Uvalde Reveals Hollywood’s Deeply Flawed Take On the Police
In the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, questions about police negligence and the accuracy of their accounts of events abound. The Uvalde Police Department has released five different accounts of what happened the day that 19 students and two teachers were murdered, They were only provided because of pressure from reporters, parents, and activists. One thing is for certain — the myth of the police officer as the good guy with a gun, protecting and serving the community, is costing our lives.
Police have been negligent or violent or both and lied about it for years, but this feels like a watershed moment in which the perception of the general public — shaped, among other things, by decades of positive portrayals in the media — is finally catching on to it.
While standing outside Robb Elementary School for 45 minutes as parents berated them for their inaction, the police not only failed to save children and teachers, they physically blocked parents from entering the school building to evacuate their own children. They lied about a teacher keeping a door open. They've threatened a mom of two children in Robb Elementary with retribution for speaking out in the weeks since the massacre. And now the police force is no longer cooperating in the investigation.
In short, the police in Uvalde have acted like they are untouchable and their actions unquestionable. Why? Because they are. The Uvalde Police Department — and police departments across the country — in addition to qualified immunity and sympathetic district attorneys, are protected by decades' worth of positive portrayals in news reports, TV shows, movies, and media that has persuaded us to believe that cops can do no wrong.
For most of us who don't interact with police in our day-to-day lives, Hollywood and other forms of media shape our views of policing. Police officers have been portrayed as heroes and as the good guys. Their version of what happened at the scene of the crime will be accepted as fact, even when it changes the following day, and the next. People will come to their fierce defense, claiming that police officers have the most dangerous job in society, though they do not. They will say that cops have to make difficult choices in impossible situations, yet if they harm someone they can simply say "I feared for my life" as part of the Use of Force Standard and walk away. And when those cops are caught doing something wrong, they are just bad apples, when there are patterns of harm and misconduct that call into question the whole tree.
News stories about police killings or police brutality are framed with statements and information received directly from the police department. It is easy enough to excuse this practice - police departments do have vital information that the public deserves to know.
However, let's remember that most police departments in major cities also have their own public relations departments. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has 42 people in its information bureau, costing taxpayers about $4.8 million, with their strategic communications director in 2020 earning $200,000 a year to build relationships with reporters and find ways to position the department and its employees in the best possible light.
Together with police associations, police departments are quick to come to the officer's defense in cases of misconduct. They go straight to the media, often blaming the victim for their own death or injury, and give the officer's version of the story explaining why their actions were necessary.
Of course, the police hype machine doesn't end with our evening newscast. It takes over primetime TV, where we watch cops who are good guys in their community and loving parents like Andy Griffith, and cops who were depicted as cool and aspirational, like in Miami Vice or Hawaii Five-0. These characters are most often the protagonist of the series. But more importantly, they are often the moral compass of the story —they determine what's right and wrong, leaving little to no question about their role. When these characters shoot someone or even break the law to catch the "bad guy," it's all in the name of justice.
Early movie portrayals had no trouble making fun of the police, as seen in the Keystone Kops series. When the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that distasteful, cops started becoming official advisors to Hollywood producers, helping them shape stories about police, usually putting themselves in a positive light.
The numbers don't lie. Hollywood is obsessed with feeding us cop shows that shape our perceptions of them. For example, the reality show Cops lasted 32 seasons, while Law & Order has had five spin-offs on multiple networks. Just this year, CBS includes 10 cop shows on the network's lineup. In contrast, we can count how many shows across all networks led by protagonists from communities of color who encounter police abuse and misconduct.
Cops shape how we view them because our society allows it. We have given them center stage to tell their stories and swept all other competing narratives to the side.
That's why we feel outrage now as we've heard from a Latina mother who went into Robb Elementary School to rescue her children when the police wouldn't. She told us how she was threatened by police if she revealed her story and despite that, spoke out, insisting that she be interviewed on the farm where she works.
We feel immense sorrow and pain in response to videos of family members grieving their loved ones, including the grandfather at a memorial for the children of Uvalde confronting police for their inaction.
And we feel moved to act in the face of laws, institutions and the narrative that keeps cops in power and unaccountable for their actions. As we respond to the horrific massacre of children and teachers in Uvalde, we must remember to consider the role of the police in our communities and schools and stop relying on false narratives that paint them as infallible.
It's our right to get the facts.
Jesse Williams is a Tony-nominated actor and activist, as well as on the Board of Directors at Advancement Project.
Judith Browne Dianis is the Executive Director of Advancement Project where she works to push back against structural racism in education, voting, policing, and the criminal legal system.
The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.