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Hollywood, The Police and Ourselves: A Shared Responsibility for a Better Future

04/13/2015 10:01 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

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One time permission granted. Photo by Chuck Jines - All rights reserved - http://www.chuckjines.com/

In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives we catch our news when we can. We come home from work and want to relax in front of our favorite television show or news program. Oftentimes, we immediately react to news events in the present and do not take time to consider them in a historical context. No matter what our race, ethnicity, gender, political leanings, economic class, type of employment, or education levels we are all guilty of reacting quickly and passionately. Due to our busy lifestyles most of us are not afforded the time to contemplate how things are interconnected and the role each of us play in sculpting the future.

Recently we have seen increased attention given to the killing of Black males by the police and many calling for increased diversity in police agencies. Criminologists who study race and policing have long known that Black communities are targeted more by the police than other communities. It is also well known that Black citizens are killed by the police at higher rates than other races. Despite the tragic nature of such events, this is an issue that has not always gained wide media attention. In the past year however, there has been an increase in media attention. The media coverage of the deaths of unarmed Black males such as Walter Scott (North Charleston, South Carolina), Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri), Eric Garner (Staten Island, New York), John Crawford (Beaver Creek, Ohio), Ezelle Ford (South Los Angeles, California), Dante Parker (Victorville, California), Tony Robinson (Madison, Wisconsin), Anthony Hill (DeKalb County, Georgia), Nicholas Thomas (Smyrna, Georgia ), among others has become a regular talking point of news broadcasts for the past year.

Despite the increased spotlight, the mainstream media often cover the deaths as isolated incidents. It fails to capture the long history of such deaths. It also fails to capture the large disparity between Blacks and Whites who are killed by the police. Nor does it capture the deeply rooted historical and cultural issues that provide the fertile ground for Ferguson-like conflicts.

At the same time, we have also seen an outcry for greater diversity in Hollywood. Whether it was the impassioned speech by Viola Davis at the SAG awards, Jessica Chastain's speech at the Critics' Choice awards, news coverage of civil rights activists threatening to boycott the Academy Awards, or Neil Patrick Harris's joke during the opening of the Academy Awards, the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry has also received increased coverage.

The recent criticisms focus on all areas of employment in the entertainment industry. But, it has been the lack of diversity among actors that has historically garnered the greatest attention. The mainstream media has given little attention to the stereotypical roles into which Black actors are often cast. Both of these issues are rooted in over 400 years of history; a history that when we are watching news coverage of an unarmed Black man killed by the police or our favorite crime drama we are either not aware of or choose not to consider. This raises the question as to whether or not these issues could be interconnected and deserving of more combined attention and research.

The relationship between the police and the Black community in the United States is an intimate one. In their ground breaking book Police in a Multicultural Society: An American Story Dr. David E. Barlow and Dr. Melissa Hickman Barlow document how the first publicly funded city police departments in the United States were that of slave patrols.

Dr. Samuel Walker and Dr. Charles M. Katz, in their book The Police in America: An Introduction, describe slave patrols as being a distinctly American form of law enforcement. They also point out that in some respects they were the first modern police force in the United States. The first of these slave patrols were established in 1704 in the Carolina colony according to Dr. Victor E. Kappeler. Dr. Larry K. Gaines and Dr. Victor E. Kappeler note in their book, Policing in America, that the slave patrols were established to help wealthy landowners control their slaves.

The patrols were charged with controlling, returning and punishing escaped slaves. In her book, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, Dr. Sally E. Hadden documents how slave patrols did not disappear following the Civil War. The patrols appeared in different forms such as the Ku Klux Klan. This is also documented in the History Channel documentary, Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters. The passage of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act by Congress to protect individuals from having their Civil Rights violated by state actors was in part due to law enforcement's involvement with the group. So, perhaps no other segment of the United States population has such a deeply rooted history of being policed as the Black community. And perhaps no other group's proportional representation on the police force could benefit our entire society more.

When discussions of diversity arise, however, many may think that the concept of diversity in policing is nothing new, when, historically, it is very new. Very few Black police officers existed for the first 338 years of Colonial and United States history. It was not until after World War II, only 70 years ago, that one sees the number of Black police officers start to increase. Despite this increase, Black officers would be treated differently than White officers well into the 1960s. Black officers were often required to request supervision from White officers before they arrested Whites. They were often required to ride in police cars marked "Colored Police" and were only allowed to detain and arrest other Blacks. Even after the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, many agencies still limited the arrest powers of Black officers.

The United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1961, coupled with the Kerner Commission's recommendation to hire more minority officers after the race riots of the late 1960s, ushered in intentional increases in the number of minority police officer hires. The inevitable establishment of Black police unions in the 1970s furthered the previously mentioned changes. By the 1990s, Black police officers accounted for 10.5 percent of local police departments. Dr. Shaun L. Gabbidon and Dr. Helen Taylor Greene indicate in their book, Race and Crime, that Blacks recently comprised approximately 20 percent of officers in major city police departments while representation dwindles in smaller departments. The smaller numbers are quite apparent in departments such as Ferguson where only three of the 53 police officers are Black. This may not be alarming if the city was largely White but Ferguson's population is 29 percent White and 67 percent Black. Ferguson is not alone. Similar proportions can be found in communities all around the country.

It has been 311 years since the formation of those first slave patrols in 1704, still, today we see large Black populations policed by a small organized group of White officers. This is not intended to insinuate that all current officers are racist. Rather, it is meant to provide a historical context for our current situation. Our society has only begun to address the need for diversity in law enforcement in the past 40-50 years. In generational terms, this is only one or two generations that have lived in a world where diversity has been emphasized.

For an example of the benefit of a Black police officer presence one need only look to Ferguson. When Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol was placed in charge of law enforcement during the Ferguson protests, we saw a dramatic decrease in violence. Increasing diversity in law enforcement, however, is not an easy task. Given the long history of being policed the Black community has endured, choosing a career in law enforcement is often frowned upon. This negative view of police is particularly high among Black youth in the United States.

Recent research by the Black Youth Project shows that Black youth report higher rates of harassment by the police, less trust in the police, and a significant number do not believe the police are there to protect them when compared to other races. Those who do choose to go into law enforcement often find themselves torn between the Black community and the police force. In some cases, feeling unwelcomed by both groups. To the community, they may be viewed as a sellout and, while on a predominantly White police force, they still face discriminatory behavior. This often results in higher attrition rates amongst Black police officers. So, the day we will see more Captain Ron Johnsons on our police forces is most likely some time away.

The reality of the matter is that we live in a society that accounts for only 5 percent of the world's population but accounts for 25 percent of the world's incarcerate population. And, as Michelle Alexander states in her book The New Jim Crowe: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Color Blindness, the United States imprisons a higher percentage of its Black population than South Africa at the height of Apartheid. While Whites utilize drugs at a rate five times that of Blacks, Blacks are incarcerated for drugs at a rate 10 times that of Whites. One out of every three Black males in the United States will go to prison. And yet, despite these numbers, most United States citizens will have no interaction with the criminal justice system. Additionally, recent research shows that 75 percent of Whites do not have any non-White friends. This means that most of White America has no meaningful relationships with members of the Black community. Therefore, the only reference to issues facing the criminal justice system and the Black community is that gained through second hand accounts by other Whites or through the entertainment industry. This is an industry that is very similar in its deep history of prejudice and lack of diversity.

The history of Black depictions in United States Entertainment has not only been sparse but that of demeaning comedic characters. The history of Blacks as comedic outlets in the United States extends back to slavery. Often utilized as comedic entertainment by Whites, Blacks began to use this role to distract from the often physical and emotional abuse they endured. It is these experiences that arguably lead to the development of offensive stereotypes still seen today. These stereotypes were played out in minstrel shows of the mid-1830s. After the minstrel shows ended in the 1900s the same offensive depictions would be broadcast through radio and movies with characters such as Amos and Andy and Stepin Fetchit, among others.

Dr. J. Fred MacDonald documents in his book, Blacks and White TV, how, despite a promise of color-blind programming by television, Black actors found themselves most often cast in the same comedic stereotypes popularized in minstrel shows, radio, and movies. Television perpetuated the tradition of the color line that had been established in the movies. This line resulted in Black actors only being cast if the script called for a character to be Black. But, as Dr. MacDonald notes, the color line was an open and challengeable practice. The more insidious censorship took place behind the scenes before production. Out of fear of offending the prejudices and losing the economic support of their White audiences, sponsors, networks, advertisers, among others censored Black actors from appearing in respectable positive roles or, in many instances, from appearing altogether. In the first decade of television, there were no Black reporters, no Black Western stars, and no Black detectives or undercover agents.

Today, one need only glance at the cast lists and photos of popular television crime series to see how the color line and/or concerns of audience preferences are still in play when it comes to leading city police officer or detective roles on television (Law & Order, Law & Order SVU, Law & Order Criminal Intent, CSI, CSI Miami, CSI New York, Castle, Backstrom, Gracepoint, Chicago PD, Blue Bloods, Battle Creek, Stalker, The Closer, Major Crimes, Murder in the First, Rizzoli and Isles, Aquarius, Brooklyn Nine Nine). Black actors are often cast in secondary roles as medical examiners, forensic scientists, attorneys, or supervisors. Rarely are they cast as a police officer or detective in a leading role. If they are depicted in a leading role they are most often teamed with a white actor. It appears that the concept of a Black city police officer is still unpalatable to someone.

Theatrically released films do not seem to be immune to the color line either according to research by Dr. Franklin T. Wilson and Dr. Howard Henderson. After examining 112 of the most serious and realistic depictions of city police officers in the first 40 years of the cop film genre they found that White officer depictions dominated the genre. White officers appeared in the lead or joint leading roles in 89 percent of the films while Black officers were depicted in only 19 percent of the films. The vast majority (95 percent) of Black officer depictions did not occur until after 1987. White officers were only teamed with a Black officer in 9 percent of the films that depicted a White officer in a leading role. In contrast, of the films that depicted a Black officer in a leading role, 52 percent depicted the officer with another officer, all but one of which was White. The study also revealed that 52 percent of Black officer depictions portrayed the officer serving as comedic entertainment while only 17 percent of White officer portrayals resulted in a comedic depiction. Also, 14 percent of the White comedic depictions find the officer teamed with a minority officer or minority civilian. This is startling because the researchers exclude films classified as comedies. The inclusion of which would have only increased the number of Black comedic depictions.

To Hollywood's credit attempts have been made in recent years to cast Black actors into leading police officer roles; and not just any roles, but iconic police characters. In 2005, there was an attempt to revive the 1970s television series Kojak with Ving Rahames as the leading character. In 2013, there was an attempt to revive the 1960s and '70s television show Ironsides with Blair Underwood as the leading character. However Kojak was canceled after approximately one season and Ironsides was canceled after only four episodes.

Given that Hollywood's decision-making to cancel shows, renew shows or to promote sequels is driven by viewership, perhaps we should take a closer look at who does or does not watch such shows. Perhaps we should pay closer attention to what sorts of portrayals we consciously or unconsciously support through our viewership. While Hollywood and law enforcement agencies are the focus of criticisms regarding the need for greater diversity, in the end, it is we the citizens who drive their decisions.

Hollywood portrays what we choose to watch on TV and for what we are willing to pay the price of a movie ticket. The police are public servants and they answer to what we demand. Whether you are a Hollywood executive, a corporate sponsor, a progressive Police Chief, or a common Jane or Joe that wants to see a less divided society, we will all play a role in creating a new and better future. If we choose to cast ourselves in that role.

***

Given this complex history of diversity surrounding Hollywood, Policing and Ourselves numerous questions need to be explored for each group by independent researchers:

Hollywood

What are the demographics of those who watch television programs about city police officers?

Are there differences in the demographic characteristics of those who watch television programs about city police officers, state police officers, and federal police officers?

If Hollywood gives non-traditional characters more time to break down racial and ethnic expectations and stereotypes will shows ultimately succeed?

Would changing the typical formula for police officer and detective roles help change the racial characteristics of who watches such programs and possibly begin to influence who chooses to be a police officer?

Police

Would cultural diversity course taught in K-12 and in college help alleviate cultural tensions between the police and minority communities?

What resources are needed to help smaller agencies recruit, hire and retain minority police officers at a rate that matches the populations they serve?

Do Hollywood depictions, or lack of depictions, play a role in who applies to city, county, state, and federal level law enforcement agencies?

Do Hollywood depictions, or lack of depictions, enhance or cause misguided expectations of what a career in law enforcement will involve?

Do Hollywood depictions attract those desiring thrill-seeking lifestyles to law enforcement?

Do Hollywood depictions lead to attrition rates among younger officers due to boredom?

Which candidates will be the most likely to succeed when faced with the reality of a career in law enforcement?

Does the level of pre-established minority culture familiarity help determine which candidates will be the most likely to succeed when interacting with people of various minority groups?

Ourselves

How often do different races think about race when watching television?

Do cultural diversity courses provided in K-12 and in college help students interact with cultures different from their own in a more effective manner?

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Franklin T. Wilson, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice and an Associated Faculty in African and African American Studies at Indiana State University. He is the Founder and Chair of the International Crime, Media and Popular Culture Studies Conference and the Editor of the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture. He can be reached at FranklinTWilsonPhD@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @DrFrankWilson or on Facebook at Dr. Franklin T. Wilson.

Howard Henderson, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor and Director of the Administration of Justice Graduate Program in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.