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Cops on TV: 'Southland' writer Cheo Hodari Coker on depicting the human fallability of the LAPD




Michael Cudlitz and Ben McKenzie star in the show
Michael Cudlitz and Ben McKenzie star in the show "Southland."
TNT
Michael Cudlitz and Ben McKenzie star in the show


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This segment is part of an ongoing series about #COPSonTV. We’re looking at how police have been and are being depicted on television shows and the influence those depictions have had on the public’s idea of law enforcement. You can find other segments in this series here

Your image of police officers was probably shaped a lot by where you grew up, and how the police treated you and your friends and family.

But whether that was in a city, a suburb, or out in the country, that perception was also very likely influenced by what you saw on television. The cop drama has been a tried-and-true TV formula for more than half a century, but the kinds of police officers we see on screen has changed dramatically since the early days. 

Cheo Hodari Coker is the creator and showrunner of the upcoming Netflix Marvel series “Luke Cage.” But his first writing gig in TV was on “Southland,” where he eventually served as a supervising producer. That police drama about the LAPD was created by Ann Biderman and ran from 2009-2013 — first on NBC, and then on TNT.

Cheo Hodari Coker joins us to talk about his work on "Southland," and he reflects on the clashes between police and people of color.  

Hear the full interview by clicking the play button at the top of this post. 

Interview Highlights:

On developing an authentic perspective of cops in "Southland":

It was a perfect show to learn drama — the perfect setting to learn drama. Police officers see everything and they experience everything and they don't always act correctly. So one of the most important things that we did was we constantly talked to active officers in addition to having retired officers who could offer us very good technical advice.

So Chic Daniel who was our technical adviser — he also was one of the technical advisers for "Collateral" because he was tight with Michael Mann. That was one side. You had "Bone", or Cle Sloan, who is a former gang member turned documentarian. He shot this incredible documentary called "Bachelors Of The Party." So he was always able to give you the real street, verisimilitude that could really keep things fresh.

Then at the same time, we were constantly interviewing different police officers. Detective Mario Cortez, who's still a very close friend of mine, one of the things he told us, he said, look cops come from the human race. You're gonna have good cops and you're gonna have cops that can't find their own a** with both hands... So we said that you always have to keep that in mind that you can't really paint cops with one brush. It comes from the frailties of humanity just as much as it does, the systemic problems that have plagued institutions like the LAPD from the very beginning. 

On the culture of police in Los Angeles:

The culture of LAPD is different than any other police culture. They don't call suspects "Suspects." A New York officer calls somebody a perp. If you talk to an LAPD officer, they say this "ass****" that "ass****." So from their perspective, they do things that they don't necessarily see as being abusive. They just see, okay this guy is giving me shit. I don't really care, so BOOM. I'm gonna give you a little bump. I'm gonna give you something just to let you know who's in charge. Now, some people would say, oh no. We don't do that kind of thing. But then you hang out with patrol officers — it's a culture. Within that culture there are certain things that happen that are kind of rough and certain things that go beyond the pale.

You'll have officers, some of which will have no problem saying, hey you shouldn't have done that, and others that just kind of see it as all in the game. It's a very interesting culture to observe because when you're writing about it you begin to see that perspective and write that perspective. Only when you step back from it do you see that scene in a completely different way and be like, wow that's really jacked up. What happened? When you're writing about cops from the perspective of cops, that level of sarcasm about their job and how they treat people will color the writing to a certain extent. 

On adopting the perspective of police to make "Southland":

The only thing police patrol cops — in certain situations — are expert at, is spotting anomalies. When you are a black person that is driving in a place that you stick out, that's all they're going to see. Oh this does not fit the pattern. This is the red or blue M&M in a sea of brown M&M's. Here you are, let's pull you over. It doesn't matter why. This is what we're going to do. So you're in your car, trying to go about your day and all of the sudden you're getting pulled over.

You have to be very careful with how you reach for your ID, how you respond — are you going to be able to stay calm? — but the interesting thing about being on "Southland" and talking to cops is, they're equally as afraid. From their perspective, they don't really know what they're going to encounter. The thing that all police officers decide when they wake up in the morning is that they're going home. It's funny because with this rap cliche — better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6 — cops believe that. So what their whole thing is, is that, when they pull somebody over, no matter what happens, if there's any form of aggression, they're going to counter it.

What happens is, they view anything as aggression. They view you not responding quickly enough as... that can be misinterpreted as aggression. As much as these police officers are trained and trained and trained, they're not often trained to look at people as people. What happens is they become these occupying armies. From their perspective, they're in Iraq. The street is Fallujah. They don't see it as a community because they don't live in that community, so as a result, because of that distance and because they can't really tell who's a friend and who's an enemy, they treat everybody one way. And it just continues to escalate and get completely out of control. 

On the necessity of talking to real police officers for making Southland:

I think it would be very spit and polish. It would be very like, we go about our jobs and we get the bad guys. I think the one thing you learn by talking to cops is that the longer you do the job, it's not as easy as good and bad. The cops that are the best at their job are able to understand the humanity of people and you see that especially with homicide detectives. They're haunted by these murders and they're haunted with trying to solve murders and at the same time understanding that people see what happens and they don't want to get involved because with the no-snitching attitudes in the neighborhoods, they're not bulletproof.

In real life, what happens is that these murders happen and murderers aren't caught because people are afraid and can't talk and instead, you run into murderers at the grocery store. People walk around with a certain sense of lawlessness but at the same time, the attitudes about it are so backwards that everybody gets treated like a suspect. There's no balance so what happens is that you begin to understand the frustrations and just the dangers. At least on the homicide side, you see a lot more of the compassion because they're trying to solve murders. On the patrol officer's side, that's where you see more of the frustration because they're the ones that are answering those hot calls. They're the ones handling the situation where they walk into a situation and either get frustrated or they try to maintain some sense of professionalism and still it doesn't work out. That's the one thing that the show captures — it's really more complicated than you could ever imagine. 

On earlier cop dramas that influenced his work:

For me, my grandmother, all she did was watch television. She's probably more responsible for me writing television than almost anybody because of the fact that I learned how to tell time. I could tell you that, you know, one o'clock was "All My Children" two o'clock was "One Life To Live" three o'clock was "General Hospital" which meant that by five "Barnaby Jones" was going to be on. So by six or seven, you're gonna watch "T.J. Hooker". So that's what I remember.

I remember "T.J. Hooker". I remember the credit sequence when he throws his night stick and hits the suspect in the back of the legs and he goes down. "Dragnet", you'd see that later. "COPS" was on by the time I was in college. When you're watching "COPS", it was one of those things where you hear the song and you see them rolling people up. "Dragnet" always seemed dated but the thing about it was that it very rarely captured complexity. Joe Friday and his partner, they wouldn't pick a nickel up off the sidewalk. They walk through life only doing the right thing. They were fair to everybody, they never got frustrated and everybody that went to jail deserved to go to jail.

On "COPS" it's an ugly depiction of what's happening out there, but I think what happens... I don't know what they call that scientific theory that by observing an event, you alter it. That was the thing about that show. Literally, it was like, okay we don't have much of a budget. Let's just put a camera in the back of a police car and see what happens. Then boom. It becomes that and it just seemed like things were being heightened and sensationalized. It becomes like the movie "Magnolia" where you've got cops driving around having these monologues about themselves, then they jump out of the car and become heroes of their own movie. 

On how cops, as represented in entertainment, shaped him:

The shows don't shape you. What shapes you is hearing from cousins and friends and people that you know that have been pulled over. Being schooled by the men in your family that, as a black man, there might be a situation where you will get pulled over for no reason and that you have to maintain your cool. You can't have an attitude. The whole thing is just, get to the station. Once you get to the station, we will get it cleared up. But don't jump bad, don't say this, don't say that because you don't want to end up on television. So it's not so much the depiction on television as it is the reality of what it is to be a black man in America.

On the potential for a television show to have an impact on the audience's perception:

I don't know if a show can change society, but what it does is, I think on one hand — the reason cops like the show is that it showed a realistic depiction of the frustrations and how those frustrations translate in ways that are... when they catch somebody or change somebody's life in a good way, satisfying. I think from the audience's standpoint, what the show did is that people that never would watch a cop show found themselves engaged by the show because it was so emotional and because with their issues, you could understand what happens and how things spin out of control.

The one thing the show never really tried to do was it was never "Dragnet". It never tried to be relentlessly positive by design. It was always a show, because Ann Biderman, the creator of the show... is all about character and she's all about the shades of grey. You know, how people are fallible and how people aren't perfect and how situations change people. I think that's what the show kind of captured and really why it's such an easy show to write because of the fact that you just pick up the newspaper and you're seeing stories.

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.



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