This conversation is the first in The Frame's #COPSonTV series about how police are portrayed in both scripted and unscripted television and how TV shows can impact the public’s perception of law enforcement. You can listen to the other segments in this series here.
In recent years, it’s become all too common to see videos of clashes between police and civilians. Often they involve cops using force over people of color. And all too often those videos end up capturing the last moments of a person’s life. This summer there has also been another kind of video-- that of police being shot in retaliation. Most notably that happened when five policemen were fatally shot on the night of a peaceful protest in Dallas.
But well before the invention of the cell phone camera, images of police and crime entered our living rooms on a nightly basis. Police dramas have been a staple of the television diet since “Dragnet” debuted in 1951.
Through the decades, the TV industry has continued to churn out cop dramas and police procedurals from "CHiPs" and "Adam-12," to “The Wire” and “The Shield" to the "Law & Order" franchise with all its permutations. (See Wikipedia's massive list of police dramas for a more comprehensive catalogue.)
To kick off our series about the depiction of law enforcement on television, The Frame host, John Horn spoke with Neal Baer. He’s a writer and producer who was the showrunner of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” from 2000-2011.
Before "SVU", Baer was an executive producer on “ER.” Baer is also an MD so getting the medicine right on that medical drama was paramount to him but veracity was no less important on "SVU." Of TV's role in society? Baer tells The Frame:
Television really is the bonfire that has existed for years in many different forms across millennia. It is the way that we talk to each other.
Hear the full interview by clicking the play button at the top of this post. Interview highlights are below.
ON MAKING "ER" AND "LAW & ORDER: SVU" ACCURATE:
Research, research, research. Story after story based on real stories, real events. We went to the morgue. We went on field trips with detectives in New York City. But always, the bottom line for "ER" and "SVU" was, take a story, peel it away and see how it affects our characters. We would take those stories and see what our characters are made of and I think that was the secret to the success of both shows.
ON HOW THE SHOW IMPACTS THE PUBLIC'S VIEW OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM:
I've heard many times, when people go on jury duty that they're told, this is not Law & Order SVU. We do not have DNA all the time, we do not have all the facts and all the evidence that you might expect to see from watching the show. But we do try to be as accurate as possible and we are influenced by real cases.
ON WHY THERE ARE MORE MOVIES ABOUT CROOKED COPS THAN TV SHOWS:
I think it's an interesting question because the studios and the network really don't want cops depicted in a negative way. There's this notion that cops are heroes and doctors are heroes... They were people we could believe in and I think that's a very American way to have this optimism and this hope in our leaders. But that's why we tried on "SVU" to show that they really were torn at times and they really didn't know what decision to make. I think that's a more compelling way to do shows.
ON HOW CONSULTANTS IMPACT "LAW & ORDER: SVU":
We had many consultants on SVU. We had cops, we had detectives, we had social workers, we had lawyers, constitutional lawyers, psychiatrists, forensic psychiatrists. Really, to your point, trying to dig as deeply as we could to show the complexities of the issue[s] and not just say they're heroes and they have to behave in a certain way.
ON CHALLENGING THE IDEA OF THE HEROIC COP ARCHETYPE:
Police are human beings just like perps are. So we try, on "SVU", to show the whole spectrum of those behaviors. I'll never forget, we did an episode with Mariska's [Hargitay] character where she's chasing a perp who has done something terrible to a child. She catches him and instead of just collaring him and bringing him in, she beats the living daylights out of him. She can't stop herself. She keeps going and going and going. Then she goes to B.D. Wong's character, the psychiatrist, and said, am I like my father? She's the product of a rape herself. She never met her father. He raped her mother and was never caught. She said, do you think I'm like him? Violent like him? That I inherited these qualities? He said, no you're just really stressed out. But she was introspective and she realized that she had done something that gave her pause and it humanized her...By humanizing them [the police], that meant that they didn't always do the right thing at the right time, but they reflected on it later and they learned from it.
ON TV'S ABILITY TO INFLUENCE PUBLIC OPINION AND THE WRITER-PRODUCER'S RESPONSIBILITY:
I think that's why we tried to be so accurate about medicine on "ER" because we were taken to task when we showed CPR working too well. We didn't want people to say, shock me at any cost, when it really doesn't work very well. I wrote a lot of gay characters. I made Laura Innes' character a lesbian on the last episode that I wrote on ER and I did a lot of gay issues because I'm gay and I was, back then, in the closet. I think it was my own way of coming to terms with my own identity. I had the interest certainly, so I did a lot of shows on SVU -- that's why I made Ice T's son gay, that's why I did HIV deniers, that's why I did the down low ... My own life influences what I do on TV -- being a doctor as well with public health issues -- so I think we all have to, as writers and producers, reflect on who we are and what we're interested in and not try to change peoples' minds and hearts by preaching to them, but to show them the broad world as it exists and that it's beyond what we saw on television in the '50s and '60s and even '70s.
ON IF HE HAD THE CHANCE WITH A NEW SHOW WOULD HE TACKLE THE RIFT BETWEEN COPS AND THE PUBLIC NOW:
It can be done and we're thinking about it. You're asking me a question and I'm smiling because it's not a hypothetical. This is something that, of course, given what I've written in the past, is what I want to do. Television really is the bonfire that has existed for years in many different forms across millennia. It is the way that we talk to each other. We talk still about television, but now we do it on Twitter or we do it on Facebook. We fall in love with characters and we put ourselves in their places and we imagine what life could be like differently. It's so important to continue down that road. When the world changes, television has to change with it and take in those stories because that's what people are interested in. You asked me earlier, did we do a show about an unarmed African American man being shot by a cop? No. We weren't hearing about that. It wasn't making the news in the way that it is now. Of course we would have done it and it's so interesting to me that it wasn't part of our psyche back then, just a few years ago...We have to reflect and refract what's going on in the world because that's what people's lives are and television is a way of depicting our lives.
This is one in a series of conversations on The Frame with creators of television about depictions of police, criminals and law enforcement. To make sure you never miss an episode of The Frame subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.