Carlos and I started watching Live PD as a piece of background noise during low moments in our convention weekends. The show is like this generation’s Cops, centering around various county police departments using dash cam, body cam and a very brave film crew to show eager viewers all the realistic, gritty and heart-pounding action that the brave men and women in blue face daily.
It’s also one of the finest pieces of police propaganda I’ve ever seen.
So let’s talk about it.
My human shell is that of an African-American and I grew up with a healthy respect for the police but a clear understanding that if I were to be arrested or in trouble, I would likely face much more hardship than any of my white friends. My grandmother would always say I would be thrown “under the jail” (apparently a euphemism not unique to her) and my aunts encouraged me to stay extra squeaky clean because even if I’m doing everything right, if a friend is not, I’m likely to face scrutiny. I was not ignorant to the history of violence and terror the police have with people of color, queer people, trans people and more but my own experiences were fairly benign. I stayed out of trouble and rarely did anything that brought in police activity.
That was before the wave of very public instances of police violence. I’m not going to mention all of them because my heart hurts and I’m tired but let’s be real, in a Post-Ferguson world, the reality most people of color have known for decades became very apparent that some bad apples (a lot of bad apples) can in fact spoil a bunch. What was shocking about the instances of police violence that became public within the last few years was that it simply amplified the black voices who have been claiming racism and cruelty for decades.
To be clear; I am not anti-cop, I am pro-staying alive. I know I am a coward and could not face danger the way first responders do, but I am also aware that this system, like many in this country, have a seriously muddy legacy with people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community.
In the 90s, we had a little show called Cops and in that show, cameras followed cops. Now, the show in the 90s was weird and certainly does not age well. The famous clip of officers harassing and deadnaming a trans woman comes to mind but the purpose of the show was to use the cameras and visibility as an attempt to build positive press for the police after the especially racially tense 1970s and 1980s. How do you do that? Show cops in the best light possible: saving people, risking their lives, going above and beyond and showing the clear and present danger that comes with the badge and gun.
Which brings us to Live PD. In a new era of distrust and fear of the police: how do we change the image of the police in the public view? Give us a show with action, a clear winner and good guy and overall shots of the police doing good in the world.
Where LivePD loses its luster for me is in the less edited show, LivePD: Patrol Cam where sometimes I think the cops forget they’re being recorded and during one very heated altercation in which, to be fair, the cop is being attacked by a person he’s trying to arrest and just over and over again screams “Shoot him!” which: okay, let’s pause to say that yes, I know that when it comes to assault that deadly force is allowed and that yes, this was scary and frightening and could have gone south real quick but after everything that’s happened, that still just seems in such bad form.
But Live PD’s most genius trick is in how it pretends to simply show the facts as they happen when really because of editing and framing, there is a clear narrative. Anyone who runs from the cops are evil, drugs are evil, bad people are bad. And while yes, bad people are bad and some drugs are bad; but have you ever considered why people run from the cops? Oftentimes it’s to escape warrants or fear of prison time or just fear of being caught but so often it’s genuine fear of the police. I hear time and time again on Live PD men and women say they ran because they didn’t want to get shot or risk being hurt. Now, to be fair, running is the last thing to do in the event of police nonsense but look at Sandra Bland; minus being mouthy, she did everything right and still ended up dead under some very shady circumstances. I understand that fear and for some, that fear means run.
We live in a curious world where a show can help change the perception of the police by making us all the cops in one way. Live PD is a very social show and viewers have seen people run, seen people toss drugs or have been able to “help” the cops in the chase. By giving us all badges, we can’t then question the police too much; we’re on the same team, right? And of course, all the footage of community outreach and generally just great police work: after watching a few hours of this show, it’s easy to think of the world in a binary: bad guys are bad, good guys are good and the guys with badges are good and the guy who got pulled over for speeding and happens to have a few extra pills on him is bad.
I don’t have time to talk about how the show frames race (of all kinds, really) or how it frames women and men differently or even how it pretends to minimize use of some drugs while truly vilifying the use of other substances. I don’t have time to talk about how the show parades around police dogs like a red herring to show us that maybe, just maybe being hunted by a large dog isn’t so bad if you deserve it. I don’t have time to talk about how scary it is to watch authority figures rationalize and “explain” why deadly force would have been used but how they are truly great for not using it. I don’t have time to explain all of those things.
I do have time to say that framing police chases and arrests as “thrilling entertainment” or by using the internet to “deputize” the masses to be more “vigilant” is dangerous, reckless and do not make us forget the men, women, children, queer people and far too many more who have been taken from us due to police violence. It does not make us forget the legacy of violence that the police have left as an indelible mark in the black and queer communities. I do have time to say that painting any police interaction as simply good and evil is naive and unrealistic.
I do have time to say that giving us a “fun” and “exciting” piece of TV reality television is not and will never be a balm to quell decades of distrust and fear.