Chanina Katz (BFA 2021) is a staff designer and interdisciplinary goblin. She excels at the art of multitasking while actually accomplishing nothing at all.
Illustration by Chanina Katz
All cops are bastards, so can we still justify the existence of the fictional ones? “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is a largely beloved police procedural sitcom that practically takes place in an alternate universe — one in which cops are genuinely committed to upholding justice, while also being likeable and moral individuals. It has been running since 2013, coinciding with the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, and has carried on without garnering much criticism of its politics, even under decades-long calls for police accountability and abolition. But in the context of this year’s BLM protests, a more critical eye must be turned toward all aspects of life and entertainment in the United States, including this TV show.
A common defense of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is that it serves as an optimistic “what-if,” or as an idealized world to escape into. If most viewers were aware that it was not meant to be a direct reflection of reality, one might agree that the show causes no harm. On the other hand, it absolutely qualifies as “copaganda,” glorifying the position of the police by perpetuating the idea that they play more heroic and important roles than they actually do. The danger of this lies in its potential to cause complacency about the constant brutality carried out by real officers. Most importantly, the show has its characters deal with real-life issues on-screen, but never fully delves into the real solutions to those issues.
It is even harder to believe that any officer in real life is properly reprimanded or fired for misconduct.
The show’s most direct confrontation of racism in policing takes place in Season 4, Episode 16: “Moo Moo.” In the episode, Sgt. Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) gets racially profiled by a white cop from a different precinct, and is almost arrested in front of his own house, while out looking for a toy that his child lost. The cop making the arrest, Officer Maldack, only backs down when Terry tells him that he is also a police officer. Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher), Terry’s boss, empathizes with Terry’s anger at the situation, and recounts the prejudice he endured while working as a young Black gay man in the police force. Even so, he encourages Terry not to file a complaint against that officer, but to instead focus on making change from within the force when he gets further along in his career. He also expresses concern that whistleblowing on another cop could jeopardize Terry’s chances at getting a position that he has just applied for. By the end of the episode, Holt changes his mind and helps file the complaint, but Terry’s application subsequently gets denied. Holt tells Terry that at the very least, that other cop will “think twice” before racially profiling another civilian.
Looking back at this conclusion, it does not at all feel like enough. The characters themselves express frustration with the fact that Maldack would have gone through with the arrest if Terry wasn’t a cop, but the implications of that fact are never explored in any meaningful way. An officer that behaves like that has no doubt arrested many Black men on the basis of looking “out of place,” and will certainly continue to do so. Even though Holt suggests that Maldack will learn from this experience, it is hard to believe that he will. After all, the system that is supposed to reprimand him based on a complaint is the same one in which Terry could lose an opportunity for filing that complaint.
It is even harder to believe that any officer in real life is properly reprimanded or fired for misconduct. In fact, there is hard evidence that nothing happens to those officers, and that in most cases they simply continue to operate as they always have. Captain Holt’s insistence that progress can happen if officers like himself and Terry just continue to “do the right thing” is also questionable, given that he has experienced bias within the police force for so long. Despite all its good intentions, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” supports the belief that the system can be corrected if the “good cops” do their part, instead of reckoning with the idea that the system itself should be disassembled.
On-screen conversations between minority characters like Holt and Terry, as well as the overall diversity in the cast, are reasons that many fans connect to the show. They are also reasons that many still see the show in a positive light. But these factors put stock into the idea that a more diverse police force will translate to a more just and fair one, which has not been proven. Besides, there is room for even more representation on the show. For instance, there have been several missed opportunities to have an Asian character become a recurring or main role. Regardless, inclusivity should not distract from the fact that real police officers are trained to be aggressors in communities, no matter what race they are themselves.
Moreover, the show’s portrayal of its characters as fun-loving, competitive, and prone to treating their jobs like a game is great fuel for its comedic plot lines, but can ultimately cause more harm than it intends. In Season 1, Episode 13: “The Bet,” characters Jake Peralta and Amy Santiago are settling a friendly competition to see who can arrest the most criminals. Jake wins after running a prostitution sting at the last minute that happens to be successful, arresting 30 men for soliciting. This is all well and good in the context of the show, but the reality is that there have been too many real cases of cops turning their jobs into competitions for more dubious reasons — to gain heightened status among other officers, to assert power, and even to receive monetary prizes. Competition in the police force is dangerous and further normalizes unlawful and unnecessary arrests, since it is incredibly likely that cops who are looking to detain the highest number of people would mostly be doling out arrests for petty crimes, and for “suspected” crimes based on little or no evidence. Beyond that, Black, poor, and disabled people are disproportionately targeted by police, and would no doubt be the demographics that officers like Jake and Amy would be targeting in order to one-up each other if they were not the fictional, well-meaning cops that they are.
Jake’s love of turning his work into a game is especially played up for comedic value. He is constantly fixated on being the superhero of his own story, even if that means disregarding the rules or behaving immaturely. His impulsivity often happens to get him ahead in solving cases, but that same kind of impulsivity in actual cops leads to false arrests and otherwise avoidable violence. Season 1, Episode 7: “48 Hours” follows Jake as he arrests a man named Dustin Whitman for a jewelry store robbery on the basis that he knows Whitman’s M.O. from a previous arrest, and that the details from this crime match him perfectly. However, he has no real evidence for the arrest. A quick scene actually shows Jake approaching Whitman on the street to question him, then aggressively arresting him after Whitman mockingly calls him “joke Peralta.” With the help of the rest of the precinct, Jake does eventually find the evidence that he needs to justify his arrest. All of his co-workers are upset at him, but they are more annoyed that his actions have forced them to give up their weekends in order to work on this case, than they are angry about the fact that he would ever make an arrest with no evidence. Jake is a fictional police officer who always rights his wrongs, but the implications of his behavior are pretty serious, especially when they are put into the context of real policing.
Amid calls to defund the police, it is easy to spot cases of egregious overfunding, even in the fictional world of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Similarly, officer Rosa Diaz’s tendency to become angered and vengeful are passed off as funny character traits. But if she were a real officer, her anger issues could cause terrifying results during interactions with civilians. Even more terrifying is that an overwhelming amount of real cops report being frequently angry or frustrated on the job, and those same cops are much more likely to use violent force on their suspects. Although Rosa’s character is exaggerated for comedic value, this kind of anger and instability among police officers can cost lives in the real world. The more you are paying attention to the realities of police brutality, the harder it should be to joke about these things without an incredible amount of cognitive dissonance.
Amid calls to defund the police, it is easy to spot cases of egregious overfunding, even in the fictional world of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Season 1, Episode 19: “Tactical Village” follows the characters as they test new military-grade weapons at an NYPD event. One scene shows officer Rosa Diaz pointing an ultrasonic weapon — a weapon that can cause extreme pain and permanently damaged hearing — at her co-worker and friend Charles Boyle, purely because she is annoyed at him. Though her lack of hesitance to use this weapon is played for laughs, it again highlights the dangers of impulse and anger issues in police officers, while also showcasing the police force’s casual access to equipment fit for warfare.
In the cold open of another episode, Jake sees Holt’s unusually agreeable attitude as an opportunity to ask for a literal fleet of tanks for the precinct. Even though Jake doesn’t get his wish, the implication is that other police forces in their world may already have tanks and other military-level equipment, and the characters are glorifying the use of them without acknowledging the sinister reality of these developments. The militarization of the police is very real, and has direct correspondence to increases in community violence.
One of the pitfalls of being a comedy cop show is that its tone must be kept light and digestible, something that feels nearly unthinkable as more and more stories of death and violence at the hands of the police come to light. The question now is whether the show can or should continue at all. One thing to note is that the characters themselves and the camaraderie between them is often the real draw for many audience members. Many of the funniest and most memorable on-screen moments could really take place against any workplace backdrop. With that in mind, it isn’t inconceivable that the show could continue, outside of the context of policing. Cast members have mentioned in recent months that they are in conversation about the future of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and that four episodes originally written for its next season have been scrapped and are being rethought.
While there is no telling what the writers will decide to do, it would be exciting to see them face the issues they have avoided for so long. Perhaps the upcoming season could follow the characters as they disband and take up different careers. In that hypothetical plotline, maybe some of the characters would even become radicalized and join in on the protests. Or, maybe that is too much to expect of a major network TV show. In any case, symbolic changes in entertainment won’t end inequality or police brutality, but they are an important factor in changing the status quo. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” now has an opportunity to lead in making some of that progress — whether or not they will take that opportunity is yet to be seen. f