Even the best cop shows fall into "copaganda" – helping the real-life police more than survivors

The killing of Sarah Everard makes us look at "Mare of Easttown" and other cops shows with more scrutiny

Published June 14, 2021 6:58PM (EDT)

Mare of Easttown (Michele K. Short/HBO)
Mare of Easttown (Michele K. Short/HBO)

Over the past year, once widely popular cop shows have fallen under increased scrutiny for their rosy portrayals of policing, at a time of far-too-frequent police killings of Black people in real life. This type of storytelling – dubbed "copaganda" because it amounts to millions of dollars in free PR for the police – has been linked to the negative and inaccurate perception of protesters, among others. Now, sexual assault survivors and their advocates are increasingly calling out the inaccuracies of how police officers treat survivors onscreen, and the dangers of telling victims and the general population that police will protect us.

Just last week, months after the tragic death of Sarah Everard in London, Wayne Couzens pleaded guilty to charges that he raped and kidnapped Everard, while he was still a police officer. Everard's death in March sparked widespread protest and conversation about the everyday dangers women face just by stepping out onto the streets — including from the police officers that many were taught to believe would protect us. Couzens' recent admission to assaulting Everard raises a question of how so many people have internalized the falsehood that reporting a sexual assault to police automatically results in justice and safety. The answer to this is complicated and multi-pronged, but this widespread misconception certainly relies heavily on copaganda.

Salon looks to a few of the police shows – from "Mare of Easttown" to "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" – that have dealt with the subject of assault. While the shows or episodes themselves could be praised for important and nuanced storytelling, they nevertheless are still projecting a false narrative that the public has internalized.

Telling survivors' stories — but with counterproductive results

While episodes portraying cops and detectives believing and helping sexual assault victims have been the bread and butter of shows like "Law & Order" and "CSI," other beloved cop shows have rarely waded into this territory. In 2018, amid the global rise of the #MeToo movement, NBC's "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" showed detectives Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) and Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) help a female investment banker prove she had only injured her male coworker from self-defense after he had assaulted her. Following a fierce debate with one of their fellow, female detectives, Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), about whether pursuing the case would ultimately help or harm the survivor, Santiago reveals the case is personal to her, due to a similar experience she'd endured earlier in her career. 

The episode accurately represents the prevalence of workplace sexual misconduct and assault, and through Diaz's commentary, even alludes to the truth of how law enforcement systems fundamentally aren't built to support survivors. But its rosy portrayal of Santiago and Peralta's support for the victim is, unfortunately, still copaganda — it tells audiences abusive cops are bad apples, and there remain good apples like the detectives of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" who will help victims. But the issue of abuse of power, violence against women, and law enforcement systems dismissing or harming victims, isn't about individuals — it's about violent, patriarchal power structures that too many films and shows, including "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," fail to represent.

Sarah Everard's story is just one of far too many that expose how the truth of what victims face from law enforcement is quite different from what we see onscreen. In reality, not only are police stations often intimidating, victim-blaming environments — to the extent that many victims who don't report to police cite fear of intimidation from them — but in many cases, cops are the perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence, themselves. Two studies from the 1990s found at least 40% of police officers are domestic abusers, while other research has found 60% of prison rapes are committed by guards and staff. Furthermore, 90% of incarcerated women, who are more likely to be queer and women of color, are survivors. Sexual assault is also among the least likely crimes to lead to a conviction: One in four women in the US is believed to be a victim of sexual violence, and hundreds of thousands of rape kits across the country are backlogged. Yet, just five out of 1,000 rapists will ever be imprisoned

Our cultural imagination has long portrayed all incarcerated people as rapists, when they're statistically more likely to be victims of sexual violence themselves. Copaganda, and the media-constructed fantasy of a safe, reliable and just law enforcement system that sides with survivors, has played a significant role in constructing this false and frankly dangerous narrative.

"Unbelievable," a Netflix true crime miniseries, seems to challenge the notion of police stations as safe spaces for survivors. The show explores the real-life story of a teenager who reports her rape and recants her story after being picked apart by police, and is even charged with lying about having been raped. Through the tireless work of two female detectives, the teenage victim is eventually vindicated. The work of these female members of law enforcement is invaluable to clearing the young woman's name. But sexual violence and injustice in law enforcement systems present a structural issue, rather than a simple matter of "good vs. bad individuals."

HBO's instant classic "Mare of Easttown," while entirely fictional, tells a similar story: a female detective struggling through personal and professional hardship dedicates her life to solving a teenage mother's murder case. Audiences who watch "Mare" or "Unbelievable" might find themselves thinking, "Maybe what we need is more female police officers as dedicated to supporting victims as these women onscreen." But what we need is a changed system that invests more in preventing sexual violence and supporting survivors, rather than imprisoning them, as it currently does.

At the end of the day, both "Unbelievable" and "Mare" arguably share the same counterproductive impact as the aforementioned "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" episode on our culture, nodding to the bad apples and flaws in how police and the system treat survivors, but asserting that the right individuals could make it redeemable.

Does life imitate art, or art imitate life?

In the wake of Everard's death this year, The Times reported that plain-clothes police officers would patrol London bars and clubs to "protect" women from violence. The report was widely met with a question that's remained unanswered: Who will protect these women from the police?

In the 1970s, American women from all walks of life began organizing en masse to raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual violence, and the traumatizing conditions they faced upon reporting this violence. But because white women were regarded as the most visible, palatable faces of the original anti-rape movement, and they had the privilege of being able to place greater trust in policing, progress for survivor justice was immediately bound to law enforcement and the greater criminal justice system. While kidnappings and killings of young, middle-class or affluent white women often receive extensive media coverage and, often, their own "Dateline" episodes, thousands of Indigenous women and girls remain missing across the country, with little attention paid to the issue. Since the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law in the 1990s, it's allocated much of its funding to police departments, even more so than resources for victims, Meiners and Levine report.

When policies and government funding dangerously task police with the role of protecting women from sexual violence, TV and movies similarly assign police this role, and solidify it in the cultural imagination. Today, the most popular defense of the institution of policing has been the retort, "What about rapists?" But perhaps if those who invoke this line actually cared about victims at all, they'd turn off "Law & Order" and look at the damning, real-life numbers.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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Brooklyn Nine-nine Commentary Copaganda Mare Of Easttown Police Violence Sarah Everard Tv Unbelievable