While President Joe Biden has signed into law some of his top agenda items—like the Inflation Reduction Act—another important piece of legislation, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, was blocked in the U.S. Senate. This is despite the fact that what was arguably the country’s largest mass movement in history shook the nation in 2020 after the murders of unarmed Black people by police officers.
Of course, police unions helped derail this legislation. But another insidious factor explains why this bill for a federal registry of police misconduct complaints, among other measures to curb officer malfeasance, hasn’t passed. It can be summed up in one word: “copaganda.”
Copaganda is intended to counteract negative perceptions of armed government employees, who often are accused of abuse of power yet depend on taxpayer largesse and goodwill.
“Copaganda is the way police advance their own narrative,” Melina Abdullah, a California State University, Los Angeles professor and co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter, tells The Progressive. This, she says, “is used to justify targeting Black people.”
“When Black people are killed or harmed by police, the first thing we’re trained [and] socialized to do is say, ‘What did he or she do?’ Next is the argument, ‘If she or he had just complied,’ ” she explains.
“Copaganda is used to train us to think about Black people as automatically guilty,” Abdullah says, and “police as automatically right in their actions.”
Alec Karakatsanis, a Harvard law school graduate and founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit that fights injustices in the country’s legal system, argues that the intent of copaganda is to “focus society on wrongdoing committed by people without power—poor people, people of color, and immigrants—and ignore urgent and far more consequential, catastrophic harm caused by people who own things.”
Another effect of copaganda, Karakatsanis tells The Progressive, is that it draws attention to “a few narrowly reported crimes” in the realm of public safety, such as burglary or shoplifting, rather than overlooked crimes like wage theft and tax evasion. “Copaganda focuses on interpersonal crimes committed by the poor, not on large-scale crimes [like] pollution, which kills far more people,” Karakatsanis says.
“Having gotten everyone scared all the time that crime is increasing, copaganda tries to get us to think that the solution to those problems are the policing and prison bureaucracies.”
“Enormous amounts of time, energy, and money are spent by powerful interests to shape media coverage,” Karakatsanis adds. “Police departments all across the country focus very significantly on public relations, and police unions have separate public relations budgets.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, for example, has forty-two employees focused on public relations, while the Los Angeles Police Department has twenty-five, Karakatsanis says.
“There’s a traditional way of doing news reporting, especially local journalism, that relies mainly on local police and prosecutors as sources . . . . Many stories essentially adapt a police press release.” In addition, the evisceration of local newspapers in recent years has decreased coverage, while in cities like Los Angeles, law enforcement agencies issue press passes in a way that limits access by independent journalists.
Karakatsanis says, “Having gotten everyone scared all the time that crime is increasing, copaganda tries to get us to think that the solution to those problems are the policing and prison bureaucracies.” These often distorted portrayals of the “boys in blue” are used to secure larger budgets, retain and recruit staff, and maintain a dominant, well-armed, lavishly funded, and increasingly militarized force.
According to the Urban Institute, in 2019, local and state governments spent $123 billion on police and $82 billion on corrections. If that were a country’s total military spending, it would rank third globally, behind the United States and China. The FBI’s budget for fiscal year 2021 was more than $10 billion. Another $60.8 billion was allocated that year to the National Intelligence Program, which doesn’t include military intelligence funding. In contrast, Russia’s entire military budget in 2021 was $65.9 billion.
Bloomberg reports that Los Angeles “spends about a quarter of its general fund budget on police.” In Seattle, 22.5 percent, or $363 million, of the city’s $1.6 billion budget for 2021 was spent on policing. The same year, twenty-six of the fifty largest cities increased spending on police. And billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on settling police misconduct cases. In terms of the profit motive, Abdullah asserts, “It’s really a system of capitalism, and the film and television industry are part of that system and want to maintain it. Police are really the protectors of the capitalist class.”
To continue receiving such vast sums of taxpayer dollars, law enforcement must dominate the public discourse through methods of mass persuasion that motivate support.
Television’s “vast wasteland,” as former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton N. Minow famously described it in 1961, has historically been populated by crime dramas, which is still true today. Police procedurals, packed with action and conflict, are inherently dramatic. Courtrooms like those dramatized in Law & Order are innately adversarial, which generates tension.
“Television and films make you think the police are the good guys. Pretty much every cop show does that,” Abdullah says. “Think of Bad Boys in the 1990s. And there are so many versions of CSI and NCIS that advance the idea that police are the saviors we should be looking to—even when they go outside the boundaries of legal policing.”
TV shows focused on law enforcement made up almost one-fifth of scripted network television during the 2019-2020 season, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “Crime shows outnumber every other drama subgenre . . . on the broadcast nets, and have for some time, and they’re among the most-watched series on TV.”
Prime time remains crime time, as TV’s procession of police procedurals continues unabated. Consider a sampling of the current network television programming schedule as of this writing: CBS is the crime kingpin, with a cop-filled lineup that includes NCIS and NCIS: Hawai‘i on Mondays; FBI, FBI: International, and FBI: Most Wanted on Tuesdays; and CSI: Vegas on Thursdays. The New York City police drama Blue Bloods, starring Tom Selleck, dominates Fridays, while NCIS: Hawai‘i and CSI: Vegas air again on Saturdays. Sundays feature the vigilante-like show The Equalizer, followed by NCIS: Los Angeles. NBC broadcasts Chicago P.D. on Wednesdays, while Thursdays are a “Dick Wolf-apalooza,” with Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Law & Order: Organized Crime. ABC’s fall lineup includes The Rookie on Sundays, The Rookie: Feds on Tuesdays, and the Montana-set Big Sky on Wednesdays.
A law enforcement consultant’s role in television and film is to “put the very best spin on it,” former CIA operative Robert Baer tells The Progressive.
The television police procedural genre debuted in 1951 on NBC, with the long-running series Dragnet, a case study in law enforcement’s creative control in shaping how police are portrayed. According to The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, Dragnet’s executive producer, Jack Webb, who also starred as Sergeant Joe Friday, became partners with LAPD chief William Parker to make it an “authentic” police show. In exchange for plot ideas and logistical assistance, Webb tolerated “stringent censorship from the police department.”
Dragnet’s success prompted other law enforcement agencies to seek their own partnerships with Hollywood, writes Vox’s Constance Grady, which resulted in shows like Highway Patrol, The F.B.I., Columbo, Hawaii Five-0, Hill Street Blues, and Law & Order.
Writing about The F.B.I., which ran from 1965 to 1974, David Robb, author of Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, noted that “FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s almost total control over the show was no laughing matter. More than 5,000 pages of internal FBI memos about the show obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Hoover controlled every aspect of the show’s production, approving the cast and crew, the writers, the directors, and every word of every script.” The long-serving FBI director “wasn’t just the most powerful man in law enforcement; he was a powerful force in the television industry, as well.”
The federal government’s decades-long “war on drugs,” begun by President Richard Nixon in 1971, also waged war on TV sitcoms, dramas, and the viewers themselves. Writing in The Column, Gabe Levine-Drizin noted, “in the late 1990s, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which was established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, made a deal with multiple TV networks to include anti-drug messaging in show plots.”
Starting in 1998, Levine-Drizin added, “networks would send advanced scripts and tapes to federal drug officials who assigned to them a monetary value depending on the content, ratings impact, and length of the episode.” These TV shows allegedly included: Beverly Hills, 90210; Home Improvement; Cosby; Chicago Hope; ER; and Sports Night, among others.
Former CIA operative Robert Baer, whose memoir See No Evil was adapted by writer and director Stephen Gaghan for the 2005 film Syriana, tells The Progressive that a law enforcement consultant’s role in television and film is to “put the very best spin on it.” These consultants are “very active” in the television and film industries, he says.
Abdullah alleges that a top official from a Los Angeles police union is also a consultant for television programming.
Of course, not everyone in the industry plays ball with law enforcement, which can’t control its image when real-world events and inconvenient cellphone footage intervene. After videos of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd ignited waves of protests, networks canceled the so-called reality shows COPS and Live PD. Nevertheless, these ride-along programs, in which camera crews accompany police on the beat, have already made a comeback. COPS is now streaming on Fox Nation, while Live PD has returned with host Dan Abrams on Reelz under new names: On Patrol: Live and On Patrol: First Shift.
Nor is censorship by espionage agencies ubiquitous. When Ava DuVernay filmed the 2014 civil rights epic Selma, she didn’t seek collaboration with the same bureau that spied on Martin Luther King Jr. (Abdullah describes DuVernay as a rare filmmaker who uses BLM activists as consultants.) And shortly before the Oscars ceremony in 2013, activist and actor David Clennon, who co-starred in the television series The Agency, took part in a protest on Hollywood Boulevard to denounce Zero Dark Thirty, which fabricated a positive role for the CIA and had been nominated for several Oscars that year.
In an email to The Progressive, Clennon also snipes at the Fox series 24, “which did more than [Dick] Cheney or [Donald] Rumsfeld to sell torture to the American public as a necessary evil.” At a 2015 Zurich Film Festival press conference, I asked Kiefer Sutherland, who played the character of Jack Bauer in 24, if he had any second thoughts about the harsh “enhanced interrogation techniques” depicted in the series. Sutherland replied, “I don’t regret the torture, which was a fantastic device for drama. Jack Bauer was one of my greatest gifts as an actor.”
Copaganda is confronted by other contemporary challenges. When George Holliday videotaped four LAPD officers viciously beating motorist Rodney King in 1991, video cameras were much less prevalent than cellphones—like the one teenager Darnella Frazier wielded to record officer Chauvin as he asphyxiated Floyd—are thirty years later. Like bodycams, this now commonplace technology allows ordinary citizens-cum-documentarians to film, making it harder for police to dominate public discourse with self-serving, one-sided versions of events. Somehow, the original police announcement regarding Floyd’s death—headlined “Man dies after medical incident during police interaction”—managed to avoid mentioning that he’d been suffocated by a police officer. But Frazier’s heroic footage corrected the record.
While the lion’s share of criticism of law enforcement has historically emanated from the left—from the Black Panthers’ militant “Off the pigs!” stance to today’s BLM supporters’ “Defund the police”—cops and intelligence agencies are increasingly being beset on their right flank. During the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, “back the blue” and “blue lives matter” conservatives assaulted and injured more than 140 Capitol and D.C. Metropolitan Police officers. In June 2021, twenty-one Republican lawmakers voted against awarding Congressional Gold Medals to the officers who had defended them during the failed coup.
Following the FBI’s search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in early August, violent threats, and even physical attacks, were made against the FBI and its agents. Rightwing zealots like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, snarled, “Defund the FBI!” A Republican National Committee fundraising email asserted, “Biden’s FBI raided President Trump’s beautiful Florida home. Hard to believe it but it’s true.” Representative Lauren Boebert, Republican of Colorado, tweeted, “The GOP must set up a Select Committee to investigate the FBI’s politically-motivated raid on Mar-a-Lago . . . . We are turning into a banana republic at record speed.”
Although rightwing extremists have a history of expressing hatred for federal and local law enforcers, what was once a fringe element is now becoming increasingly mainstream and normalized. This poses another threat for purveyors of pro-police propaganda as they try to control the narrative in an ever more complicated, fractious, and acrimonious nation.