When we think “copaganda,” we often think of the Dragnets, Blue Bloods, the Law & Orders, Cops, and Chicago P.Ds. of the world. And for good reason. These types of shows are usually held in high regard by law enforcement, sometimes collaborating directly with police departments.
This collaboration benefits both parties; production may benefit from perks like closing off streets for filming or police presence on set. In exchange, police get one important perk, a perk that helps shape how the public views policing: good PR.
But these most blatant instances of copaganda are hardly the only instances. What about those sneaky little moments, the helpful cop characters; the action hero former cops; the sci-fi buddy cops; the well-meaning, pro-equality bunny cops?
This list is focused on those: the harder-to-recognize but nonetheless impactful instances of copaganda in media that shape the way the public views policing and how it functions.
Disclaimer: I like a lot of the media on this list, and I am not saying that all of them are agenda-having copaganda, or are intentionally working to shape the narrative around policing. These are individual instances of copaganda presented to the audience in subtle ways—ways that don’t seem very meaningful on the surface, or may not have been considered copaganda even by the creators themselves.
But I argue that these “normal” and “harmless” examples are just as insidious as the laughably obvious ones, and that the normalization of lionizing police in media should be talked about more.
Also, some of these are pretty blatant.
Okay, now let’s begin.
What is Copaganda?
Copaganda is propaganda that normalizes, valorizes, or otherwise paints policing in a positive light. More than that, it paints policing as natural, something so imperative to a functioning society that it becomes almost synonymous with safety, the single thread that keeps society from instantly unraveling.
From police procedurals in which all your favorite characters are brave, selfless police officers who plunge headfirst into danger without a second thought…
…to true crime documentaries that gloss over police incompetence, interview police to get their very sanitized perspective of how they handle the case, and shower police with praise when the case is finally solved
…to positive depictions of police and policing in TV shows, even when the show itself is not centered around crime or policing.
No matter the source, the result is always the same: we believe in the benevolence and necessity of policing. After all, what is society without police but a virulent wasteland of chaos and anarchy?
When critiques of policing are met with comments like, “Well who will protect you if you get robbed?” or “Who will stop women like you from getting [redacted]?” copaganda is what makes the public view the police as something more akin to superheroes who swoop in when someone is in danger, as opposed to the hypermilitarized agents of the state that they are.
Description: A human LAPD cop and his rookie orcish partner must overcome their differences to protect an ancient magic wand from the dark forces seeking its power.
Where’s the Copaganda? We’ve got the jaded but good-hearted cop protagonist in Ward, who goes full loose cannon to save the day. We’ve also got the naïve but well-meaning rookie Jakoby, who just wants to do good despite being discriminated against as an orc his whole life. What better way for him to prove himself as “one of the good ones” and make the world a better, safer place than to become a cop, amirite?
Don’t forget the helpful friend on the inside, Deputy Sheriff Rodriguez, the side character good cop meant to remind you that, yeah, cops can be good. Not just the protagonists; other cops, too.
Sure, we’ve also got some “bad cops” who discriminate against Jakoby. And sure, those bad cops also end up being traitors who try to kill the heroes and steal the wand out of sheer greed. But then they die. Our protagonists, the good cops, took care of it.
The good cops always prevail. They may have some issues to work out, but they’ll always do the right thing in the end, even if it means turning their back on the thin blue line and the law (at least until they get hired back on the force and honored when they’re inevitably proven right).
Copaganda gives policing as a system a pass, even when it makes flimsy attempts at critiquing it by having a few cop villains who get their comeuppance in the end. This kind of copaganda acknowledges the existence of “the bad cop,” but keeps our perception of policing as a whole intact.
2. Osmosis Jones
Description: A loose cannon white blood cell cop and a by-the-book cold pill cop must save their world—a dude named Frank—from a deadly virus.
Where’s the Copaganda? Medicine and white blood cells are the police of the human body, protecting it by purging it of the evils that wish to infect and destroy it. As white blood cells are vital to the body’s defense, choosing to parallel a biological system that is crucial to the body’s function with policing kind of speaks for itself.
It’s no wonder that even those who are disillusioned with policing hesitate to support radical change—change beyond reform: actively defunding the police and reallocating that funding to meet the needs of the people, directly addressing major causes of crime (i.e. basic needs not being met) and reducing the need for policing as a result.
Because that’s not how we collectively understand it. When we grow up watching media that equates policing with a literal immune system keeping out all the bad things, what else are we to believe but that policing is as natural as life itself?
3. The Dresden Files (and a lot of urban fantasy in general)
Description: A wizard private investigator solves magical mysteries in Chicago, navigating its supernatural underbelly.
Where’s the Copaganda? I did not finish the entire series. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.
But I read enough to know that not only is protagonist Harry Dresden’s resourceful, by-the-book love interest a “Special Investigations” supernatural police detective, but Dresden himself is a private investigator who works with the Chicago Police Department’s magical division often.
This is common in urban fantasy; what makes more sense as a framing device by which we view this magical version of our familiar world than viewing it through the lens of someone who sees a lot of action, or someone who solves mysteries deeply entrenched in the magical world? Someone who, presumably, interacts with the community on a regular basis?
Copaganda is an endless cycle. We grow up watching action movies with an awesome badass cop protagonist, so we associate the archetypical action hero with policing. Even in our greatest fantasies, it is hard to fathom our world without the police. So how do you ground the magic in reality?
Magical cops. You write magical cops.
(Note: Are private investigators as a rule part of “ACAB,” even if they are not affiliated or associated with police? I’d argue that the answer is no if they’re dealing with civil matters, unless you consistently consult with the cops as Dresden does.)
My hot take: urban fantasy characters don’t need to be cops. You don’t need the action or suspense to come from a magical police procedural.
In truth, the amount of “action” the average cop actually sees is…debatable. According to FBI dispatch data from 2020, about “4% of officers’ time is devoted to violent crime.” For the most part, cops instead mostly get called to handle situations they are absolutely not trained for—situations that mediators and social workers would be far better equipped to handle.
Before we move on, here’s a list of some professions that see a lot of action, traveling/exploring, or interacting with the public:
- Search & Rescue Pilot
- Bartender (a classic, come on now)
- Marine Biologist
- News Reporter
- Truck Driver
- Taxi Driver
- Food Critic
I’ve also written a list of jobs in sci-fi and fantasy, supernatural and otherwise, to get your brain meat cooking.
Do your part, friends. Stop writing urban fantasy police procedurals.
4. Mortal Kombat (2011)
Description: In this brutal fighting game, fighters across the six realms compete in a deadly tournament to determine the fate of their world.
Where’s the Copaganda? Stryker. ACAB includes Stryker.
It also includes Kabal, since they retroactively gave him a cop backstory. Boooooo.
Look, I love Mortal Kombat. But copaganda is copaganda. And here’s what we’re working with: A game franchise about the realms’ greatest warriors fighting to save their realm, and one of Earthrealm’s greatest warriors is…Officer Kurtis Stryker, an NYPD cop with the battle cry, “Police brutality, coming up!”
According to the Wikipedia, he canonically took down several badass fighters, including fan-favorite Mileena.
Mileena. This goober.
Absolutely not. Pure copaganda, and I won’t stand for it.
Description: A bunny from a small rural town becomes the first bunny police officer in the big city, Zootopia, where she meets a fox con-artist. The two are caught up in a massive conspiracy that could shatter the tenuous peace between predator and prey.
Where’s the Copaganda? Low income Black and brown communities are far more heavily policed than white neighborhoods, and Black and brown people are far more likely to be stopped and questioned than white people. Police reform, ostensibly intended to train police better and make police departments more diverse, instead provides ineffective diversity training that has been proven not to change behavior on the field.
The reason reform is ineffective is because it isn’t a lack of training that’s the issue, but the training itself. From Geo Maher’s A World Without Police, “sensitivity training can’t compete with police academies that teach cops to view the public as a threat, or with on-the-job pressures that view violence as an inevitable part of police work.” He points out the common cop phrase: “Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six,” which sums up the mentality of policing pretty well: It’s better to view everyone as a threat and risk killing someone with your itchy trigger finger than it is to risk hesitating and getting killed yourself.
The constant state of fear that police are in—always believing the communities they’re supposed to serve are out to get them—mixed with broken windows policing that primarily targets low income communities of color, mixed again with the blue wall of silence that makes it extremely taboo to blow the whistle against your cop comrades lest you face retaliation, mixed once again with the fact that police are not legally under any obligation to help you, and you’ve got a police system that protects capital and the ruling class while targeting the most vulnerable communities.
It’s a bit ironic, then, that Zootopia is about our protagonist overcoming prejudice and working to make the world a better, more equitable place. As a cop.
- Barton, Gina, et al. “Behind the Blue Wall of Silence.” USA Today, 9 May 2022, http://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/investigations/2021/12/09/blue-wall-police-misconduct-whistleblower-retaliation/8836387002/.
- Everding, Gerry. “Commonly Used Police Diversity Training Unlikely to Change Officers’ Behavior, Study Finds – the Source – Washington University in St. Louis.” The Source, 20 Feb. 2023, source.wustl.edu/2023/02/commonly-used-police-diversity-training-unlikely-to-change-officers-behavior-study-finds/.
- Grady, Constance. “How 70 Years of Cop Shows Taught Us to Valorize the Police.” Vox, 12 Apr. 2021, http://www.vox.com/culture/22375412/police-show-procedurals-hollywood-history-dragnet-keystone-cops-brooklyn-nine-nine-wire-blue-bloods.
- Greenhouse, Linda. “Justices Rule Police Do Not Have a Constitutional Duty to Protect Someone.” The New York Times, 28 June 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/28/politics/justices-rule-police-do-not-have-a-constitutional-duty-to-protect.html.
- Karma, Roge. “We Train Police to Be Warriors – and Then Send Them out to Be Social Workers.” Vox, 31 July 2020, http://www.vox.com/2020/7/31/21334190/what-police-do-defund-abolish-police-reform-training.
- Lartey, Jamiles, and Annaliese Griffin. “The System: The Future of Policing.” The Marshall Project, 23 Oct. 2020, http://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/10/23/the-future-of-policing.
- Maher, Geo. A World without Police How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete. Verso US, 2021.
- Person, and Hassan Kanu. “Police Are Not Primarily Crime Fighters, According to the Data.” Reuters, 2 Nov. 2022, http://www.reuters.com/legal/government/police-are-not-primarily-crime-fighters-according-data-2022-11-02/#:~:text=Over%20the%20past%20decade%2C%20%E2%80%9Cconsistently,a%202021%20law%20review%20article.
- Stoughton, Seth W. “How Police Training Contributes to Avoidable Deaths.” The Atlantic, 10 Aug. 2021, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/police-gun-shooting-training-ferguson/383681/.