Hollywood Loves Portraying POC as Bad Cops, Study Finds

Color of Change, a social activism nonprofit group, found that depictions of criminal justice professionals may be doing more harm than good.

by Alex Zaragoza
Jan 22 2020, 12:00pm

Credit: David Lee/Netflix

When it comes to representation in film and television, Hollywood has seemingly been taking the kind of steps made by a arthritic, 100-year-old tortoise. And if you're reading thinking this there's some good news about to be dropped on you, sorry to disappoint. The tortoise is barely moving.

A new report released by Color of Change, a nonprofit that collects data on injustices facing the Black community and pushes for accurate and diverse representations of Black people in media, found that Netflix tops all networks and streaming services in depictions of wrongful actions being committed by Black and non-Black people of color portraying members of the criminal justice system, including detectives, medical examiners, lawyers, and FBI agents. Just behind the streaming giant in terms of this issue are NBC and ABC.

Color of Change studied 353 episodes from 26 different scripted crime series across various networks that aired in the 2017-2018 season. Among them are Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Mindhunter, Law & Order: SVU, Narcos, Blindspot, NCIS, and How to Get Away with Murder. The organization analyzed how these series depict the criminal justice system and whether it accurately reflects the real world (spoiler alert: it does not, they found), and looked at storylines and actions involving criminal justice professionals (CJPs), person of interest characters, crime victims and other featured characters and instances of committing "wrongful actions."

The nonprofit also noted the race and gender of the creators, showrunners, and writers behind every series, finding that most series across networks had a mostly- if not all-white writing staff—81 percent of showrunners during the study's time period were white men and about 78 percent of staff writers were white.

Not only did they find Netflix crime dramas show CJPs who are people of color most often committing acts of wrongdoing (which Color of Change defines as anything from lying and bribery to acts of racism and killing), but they also found that, as a whole, CJP characters are often used as "validators of bad behavior," excusing or even endorsing those illegal practices as "acceptable, justifiable and necessary—even heroic," per the study. Many of the series studied by Color of Change found that those CJPs validating or supporting bad behavior from other CJPs were POC.

Shows like Luke Cage, Elementary, 9-1-1, Lethal Weapon, and How to Get Away with Murder had the highest amounts of POC CJPs committing wrongdoing, while shows like Law & Order: SVU, The Blacklist, Blindspot, and Blue Bloods showed characters endorsing illegal practices most often.

This is a major problem, according to Color of Change's president Rashad Robinson. In his foreword to the study, he writes, "When we miseducate people about how systems work and when we normalize injustice on our TVs, we make it OK for certain people to be treated only as heroes and certain people to be treated only as villains, and that does not move us forward.”

This is especially vital when considering the rates of police violence and how often officers aren't punished for their crimes. The 2017 Police Violence Report featuring data collected by the research group Mapping Police Violence, found that out of 1,147 people killed by police in 2017, only 13 faced charges. Most of those killed were Black or Latinx.

Hollywood's issues with representation are ongoing and well-documented. A recent study by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that of the 100 highest-grossing movies from 2007 to 2018, only 3 percent featured a Latinx actor in the lead or co-lead. Those roles that did make it to the screen often depicted Latinx people as criminals or trauma victims. Representation of Black people in Hollywood has steadily improved, but still remains dismal, as shown by UCLA's 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report, which found only 9 percent of Black people in all film roles.

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign created by April Reign in 2015 has been continuously pushing for change in representation of all marginalized communities in Hollywood, and LA COLLAB, a new initiative supported by LA's Mayor Eric Garcetti, is hoping to tackle the lack of Latinx people in Hollywood and provide more diverse and inclusive representation on screen. There's still a long way to go, but calling out the issues within representation, both on screen and in writers rooms, are important steps to change.

Color of Change