Cops and Clergy on TV: Catholicism and the Police Procedural Drama — The Revealer

Cops and Clergy on TV: Catholicism and the Police Procedural Drama — The Revealer

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(Poster for Legislation & Order: SVU, one of many longest-running prime-time reveals on tv)

Even after the video circulated of George Floyd’s brutal homicide on Could 25, 2020, and the following months of protests organized by the Motion for Black Lives, tv reveals that remember police have continued in reputation. Though police procedural dramas have acquired important consideration for propping up the ideological basis of police violence and mass incarceration, they’ve endurance. Over the previous ten years, as many as 29% of all scripted dramas have been crime reveals. Two of the longest-running collection on the air (NCIS and Legislation and Order: SVU) are police procedurals, as have been seven of the fifteen most watched dramas on tv from 2019-2020.

Viewers of crime dramas, in keeping with a latest examine, are assured the legal justice system works effectively and have a tendency to assist the dying penalty, each views that correlate with political conservativism. This confidence is strengthened by the soothing routine of the police procedural. Within the phrases of Guardian critic David Stubbs, “the detectives might trudge somberly from one inconceivable murder scene to a different, week in, week out, because the blue lights circle bleakly, however we, the viewers, sink gleefully into our sofas able to drink it in like cocoa. It’s a parlour sport, a ritual.”

By describing such reveals as a “ritual,” what can we study in regards to the illustration of regulation enforcement in widespread media?

This query is essential as a result of police procedurals developed an abiding apologetics for the police by counting on Christian rhetoric. In flip, this apologetics shifted from tv studio to the streets. The tropes of obligation and self-sacrifice continually churned out by The Police Tribunal, the nationwide on-line information website of Blue Lives Matter, started within the writers’ rooms of police reveals way back to the Fifties. In growing that rhetoric, police procedurals tailored the Christian, and significantly Catholic, significance of obligation and self-sacrifice from the vocation of the priesthood. To know tv’s enduring ideological assist for regulation enforcement we have to scrutinize these non secular undercurrents.

Listening to the police procedural’s use of priestly traits within the depiction of regulation enforcement permits us to higher perceive how this tv style has rendered the police as morally righteous, indispensable, and as a supply of salvation for American society. These tv dramas have centered the police within the nation’s nationwide mythology, which has made criticism and reform of regulation enforcement all of the harder.

Rhetoric of sacred self-sacrifice seems not solely in tv reveals in regards to the police; it options closely in patriotic narratives of fallen troopers and in narratives of home policing within the wake of 9/11. The official Blue Lives Matter Fb group dedicates itself to “the soldiers who stand on this line, to those that wage warfare within the streets, to these we now have misplaced and can lose.” This sense of inevitable self-sacrifice contributes to the pervasive notion that the police, like clergymen, are separate from the remainder of society but additionally uniquely accountable for its salvation.

Popoe and police

(Picture Supply: Susan Walsh for the Related Press)

Dragnet, the present that Legislation and Order producer Dick Wolf known as “the daddy of us all,” created robust associations between the police and the priesthood. The present started on the radio in 1949 and moved to tv within the Fifties. Jack Webb, the present’s creator, producer, and star, developed an in depth working relationship with Chief William Parker of the Los Angeles Police Division, an early adopter of “the skinny blue line” picture which symbolizes the police’s important position in society. Webb described the present as “leisure with an ulterior motive” and agreed that Parker would have oversight over all of the Dragnet scripts. The LAPD’s repute was tarnished across the identical time by the 1951 “Bloody Christmas” police riot in addition to constant complaints of racial bias. Webb, who was an skilled actor on hardboiled noir radio reveals, utilized the stripped-down, masculinist model of that style to defend regulation enforcement. A key function of the present was its makes an attempt at realism, using in depth technical enter from LAPD consultants. Webb cultivated the impression of verisimilitude, taking a “ripped-from-the-police-files” method, and commenced every episode with the narrator’s declaration that “the story you might be about to see is true. The names have been modified to guard the harmless.” Many years later, one Catholic mental praised Webb’s theological valorization of the police, describing the opening system as “acquainted as an oath, comforting as a prayer.”

One approach to perceive how police procedurals adapt the rhetoric of priestly obligation is to look at moments when clergymen and police seem collectively in these reveals. The presence of the priest in a procedural facilitates comparisons that sacralize regulation enforcement. This was true within the Fifties, but additionally not too long ago: in 2015 the chief producer of the CBS collection Blue Bloods described the present as an “interweaving of two tribes: cops and church.”

However why has the Catholic priest been so essential for police reveals in a rustic that has had its justifiable share of anti-Catholic prejudice? In police procedurals Catholicism connotes city white ethnicity, particularly, that of Irish-Individuals. Bigger city environments are the settings for a lot of procedurals and there’s a longstanding cultural assumption that Irish-Individuals work as regulation enforcement in such cities. This ethnic and spiritual particularity humanizes the police, giving these primarily white figures better depth whereas making them greater than merely instruments of the state. The affiliation between the police, white ethnicity, and Catholicism additionally endows the police with an ethical vocabulary of obligation, self-sacrifice, and hierarchy that helps safe the police a righteous place in each nationwide discourse and metropolis budgets.

Policing as Sacred Obligation in Dragnet

Dragnet goes out of its approach to present the resemblance between the Catholic priesthood and the LAPD. In an episode from 1953, “The Huge Little Jesus,” a crèche child Jesus statue goes lacking from a church on Christmas Eve. The priest who reviews the theft remarks to Joe Friday (Jack Webb) that it’s unlucky how “in so wanting a time males study to steal.” Friday speaks to the priest as in the event that they have been colleagues: “However contemplate us, Father.” The priest is confused by the “us.” “If a few of them didn’t, you and me could be out of labor,” Friday explains. Monks and police exist to counter the sinful impulses of humanity.

Because the collection progressed, nonetheless, it grew to become clear that the police could be outperforming the clergymen. Within the 1969 episode “B.O.D.”, (Dragnet 27) a priest- journalist shadows the detectives as they pull an evening shift on the Enterprise Workplace Division. The priest, Father Barnes (Grant Williams), is persistently amazed on the LAPD’s mixture of effectivity and respectful therapy of Los Angeles’s residents. On the finish, Father Barnes can lastly do one thing the detectives can’t, as he rushes off to a hospital to help in performing final rites for a fatally injured officer. When clergymen like Barnes seem in Dragnet, they’re members of the identical religious household because the police, but much less outfitted to confront the ethical downside of the age: fashionable crime. And but, Father Barnes’ eagerness to carry out final rites suggests a partnership, a shared dedication to creating sacrifices for the sake of the neighborhood.

Police self-sacrifice in Dragnet often serves to justify using deadly drive. This turns into clear within the season three episode “Public Affairs.” It first aired on September 19, 1968, simply months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the uprisings in D.C., Chicago, and Baltimore, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and merely one month after the authoritarian crackdown on protests on the Chicago Democratic Conference. On this episode, Joe Friday and his associate Invoice Gannon seem on a neighborhood tv present to answer criticism of regulation enforcement. Friday argues that the police protect democracy by “bleeding for it,” all as a result of they imagine in regulation and order and “the concept that persons are higher than animals,” and detest “the regulation of the jungle.” They sacrifice themselves for “the concept that a civilized nation is healthier than a jungle.”

Friday’s repeated references to the “jungle” tackle a distinctly racist connotation as the following member of the viewers mounts the rostrum, the dashiki-clad Mondo Mabamba (Dick Anthony Williams). Mabamba by no means removes his sun shades, referencing the demonic Boss Godfrey, “the person with no eyes,” from Cool Hand Luke (1967). If cops are providing themselves up as sacrifices for the widespread good, then Mondo Mabamba, as a Black nationalist, stands as their persecutor, accusing the LAPD of being second-rate Nazis. When Mabamba presses the detectives on the LAPD’s cowardly reliance on auto patrols, Friday responds that the division is contemplating foot patrols within the Black neighborhoods to ascertain belief. Mabamba sneers at his comrades within the entrance row, a sign that they are going to be prepared when the beat cops come strolling by. The scene reinforces the implicit argument of the episode: a police officer is justified in taking the lives of harmful folks of colour exactly as a result of he’s at all times prepared to offer his personal.

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(Left: Boss Godfrey in Cool Hand Luke; Proper: Mondo Mabamba in “Public Affairs”)

Defending the White Household in Modern Police Procedurals

Dragnet might have been the “father of all of them” when it got here to police procedurals, however popular culture illustration of the police modified considerably within the ensuing many years as reveals tried to current extra psychologically-developed characters struggling by means of the cultural and political upheavals of the Nineteen Sixties and 70s. Friday’s lack of a private life was the signal of his seriousness as a public servant. However following the publication of the 1971 novel The New Centurions by police-officer-turned-writer Joseph Wambaugh, the private prices of policing grew to become an abiding aspect in procedural storytelling for reveals like Hillstreet Blues within the Eighties, NYPD Blues within the Nineties, and The Wire within the 2000s. In distinction to Dragnet, these collection emphasize the pressures that “the job” exerts on the interior lives of advanced characters. Police work usually seems as tragically sisyphean and remoted in city environments misgoverned by cynical elites.

Different outstanding collection continued the Dragnet custom of deemphasizing the interior lives of their characters whereas emphasizing their position in investigative and authorized procedures, most notably the Legislation and Order franchise. However there was no going again after the flip to the private, and most reveals fused soap-opera parts with the grind of crime-solving. As audiences have been anticipated to care in regards to the advanced psychologies of characters in regulation enforcement, they have been additionally being primed to establish police work with the navy and counter-terrorist operations that adopted 9/11. The patriotic rhetoric of self-sacrifice for the homeland started to achieve a better depth than it ever achieved on Dragnet.

CBS’s Blue Bloods, which has aired since 2010, exemplifies this shift. Tom Selleck, iconic because the star of Magnum P.I., now performs the police chief of the New York Police Division in addition to the patriarch of the Reagan household. His two sons, Danny (Donnie Wahlberg) and Jamie (Will Estes), have adopted him into the household enterprise, whereas his daughter Erin (Bridget Moynahan), works as a prosecutor for the district lawyer. Danny, an Iraq Conflict veteran with PTSD and a penchant for breaking the principles (and suspects’ faces), reinforces the hyperlink between the navy and home regulation enforcement. Jamie is the youngest, a rookie beat patrol officer studying the fundamentals after strolling away from an elite authorized profession. Much like Legislation and Order, Blue Bloods portrays the legal justice system at every step, from the road to police headquarters and into the courtroom. However by making the NYPD right into a household enterprise, the present blurs the road between the private pursuits of those characters and their official duties. The sacrifices they make for his or her careers, their household, and the general public order grow to be indistinguishable.

Blue BloodsBlue Bloods performs up the Reagans’ Irish-Catholic roots, however we hardly ever see them in church. The ritual most essential to the present is the weekly Sunday dinner throughout which the principle themes of the episode are hashed over and normally resolved by means of Francis’ paternal steering. By portraying Chief Francis as “extra Catholic than the pope,” the present provides him an ethical integrity that not solely outstrips conventional non secular leaders but additionally authorizes extra-judicial acts of violence.

The Reagans usually are not sure by the regulation, however have as an alternative a deeper calling—defending the American household. Within the up to date police procedural there’s a preoccupation with displaying the police deeply sympathizing with the victims or, because the reveals usually name them, “vics.” This emotional connection fuels the detectives’ righteous pursuit of justice. The “vics” are principally sympathetic characters with households relying on them. However who’re the victims in these reveals? Of the 26 police procedurals analyzed in Shade of Change‘s “Normalizing Injustice” report, “the probability that main crime victims have been white males was 35%, white girls 28%, males of colour 22% (Black males 12%) and ladies of colour 13%.” However in Blue Bloods, 78% of the victims have been white, and 71% have been male. Whereas tv’s hottest police dramas painting whites as the first victims of crime, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reviews that whites account for under 37% of the victims of violent crimes. Additional, in Blue Bloods, Reagan members of the family and their acquaintances often seem as targets of violence. This connection reveals the viewer whom the police must serve and shield—themselves, and by extension, different “actual Individuals.” The Reagans embody a fantasy of the victimized white-American household that’s robust sufficient to strike again.

The theme of the susceptible white police household acquired its most compelling therapy but in HBO’s 2021 mini-series, The Mare of Easttown. The protagonist, detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), lives and works in a suburb of Philadelphia hard-hit by the opioid disaster. Mare is traumatized by the suicides of shut members of the family and haunted by the disappearance of younger white girls in her neighborhood. To shut these circumstances, Mare persistently breaks from protocol and takes pricey dangers. And the prices are actual: her relationship with family and friends and even the lifetime of her coworker. The collection excels at displaying the viewer how a lot ache Mare has skilled—and the way a lot she causes for the folks in her life. However in the long run she solves the mysteries and begins to heal, not solely on her personal, however together with the entire neighborhood.

Mare of Easttown’s last episode is titled “Sacrament,” suggesting the sacrament of reconciliation, and options one other embattled character, Deacon Mark Burton (James McArdle). Cleared of homicide expenses, the deacon delivers a homily to a packed chapel in one of many collection’ last scenes. Deacon Mark hyperlinks his personal rehabilitation in the neighborhood with a religious resurgence in Easttown, and invitations the parishioners to reconcile with those that have been pushed “exterior the circle.” Deacon Mark’s redemption parallels Mare’s. Beforehand she was the general public face of the police’s incapacity to guard the younger girls of Easttown. However now Mare’s investigative competence and genuine connection to the folks of her neighborhood have vindicated the police and given Deacon Mark one other likelihood to minister to the parish. Even on this talent-packed, emotionally advanced collection, the partnership between the police and the priesthood as stewards and redeemers of a predominantly white neighborhood continues unabated.

The Police Procedural after Summer season 2020

To open the autumn 2020 tv season, police procedurals aired season premiers that tried to metabolize the protests of summer season 2020 and tackle the controversy about defunding the police. Blue Bloods responded defensively, portraying backlash towards the police as a brand new alternative for cynical criminals to get away with extra. Black proponents of racial justice seem on the present as both unreasonably bitter or naive, oblivious to the unintended penalties of reforms to money bail, such because the demoralization of the NYPD and the prospect of on a regular basis New Yorkers being menaced by “criminals” unleashed on the streets. This echoes a longtime Republican speaking level that has no foundation in actual fact.

This context additionally affected the priestly dimension of the fictional police. The premiere of the twenty-second season of Legislation and Order: Particular Victims Unit,Gladiators and Guardians,” is just like Blue Blood’s opener in that it pushes the paranoid argument that the 2020 protests have been a boon to criminals. It presents the general public backlash towards police violence because the set off for sweeping “witch hunt” purges that might divide the NYPD. However it additionally triangulates, displaying the detectives reflecting on their very own susceptibility to unconscious racial bias. Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) understands herself to be “biased for the victims” with out realizing the influence of unconscious racial bias on her investigations. She requires the counseling of a number of Black officers and an unjustly handled Black civilian to understand that she will not be as “colour blind” as she assumed. Right here, Black cops carry out a clerical position for white officers: listening to confessions of racial bias after which expiating guilt.

Inner Affairs Captain Renee Curry (Aime Donna Kelly) questions Benson about her thought-process within the arrest of Jayvon Brown (Blake Morris) in an incident loosely based mostly on the Central Park birdwatching incident of Could 2020. When Benson denies appearing out of racial bias, Curry stops audio-recording their interview and begins to teach Benson on how the well-intentioned “guardians” of public order must take “a severe self-inventory.” The scene foregrounds Benson’s discomfort and disgrace. And but Curry, a Black girl, will not be solely her inquisitor however a religious counselor, pushing Benson to look at herself as a way to win again public belief. Later, Benson confesses her sins to Deputy Chief Garland (Demore Barnes), acknowledging that her unconscious racial bias is actual and should be addressed. Garland listens patiently and instructs her to be cautious of the NYPD’s institutional politics that may sacrifice white police like her as a way to obtain higher public relations with none concern for actual reforms.

In each cases, Black police seem in a shifting clerical wardrobe, serving as inquisitors, confessors, and counselors. These priestly duties fall to Black characters who are actually accountable for ministering to white sinners bothered by unconscious racial bias. And but the reforms these characters push for are all imagined to happen within the particular person psyches of the detectives. Benson says as a lot when apologizing to Jayvon Brown on the finish of the episode: “The NYPD…” She stops to right herself, “I have a number of work to do.” The emphasis rests on private accountability and self-scrutiny, moderately than any structural modifications to the legal justice system.


The deal with particular person “dangerous apples” seeks to deflect criticism from the police as an establishment. Particular person “maverick” detectives are without delay the villains accountable for violent police abuse but additionally the heroes of this style: consider Clint Eastwood as “Soiled Harry,” Mare Sheehan, or The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty. Police collection middle these rugged people, cloaking them in white-ethnic authenticity or, more and more, principled Black patriotism.

By making the police-priesthood “colorblind,” police procedurals are merely updating their apologies for the white-supremacist violence of the present system. The determine of the priestly police officer continues to evolve within the tv police procedural. However regardless of widespread criticism of American police departments, these reveals nonetheless legitimize, heroize, and sacralize regulation enforcement in america.


Klaus Yoder is a historian of Christianity and a podcaster for Seven Heads, Ten Horns: The Historical past of the Satan. He teaches within the Faith Division at Vassar School in Poughkeepsie, NY.

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