The last several weeks have been arguably historically-significant, even if one subscribes to the idea of history and reactionary movements being cyclical, in how it’s brought abuse and corruption by law enforcement through the United States to light more than ever before. Tragedy has been in the media constantly as people watch police officers abuse and assault protestors, and police departments and law enforcement unions buckle down in light of calls for reform, for dissolution, for defunding, and for abolishment.
It’s been rough.
And in that roughness where many are starting to see a reality related to how law enforcement are viewed by and hurt others in their communities and have been hurt and targeted for a very long time, an interesting conversation has been evolving and appearing among people who write true crime and crime fiction, as well as those who write about crime fiction and true crime;
What responsibility is held in the hands of those who create fiction featuring law enforcement?
In 2014, writer Laura Hudson made the case for the deliberate pro-law enforcement perspective primetime police-oriented dramas such as Blue Bloods (among others) being done to craft narratives that favorited law enforcement practices and beliefs that flew in the face of common knowledge and actual effective law enforcement, never mind racial and social justice and human rights. And the thesis of the piece, which highlights just how many hoops and knots TV shows like this put themselves through to create narratives where law enforcement are the victims and we should constantly be questioning situations where they’re painted as perpetrators of crimes, is dead-on. TV like that hurts people.
Recently, the excellent Alyssa Rosenberg wrote “Shut Down All Police Movies and TV Shows. Now.”and stated;
But there’s something Hollywood can do to put its money where its social media posts are: immediately halt production on cop shows and movies and rethink the stories it tells about policing in America.
For a century, Hollywood has been collaborating with police departments, telling stories that whitewash police shootings and valorizing an action-hero style of policing over the harder, less dramatic work of building relationships with the communities cops are meant to serve and protect.
This is all part of a larger cultural discussion in writing and writing about crime fiction and the ways that it intersects so much with writing about law enforcement and using law enforcement officers and characters. And it’s a discussion that we (collectively) should be having about crime and noir and true crime and the ways in which law enforcement play parts in that.
As the popularity of both true crime and crime fiction has grown and become a larger part of pop culture overall, it’s also brought up serious discussions about the actual roles that law enforcement and their tropes of “insidious Internal Affairs” and “renegades restricted by the unnecessary rules of liberalism” (and in noir/crime fiction, the trope of the “ex-cop”) play. Just how harmful is it to think of those as standards when writing crime fiction, especially violent crime fiction?
While discussions around true crime and crime fiction as being more than just a magnifying glass for violence and rubbernecking is one that has become powerful enough to re-shape how we view and identify said fictions, we need to seriously think about how crime-related fiction and nonfiction featuring law enforcement should function, and whether or not there’s a larger responsibility to either clearly draw a line between “cop stories” and “crime/noir stories.”
Noir and crime fiction have for so long been havens for writing about the underside and alternate-economies and subclures of mainstream society, but they’ve also served the important function of addressing the weird gray fluidity of social mobility as well as just how these mainstream systems (regular law enforcement in particular) have failed protagonists, if not outright been vindictive and hostile to them. And while there is a line that can be crossed when comparing the works of someone like William Heffernan to Walter Mosley, it’s important to recognize that solving a crime isn’t enough to make the both of them equal under a single “header” of crime fiction.
Crime and noir fiction have been and should continue to be embracing counterculture and anti-authoritarian approaches to mystery, crime, and social mobility, and not let themselves simply allow stories where law enforcement (and a particular kind of law enforcement while we’re at it) use brutality and violence and disregard for laws meant to protect citizens to get results, and then be rewarded.
Noir and crime fiction is always about underdogs, and as an arm of social order and law, it’s important to recognize the responsibility we as writers of an writers on crime and noir have to highlight and insist that while stories with law enforcement can exist, they are not underdogs, because of their backing by the authority of the state, and their symbolism traditionally as agents of law and order. But when so much of a subgenre is about how that law and order can be circumvented for a better life or to push back against its oppressiveness and prejudice, does it really make sense to consider them equal? Is a cop a PI? No, they’re not, because sometimes the results that they’re looking for in the end, as similar as it may be, are not the same when looked at in the bigger picture.
It’s important to remember that, and think about it moving forward.