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The Hero Cop Trope, Revisited

How did the “Hero Cop” trope become such a pervasive, controversial force in our culture? On TV especially, crime is our favorite kind of story, accounting for our longest-running franchises, our most popular sitcoms, and our most prestigious cable dramas. But does this character still have a future today? Here’s our Take on this most American of myths, and whether it may be time for the Hero Cop to turn in their badge.

TRANSCRIPT

The hero cop is arguably our most American character. And across decades of film and TV shows, we’ve always seen the world through their point of view. The cop has become the default protagonist of American storytelling, and on TV especially, crime is our favorite kind of story, accounting for our longest-running franchises, our most popular sitcoms, and our most prestigious cable dramas.

It’s easy to see why we love crime stories. They’re basic morality plays that put the world into a clear binary of cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys, and they give us the vicarious thrill of seeing mysteries solved and justice served. The hero cop reassures us that—as the police have often reminded us—there is a thin blue line standing between civilization and anarchy.

A 2019 study even found that Americans trusted the police more than any journalist, religious leader, or politician—that we believe them to be not only good at their jobs, but also fair, accurate, and compassionate. It’s an image that’s been reinforced across more than a century of hero cop entertainment.

But as we’ve become increasingly aware of police brutality and misconduct, and born witness to cops injuring, and even killing the citizens they’re sworn to protect, we’ve begun to question these conceptions. As pop culture fantasies clash with the ongoing realities in our streets, critics have increasingly derided many police stories as copaganda, even calling for them to be abolished. How did the story of the hero cop become such a pervasive, controversial force in our culture—and does this character still have a future? Here’s our take on this most American of myths, and whether it may be time for the Hero Cop to turn in their badge.

The Origins of the Hero Cop:

Cops have been patrolling our screens since the advent of film—but they weren’t always heroes. Silent movies like the Keystone Cops series portrayed police as bumbling, incompetent clowns, and as early as 1910, the International Association of Chiefs of Police was condemning movies where the police are sometimes made to appear ridiculous—especially compared to charismatic movie gangsters or private detectives. The cops in these movies were almost never the protagonists. But as growing film productions needed shooting permits and extra security—and Hollywood’s earliest stars became embroiled in embarrassing public scandals that needed covering up—studio bosses began to see the value in cooperating. In 1934, Hollywood began enforcing the Hays Code, a set of strict moral guidelines that, among other things, declared that criminals would always be portrayed as unsympathetic, and cops would be treated with respect. Since movies about gangsters were still big business, Hollywood found a workaround by making films centered on the men who hunted them.

In 1935, gangster movie star James Cagney went legit with the box-office smash G-Men, which replaced the crook protagonist with a daring FBI lawman—heralding the dawn of the hero cop. G-Men was the first of many films made under the watchful eye of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. In 1954, Hoover even had Congress pass a law, requiring that any depictions of his agency get his approval. The nation’s top cop thus became a de facto producer on films like 1959’s The FBI Story, forcing director Mervyn LeRoy to reshoot scenes that weren’t sufficiently flattering, and even making a cameo as himself. Hoover exerted similar control over ABC’s 1965 series The FBI—including personally auditioning its lead, Efrem Zimbalist, signing off on every script, and even vetoing guest stars like Bette Davis, due to her presumed communist ties. Hoover recognized immediately that film and television had the power to shape public perception of law enforcement, and he seized control of it for decades.

But by far, the most influential form of copaganda was a show that, ironically, promised just the facts.

“The story you’re about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” - Dragnet

Dragnet began in 1949 as a radio serial, starring its creator Jack Webb as the stoic, straitlaced Sargeant Joe Friday. Webb wanted to depict police work authentically, using actual cases drawn from the official files of the Los Angeles Police Department.

“For the next 30 minutes, in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department, you will travel step-by-step on the side of the law.” - Dragnet

The LAPD agreed—under the condition that it would approve every script, ensuring Dragnet would portray cops as competent, upstanding, and always getting their man. The Dragnet TV series premiered in 1951— the same year as a violent LAPD assault on seven civilians that came to be known as Bloody Christmas. But under the department’s supervision, Dragnet never touched on the reality of the era’s many incidents of police brutality.

And its morally upright, square-jawed fantasy of the hero cop would dramatically shape not only future police stories but also the real-life cop’s public image. As police departments continued to serve as technical consultants on the cop shows that Dragnet inspired, they also gave studios access to resources like police buildings, patrol cars, shooting permits, and even

uniformed officers as extras—all in exchange for dictating how they would be portrayed. This realism made the cop show even more exciting, and the cop show quickly became one of the most foolproof formulas for TV success. The hero cop was suddenly everywhere.

Arresting Cops:

Andy Kilvinski: “You know all that Hollywood crap about the karate expert and the one-punch cop is…”

Roy Fehler: “A lot of Hollywood crap”- The New Centurions (1972)

While J. Edgar Hoover and Dragnet shaped our idea of the heroic lawman, it was former LAPD officer Joseph Wambaugh who helped turn them into a complex protagonist with his 1971 novel, The New Centurions. Wambaugh ushered in a new era that humanized cops as flawed and cynical, prone to alcoholism, adultery, and emotional outbursts—and making mistakes—heroic not for what they did, but for what they endured.

Kilvinski: “The public don’t understand. Lawyers, judges don’t understand. We see the victims. We know what crime does to people because we see it like nobody else does.” - The New Centurions (1972)

In Wambaugh’s own cop shows, Police Story and The Blue Knight, the police were working-class heroes with anxious lives and strained marriages, susceptible to injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. This more humanistic depiction of policing mirrored the Vietnam-era disillusionment felt in other ‘70s and ‘80s films about beaten-down cops at odds with corruption or weary-soldier cops under siege in an urban battlefield. These tensions, and that humanizing approach, would come together in Stephen Bochco and Michael Kozoll’s landmark ‘80s series Hill Street Blues. Viewers saw the cops of Hill Street station, as the writer Joyce Carol Oates, put it, “as figures of Sisyphus rolling their rocks up the hill and the next morning rolling them down again and again.” This hero cop persevered, at a great personal cost, in a world of ever-present danger.

Sgt. Phil Esterhaus: “Let’s be careful out there.” - Hill Street Blues

Hill Street Blues’ sense of empathy would greatly influence subsequent cop shows like Cagney & Lacey, Law and Order, and Bochco’s own NYPD Blue, contributing to our perception of cops as sympathetic people who heroically put their lives on the line. Of course, not everyone wanted their hero cops to be human. As Joseph Wambaugh told The Washington Post, “The network always wanted to stop this damn talking! ‘Enough, already,’ ‘Come on, let’s have a cop that can chase somebody down and beat the hell out of them.’” Those kinds of cops were already on the big screen, responding to a broken system not with tears, but violence. And TV answered this call to action with shows like S.W.A.T. that turned police work into militarized urban warfare and with the catchphrase-spewing super-cops of series like Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, and Baretta. These cops were far from weak or wounded. They were tough, sexy, and cool, roughing up crooks and performing incredible stunts. Then came the coolest cops of all. In 1984, Miami Vice put an MTV spin on the police procedural. With their tailored suits and sculpted stubble, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas were the police as pop star.

Brenda: “How do you go from this tranquility to that violence?”

Crockett: “I usually take the Ferrari.” - Miami Vice S1 E20

And they patrolled a hyper-stylized Miami that was, as seen in the recently released Scarface, menaced by the kind of larger-than-life drug kingpins who could justify their ever-escalating violence. Across the ‘80s, action-hero cops became even more slick and outlandish often played by superhuman actors like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. When updated as an ‘80s movie, even stoic, sober Dragnet traded authenticity for high-speed car chases, armored tanks, and rap songs. Die Hard, arguably the most popular cop movie ever made, took an empathetically human cop in the Joseph Wambaugh mold—Bruce Willis’s working-stiff John McClane—then pitted him against a veritable army of Eastern European terrorists. It wasn’t even close. The hero cop has since become a cliche. But no matter how tired or overworked, the cop has never stopped being our most popular fictional profession.

We put cops in workplace sitcoms and raunchy movie comedies. We partner them with dogs and cute kids. We can’t seem to imagine a world that isn’t filtered through a cop—even the realms of the supernatural, the extraterrestrial, or the fantastical. Not all of these cop stories may be outright propaganda. But the sheer number of hero cops over the years has served to reinforce a similar message: The cop is the protagonist. The cop’s story is the one that matters.

Jake: “One cop heroically saving the day while everyone else stands around and watches. It’s the story of my life!” - Brooklyn Nine-Nine S1 E3

The Damaging Myth of the Hero Cop:

This drama of the hero cop myth clashes with the uncomfortable reality of police work. On TV and in movies, cops spend their days solving serious crimes and hauling in felons. But that’s just not what police really do. According to a 2019 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, while police average 10.5 million arrests a year, the vast majority are for low-level offenses like drug possession or disorderly conduct—not the kind that makes for good television.

From their earliest days—when police were tasked with quelling labor riots and keeping immigrants and newly freed slaves in line—the main function of police has been social control. In the hero cop myth, any threat to that control is the enemy. Once, defense attorneys like Atticus Finch or Perry Mason, along with rogue private eyes were our heroes for protecting the innocent and wrongfully accused. But beginning with the premiere of Law & Order in 1990, defense attorneys were suddenly opportunistic sleazebags.

Today, we empathize with hero cops. As they forgo warrants and beat confessions out of suspects, we’re meant to see their rule-breaking and their violence as justified—to accept it as normal.

Donald Trump: “Please don’t be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting the head, I said you could take the hand away, okay?”

When we do see cops portrayed as overly violent or corrupt, they’re usually painted as bad apples who end up getting taken down by the good cops And even when good cops do bad things, we’re meant to forgive them—to believe the guilt they feel is punishment enough,

Sgt. Al Powell: “I shot a kid. He was 13 years old. You know when you’re a rookie they can teach you everything about being a cop, except how to live with a mistake.” - Die Hard (1988)

or, more often, that they had no choice.

Martin Riggs: “Look, that kid was a killer, alright? He would’ve drilled you, me, anybody that came along, alright?” - Lethal Weapon 3 (1992)

In a 2020 study, the non-profit Color of Change conducted a sweeping study of all crime shows on the air and found that 69 percent depicted authorities committing wrongful actions that were then normalized as routine, harmless, necessary, or even noble.

Danny Reagan: “If I got to bend the rules a little bit to get a bad guy off the street, I’m gonna do it.” - Blue Bloods S2 E18

These shows also ignored the racial biases that are often behind those actions.

Mildred Hayes: “So how’s it all going in the n*****torturing business, Dixon?”

Jason Dixon: “It’s persons of color torturing business these days.” - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

As the study points out, TV cops exist in a deceptively race-neutral world, where people of color are cast as cops and judges to lend their symbolic approval. Issues of profiling or police brutality are rarely discussed, save for very special episodes.

From their cops’-eye-view, these stories portray an entire community as a potential threat. Like most of the stories we tell ourselves, the hero cop myth is based in fear. We fear rising crime, even when statistics say it’s actually going down. Police fear their communities because they’ve been trained to think of them as enemy combatants.

Maj. Howard “Bunny” Colvin: “And when you at war, you need a f***ing enemy. And soon the neighborhood that you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.” - The Wire S3 E10

We fear there’s no changing it—that this is just how it is. These fears then play out in the real world: Because we fear that, when it comes to cops, the stakes are always life-or-death, that’s exactly what they become. As protests erupted in 2020 over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and many other black people at the hands of police, they prompted a widespread reevaluation of how we think about the police—and police stories.

Trevor Noah: “Believe it or not, watching cop shows makes a lot of people see the police as infallible.” - The Daily Show June 25, 2020

This has already led to the cancellation of long-running reality series Cops, which for over 30 years turned policing into a spectator sport and the similar Live PD—a show that critics say spurred Texas police into a dramatic confrontation for the cameras that ended in the death of Javier Ambler.

But what about all our other hero cops? Amid calls for long-overdue reform, there is the growing sentiment that our addiction to tidy narratives about infallible police may be holding us back. Even Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s loveable, diverse, goofball cops have been branded as copaganda, for putting a cuddly spin on New York police. Series like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, ABC’s The Rookie, and CBS’s SWAT, have all pledged to do better about addressing issues like racism and police brutality in their upcoming seasons. But we can also find new ways to fulfill our endless desire for crime stories. Series like Orange Is The New Black have allowed us to locate the shared humanity in the convicted, while recent shows like ABC’s For Life, Netflix’s Jessica Jones, and HBO’s Perry Mason have restored public defenders and private investigators as protagonists, working within a justice system that cannot always be trusted.

Herman Baggerly: “I don’t trust the Los Angeles police department to do the job that’s needed.”

Perry Mason: “Neither would I.” - Perry Mason S1 E1

And HBO’s Watchmen has given us a model for a modern, more nuanced kind of cop show—one where police can still be heroes, solve mysteries, and even deliver high-octane thrills, all while addressing some of the ugly truths of policing itself. These are not the simple morality plays of good guys and bad guys that we’re used to—but then, neither is the world. Maybe it’s time the hero cop falls in line.

Billy: “There is no one more full of shit than a cop except for a cop on TV.” - The Departed (2006)