes and other groups and favor other ethnic groups. He acknowledged the continued existence of racism and discrimination within society, despite the victories that blacks had won by civil rights legislation.[6]

      Moynihan concluded, “The steady expansion of welfare programs can be taken as a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure over the past generation in the United States.”[7]

      More than 30 years later, S. Craig Watkins described Moynihan’s conclusions in Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema (1998):

      The report concluded that the structure of family life in the black community constituted a ‘tangle of pathology… capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world,’ and that ‘at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.’ Also, the report argued that the matriarchal structure of black culture weakened the ability of black men to function as authority figures. That particular notion of black familial life has become a widespread, if not dominant, paradigm for comprehending the social and economic disintegration of late 20th-century black urban life.[8]
      —–

    • “It’s an act, lady.” Pardon me while I put on one particular Zappa album, too…

      One of the dubious “benefits” to being a protocol officer in DC was the “opportunity” to meet — and interact with — a lot of movers and shakers in DC. And their families. Which made the 2000 election very, very difficult for me on grounds of character and family all around. (Policy made it much easier in the end.) Let’s just say I didn’t want that “lady” getting anywhere near my First Amendment, or a platform for undermining it.

      • One of the more amusing aspects of that election was seeing the child of privilege who never worked an honest day in his life pretend to be “a man of the people” to play the populist card and blow an election he only had to keep his trap shut to win.

        And then he compounded it by refusing to admit he blew it. Even Nixon had the grace to step aside in 60 instead of petulantly whining that they’d stole the election. It’s been downhill ever since.

  4. crime fiction has been a propaganda machine of fictional stories to back a central lie of our culture: that police are here to protect and serve everyone.

    central lie? Really? We’ll see how that plays out at the ballot box.

  5. The demand for police services can be measured by the number of 911 calls from various neighborhoods. Some have high demand, while others have low demand. The demand drives police/public interactions.
    Some advocate high demand areas should be denied police service if that demand exceeds that of other neighborhoods with less demand.

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