"There's always a good time to use a Taser."
So says Andrea, attractive single mom and one of the four stars of the new TLC reality show, The Police Women of Broward County. The trailer with the Taser quip then cuts to the show's stars tackling suspects, putting knees into various backs, and pointing guns. Browse other clips on the TLC website, and it seems the network can't make up its mind whether these women are sexpots with handcuffs or girls who want to be taken seriously for kicking just as much ass as the boys. A smug poster ad campaign for the show takes the the show's identity problem to yet crasser heights. One ad reads, "Taser Time." Another, "Cavity Search, Anyone?"
Of course, there isn't "always a good time to use a Taser," as the multitude of viral web videos depicting taserings of grandmothers, pregnant women, and children will attest. TLC's ad campaign is offensive, though merely the latest iteration of a genre of television that trivializes the state's use of force and makes a mockery of the criminal justice system.
For the better part of a generation, the Fox hit Cops was the only reality police show on TV. For 20 years, we've watched patient patrol officers break up domestic disputes, arrest sunburned wife-beaters, and chase petty drug offenders down darkened allies. Though the departments depicted in the show always have veto power over what footage makes it on the air, Cops generally did well to depict the monotonies of police work, be it walking a beat, calmly talking down a jealous husband, or taking one of those long, all-night neighborhood patrols in a squad car.
The expansion of cable has spawned countless new cop shows, and like The Police Women of Broward County, most seem to place unfortunate emphasis on the more confrontational perks of police work. A&E got into the game a few years ago with Dallas SWAT, sending a camera crew along with the city's elite paramilitary police unit to document drug raids and standoffs. That show's success spawned Detroit SWAT and Kansas City SWAT. Court TV then gave us Texas SWAT and SWAT U.S.A.
The testosterone-infused Spike TV jumped into the game with DEA, produced by the jolly weatherman-cum-drug warrior Al Roker. The series follows a group of federal agents, also in Detroit (the city's sad, crumbling badlands provide great backdrop for reality shows), as they plan and carry out drug raids. It also produced an unintentionally hillarious moment when self-proclaimed pot smoker and legalization advocate Joe Rogan was forced to conduct a reverent, promotional interview with one of the show's drug-agent stars while hosting one of Spike's mixed martial arts events.
Fox then plumbed new depths of depravity last year with Smile . . . You're Under Arrest!, featuring Maricopa County, Arizona's self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America," Joe Arpaio. In a premise that evokes the old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Running Man or Mike Judge's dystopian parody Idiocracy, Sheriff Joe teams up with a crew of comedy writers and improv actors to create elaborate scenarios where "unaware criminal suspects with outstanding warrants are lured out of hiding in this high-energy prank show."
The most obvious criticism of these shows is their exploitation and general tackiness. Police work is reduced to clownish pranks, adrenalin-inducing raids, and telegenic lady cops edited to invoke S&M fantasies for the shlubs watching at home. No one expects much dignity from cable networks, but you'd think, for example, that the Broward County Sheriff's Department might object to the sexualization of its female officers, or to a national ad campaign insinuating that they're sporting itchy Taser fingers.
As for the SWAT programs, America has unfortunately grown comfortable with, or at least accustomed to, the idea of using SWAT teams to kick down doors and conduct volatile, confrontational raids for consensual, nonviolent crimes. We've seen a massive increase in these raids, from about 3,000 per year in the early 1980s to some 50,000 per year by the early 2000s. The popularity of SWAT shows didn't cause the problem, but their popularity is sympomatic of it, and they can only further ingrain the troubling notion that there's nothing wrong with sending a unit of cops dressed like soldiers into private homes to arrest nonviolent drug offenders. And of course, we're never going to see the wrong-door raids, or police mistakes that result in fatalities.
Cop reality shows glamorize all the wrong aspects of police work. Their trailers depict lots of gun pointing, door-busting, perp-chasing, and handcuffing. Forget the baton-twirling Officer Friendly. To the extent that the shows aid in the recruiting of new police officers, they're almost certainly pulling people attracted to the wrong parts of the job.
More broadly, adding a camera crew and a team of editors to turn police work into a commercially viable product not only makes light of a reluctantly granted power—the use of force—that ought to be treated with reverence and restraint, it also projects to the public an image of police work that, despite the genre of television with which it's associated, rarely includes much reality.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.