Officer Friendly

Copaganda, a portmanteau of ‘cop’ and ‘propaganda,’ is the phenomenon in which news media and other social institutions promote celebratory portrayals of police officers with the intent of swaying public opinion for the benefit of police departments and law enforcement. Copaganda has been defined by cultural critics as ‘media efforts to flatter police officers and spare them from skeptical coverage’ and ‘pieces of media that are so scarily disconnected from the reality of cops that they end up serving as offbeat recruitment ads.’

The term has gained more popularity in the wake of the George Floyd protests as the United States’ media structure publicly reckons with its role in perpetuating overly fawning or unrealistic portrayals of the police, which activists believe has contributed to downplaying the effects of police brutality in the United States.

Copaganda has been identified as promoting an image of police officers that does not reflect reality, especially for working class Indigenous, Black, and brown communities, and reinforcing racist misconceptions worldwide.

Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, television and film screenwriter and producer, commented on the history of copaganda in American television: ‘The past 60 years have seen shows like ‘Dragnet’ (1951–59), ‘The Untouchables’ (1959–63), and ‘Adam 12′ (1968–75) establish a formula where, within an hour of story, good law men, also known as square-jawed white cops, defeat bad guys, often known as poor people of color.’ Subsequent shows such as ‘Hawaii Five-O’ (1968–80) and ‘Kojak’ (1973–78) solidified this narrative, along with ‘Hill Street Blues’ (1981–87), ‘Miami Vice’ (1984–89), and ‘Cagney & Lacey’ (1982–89), which were ‘for the most part, told from the point of view of white cops occasionally interacting with people of color who were, at best, one-dimensional criminals, colleagues, bosses, sidekicks, and best friends. Even when blackness was not equated with criminality, it was often supplemented by an inhuman lack of depth or presence.’

News media is the most common outlet for copaganda, most often taking the form of news stories of police officers performing simple tasks that can plainly be consumed as laudable by viewers. Amidst the Ferguson unrest in 2014, a widely circulated news story and photographs of 12-year-old Devonte Hart hugging Portland Police Sergeant Bret Barnum, has since been identified as a prominent example of copaganda. CBS News picked up the story in an article entitled ‘Amid Ferguson tension, emotional hug goes viral,’ with its opening line: ‘It’s being called the hug felt ’round the world.” In 2018, police lip-sync challenges received popular coverage in news media. ‘USA Today’ called it ‘the hit social media trend of the summer’ and created a bracket for police departments to submit videos of officers lip syncing to be voted on. The article stated that ‘nearly each of the lip sync videos that hits social media goes viral making everyone (viewer and video-maker alike) a winner.’

During the George Floyd protests, copaganda has been identified as a widespread tactic of the police and media. Officers kneeling with protestors in performative displays of solidarity, sometimes moments before teargassing crowds, and the media directing much of their attention on looting have been described as copaganda. In the wake of the protests, calls to cancel copaganda television shows entered the mainstream discourse. A&E’s ‘Live PD’ was cancelled. Paramount canceled ‘Cops’ after 32 seasons.

Television shows such as ‘Scandal,’ ‘Law and Order: SVU,’ and ‘Major Crimes’ have been identified as portraying ‘copagandic narratives’ which promote messages such as ‘trust the system’ and ‘not all cops,’ while ‘Chicago PD,’ ‘Blue Bloods,’ and ‘Rookie Blue’ have been described as ‘outright applaud[ing] police’ by African American youth organizer and critic Ronnie Boyd and ‘mindless glorification’ by critic Funké Joseph. The CBS prime time lineup, including shows such as ‘FBI: Most Wanted,’ ‘NCIS,’ ‘NCIS: Los Angeles,’ ‘NCIS: New Orleans,’ ‘Hawaii Five-0,’ ‘Criminal Minds,’ ‘Magnum P.I.,’ ‘Blue Bloods,’ and ‘S.W.A.T.’ have been identified as coming under increased skepticism by the public because of their representation of copaganda. Showrunner Aaron Rahsaan Thomas recognized how these television shows spread copaganda internationally.

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