What Noir Films Taught Us About Police


Glorian Grahame and Glenn Ford in The Big Heat

Since it debuted in 1999, every episode of the NBC series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) has opened with the same narration: 

In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.

These lines, soberly delivered by Steven Zirnkilton, suggest a duality: on one side are the criminals who commit offenses; on the other are the detectives who stop them. But the narration also implies a third party—the ordinary citizens, like you and me, who are endangered by the criminals if the detectives fail.

Such distinctions are the core of “copaganda,” which includes SVU, its parent show Law & Order (which aired 456 episodes between 1991 and 2019), and its five fellow spin-offs. As the portmanteau suggests, copaganda refers to any piece of media that portrays the police as a necessary social institution. While these can include viral videos of police chatting with neighborhood kids or doing lip-sync battles, the most pervasive forms are pieces of pop culture. 

While some pieces of popular culture do show us the real cost of U.S. policing, copaganda remains the norm. And it’s not hard to see why. In the high-stakes world of film and television production, controversy can lose viewers, especially in the reliable market of middle-aged and elderly audiences who tend to watch procedurals. Given the cries police unions have pitched against even the most reasonable criticism


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