The co-creator of S.W.A.T. talks about how 50 years of police shows on television have shaped and undermined our views of policing and race.
What do we really know about police and policing? For most of us — especially if we are white — a speeding ticket or a burned-out tail light is the extent of our encounters with the police. What we think we know comes mostly from how police are portrayed in popular culture.
The original TV Dragnet in 1951, its reboot in 1967, and all the many police procedurals since then, comprise a huge body of work that even today is shaping and defining every story, discussion, and emotion about the current state of policing and its relationship to Black America.
According to our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, S.W.A.T. co-creator, writer, and executive producer Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, most police drama, as seen on TV, has been watered down and neutralized to portray a formula where within an hour episode, good lawmen — originally square-jawed white cops — defeat bad guys.
While this has evolved over the years to include Black cops crusading on the side of law and order, their portrayal has been, according to Thomas, superficial at best. Mostly they fail to capture the inherent tension felt by Black police officers.
Thomas points out that while Hollywood storytellers often hide behind the lie that issues of law and order are universal, i.e., colorblind concepts, the idea of telling a “universal” story is, he says, a myth. These stories are told almost exclusively by white people.
Thomas, one of the very few Black showrunners working in television today, reminds us that while we’ve seen the vigilante anti-hero cop as well as the cowboy cop, the real perspective of people of color is mostly presented as an afterthought.
These very popular shows — from Dragnet and Adam 12 to Hill Street Blues, Law and Order, CSI, Kojak, Bosch, and so many more — have served as a kind of “copaganda.” In fact, the original Dragnet scripts were submitted for approval to the LAPD.
Thomas defines the popularity of the police procedural as “comfort food.” It makes life simple, everything is wrapped up in an hour, and we get to move on. Unfortunately, as we are seeing every day, the realities of police and their relationship to their communities are far more complicated.
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Full Audio Transcript:
|Jeff Schechtman:||Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. The legendary film mogul Samuel Goldwyn is reported to have shouted to a writer, “I want a story. If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” It’s a great story. But the fact is that every story, every piece of popular culture sends a message both internally and by the sum total of what’s popular and what we consume. With respect to our understanding of police and law enforcement, I’d venture to say most of it comes from novels and television and movies, from the original Dragnet in 1951, its reboot in 1967, and all the many police procedurals since. That huge body of work is with us today in every single story, discussion and emotion about the current state of policing and its relationship to black America. Which begs the question of how do we separate art from our understanding of reality, or even can we? Can white America even tell the difference anymore between Hill Street Blues, CSI, Kojak and what’s really happening on the streets of American cities?|
|Jeff Schechtman:||We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas. He’s an award-winning television and film screenwriter and producer, as well as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. He attended Morehouse College as well as the University of Southern California Cinema School and began his professional career as a writer’s assistant on the TV series Soul Food. Since then, he’s written and produced episodes for Friday Night Lights, Numb3rs, CSI:NY, and is currently the co-creator, executive producer and writer on S.W.A.T. It is my pleasure to welcome Aaron Rahsaan Thomas to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Aaron, thanks so much for joining us.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||Thanks for having me, Jeff. That is quite an introduction. I appreciate that.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you, and thanks for being with us. The idea of these shows, this popular entertainment that so many of us take for granted, these are not neutral things. Talk about that first. The idea of universality of entertainment just isn’t true.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||All right. Well, this, of course, this is my opinion, but coming into this business as a writer of color, as an African American writer in particular of TV dramas, where people who look like me and come from my background are sparse to say the least. Oftentimes my view on storytelling has come from a different cut of cloth, if you will, then I think what the average TV drama has been, especially for cop procedurals before me. What I’ve been met with a lot of times and any time there was an attempt to tell a story about a very specific slice of life, meaning a slice of life that came from a personal of color or a community that involved people of color, was always a desire to stay away from the particulars and to tell more mainstream stories.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||And oftentimes the term that is used in Hollywood to tell quote-unquote mainstream stories is the idea of telling the universal story, which in theory is a story that every viewer or most viewers can relate to. But in my experience, what that tends to mean is that those are stories that are crafted for the majority, the ethnic majority in this case, meaning white people. A lot of times in my career and coming up, what I found in stories that were mostly engineered by white executive producers, white showrunners, is that we would always default back to the mean, so to speak, which means that the stories were geared for white audiences and mostly told by white people. And what that tends to do is, it negates and often subtracts any experience that’s outside of that. So the idea of universal then really becomes exclusive. It’s just exclusive for a particular audience because you’re omitting, a lot of times, a point of view that might be different or critical or unique from what you’ve seen before.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||What’s the creative burden that goes along with that? Knowing that you’re trying to create something that is, on the one hand entertainment, but two, is very personal in terms of the impression and the perception that you’re putting forth.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||Well, I think there’s a responsibility. Obviously producers traditionally have looked for material that in theory reaches the largest audience and business-wise that’s always a smart model, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we were acting like the product that we put out doesn’t have some type of impact on public perception. There are scientific studies that actually prove this. When you talk about something like the CSI effect, where because of the popularity of the show CSI, forensics and the speed at which police officers on those shows, I worked on CSI: New York myself, the speed at which we were able to come back with results, all that had an impact on real life juries especially in the late nineties, early two thousands, really even through to today. And that’s one very, very small example that’s quantifiable, that you can point to as far as how the impact of pop culture and shows, what type of impact they can have on information and how we process information.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||Now if you consider that and you also consider what kind of impact it can have on the way we process images regarding people, how we interact with those people, how we are to view those people, then I look at the shows that we produce and I know that we have a tremendous responsibility to really be mindful of what we’re putting out there. Even if it’s not always the intention to necessarily paint people of color as being one dimensional or to criminalize people or culture, if that’s all you’re seeing on a consistent basis or for the vast majority of shows that you watch, it would be disingenuous to act like that doesn’t have some impact on the viewers and how they might interact with people of color or how they might see the experience of people of color in this country.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||The hope and the desire, at least on my part as an artist, is to always be aware of both the entertainment potential and also of the impact that we’re having on viewers, the hope that you’re using that platform at least to be mindful of how you’re adding to the conversation. Because make no mistake, it is all part of the conversation.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It seems that there are two parts of it that you have to be aware of in most of these shows. One is the police procedural aspect of it, which is so much a part of it, which certainly goes to the heart of some of the things that you’re talking about. But the other thing that is so much a part of a lot of these shows is the criminal justice system and how that works, and the nexus between that and the police.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||You’re talking about subjects that obviously are multilayered and also subjects, when you’re talking about the judicial system, when you’re talking about the court system, when you’re talking about the prison industrial complex as well as police officers on the street, these are all in their own right separate elements that would require their own analysis and have justly received certain amount of that. What we’ve only recently started doing is to look at the historical context and how institutionalized racism may affect any of those elements. It’s taken a long while and it’s still taking a while to even recognize in some corners that there is such a thing as institutional racism.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||Now that we’re at least starting to look at that and look at the reality to that, we want to look at each of those branches and our TV shows explore these things, as to how a multilayered system can contribute to, a lot of times, no such thing as a level playing field when it comes to the way people are treated. Not only on the street when you’re talking about arrests, not only in the war on drugs, but also in sentencing, also in representation and who can afford to have great representation in the courts.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||And obviously in the prison system with, how are we treating our prisoners? Do we need as many of them as we have? What is the deal with prison labor? I mean, these are all things that are huge, huge complex topics. There’s room to explore those in shows and certainly some shows have gone there and tackled certain corners. Certainly when it comes to the police procedural, you’re talking about a small segment of that. The police procedural tends to deal mostly with the police on the street interacting with individuals or community in some way. And I think there’s a lot of room to expand that particular conversation in the shows, at least that I’ve worked on.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||There so much talk about diversity and particularly adding diversity in Hollywood, but talk about the fact that it’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake, but it’s also about perspective and understanding.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||This term diversity has become a hotter term. But it’s a term that has to be very clearly defined. For some, it’s been used to literally see different shades of skin, to see different races represented through casting. Hollywood often has used that as the pound of flesh that they’re willing to give up to show the most visual part of a TV show, which is literally we’ve cast with more diversity. But what the key is, I feel, is not so much in front of the camera, although that helps. It’s behind the camera where we’re putting words into the mouths of the people. Who are the writers? Who are the producers? Who are the gatekeepers who had the power to allow shows to be made in the first place?|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||And that’s the same power structure it’s always been with no expansion of voices, then we’re pretty much going to get the same product, just with a different window dressing on it. And you would hope that we have more room to start expanding the voices behind the scenes. We’re not going to be able to establish new norms if we’re defaulting to old ways of telling stories. And right now we have an opportunity to expand on ways of telling stories.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||In all the years that you’ve been working in and around this part of the business, how has the perception of police, the way police are portrayed in these shows, how has that shifted or changed in your view?|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||Not very much. I mean, I would say the art form has certainly expanded. On the time that I’ve been in television, we’ve gone from an era where we had, basically, the model of the hero cop who’s definitely grown. The hero cop, meaning the police officer on shows like you refer to a Dragnet and Adam 12, and Starsky and Hutch, and all the way up through the eighties where we started to expand on the idea of what a hero cop could be. You start to get a little more nuance, start to learn about their personal lives, home lives with Hill Street Blues through Homicide with the real life of detectives and how that impacts their lives. And then I’ve seen that continue to expand in art form with the antihero cop, the Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue, who might be at least a touch racist but he also has a heart, that kind of thing.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||But I have not seen very much because all of those cops tend to have a common denominator. They tend to be white guys told and written for by white people, for the most part. When we look at the modern day reality, police and community, how they interact, certainly the complicated relationships that police departments have had with communities of color, that is still a story that is rarely told when it comes to the police procedural. And I think there’s room to expand. It’s not so much to get rid of the old paradigm of the hero cop. I think there’s a reason why that paradigm is popular, but it’s really to look at what are ways to advance and to tell different types of stories.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||Just bring more chairs to the table. It is a great genre and people love to watch heroes, but this gives us an opportunity to really look at, how do we define a hero? Is this the only way to define a hero? Are there different ways of being a hero? Are there different ways that a police officer may approach a situation? Depending on their background, where they’re from and who’s writing for them.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Having done this for so long, why do you think police procedurals, these shows are so popular?|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||In essence, they’re comfort food. Police shows, police procedurals, and not just police procedurals but also law procedurals and medical procedurals, are all a form of comfort food. What you get in normally around 41 to 43 minutes of actual airtime per episode is some type of difficult puzzle to solve or some type of injustice that’s been done. And within that span of time our hero or heroes can actually solve the problem. Whereas in real life, things are messier, more complicated. When you tune into these shows, there’s a sense of satisfaction, certainly, to know that a problem will be taken care of and that can be wildly entertaining and wildly satisfying. But the danger that it can also present, the risk that it can present, is that for some that fantasy can also start to be interpreted as reality. And in that regard, if that’s the case it would be great to offer more options regarding how problems are solved or how they’re approached and what type of problems we’re trying to solve.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||To what extent is this a feedback loop? In many ways, we’ve talked a lot about how public perception is shaped by popular entertainment, but to what extent does it work the other way around? When you’re there in the writers room coming up with shows, to what extent are you influenced by what’s actually happening in real life? I mean, certainly recent events being the penultimate example. And how does that filter back into what you’re doing?|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||Well, every show is different. There are some shows, I think about the Law and Order franchise being the prominent example that are ripped from the headlines shows, which are directly influenced, a lot of times, about what’s going on in the world. Some shows are more based on different sources, whether that’s books or real life accounts or the fictional character arcs. Our show on S.W.A.T., there’s a balance. We’re not a rip from the headlines show, but we very much are influenced by the reality of the world that we’re in. And we tell the story basically, it’s in a bit of a parallel universe in that we, our heroes do exist in Los Angeles. It is a Los Angeles that has had history with the LAPD. We do reflect a lot of times and even right now, as we’re talking about story, we look to maximize the reality of what it is to be a police officer, a LAPD police officer, in this era of George Floyd and the unrest and the difficulties with that, the challenge of that.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||In part it’s definitely, what can police officers do better? But also in part, it’s an attempt to also try to at least shed light on the challenges of the job and how tough it is and how dangerous it can be and their pressures and their stresses. It’s looking in essence, our show, not to provide answers, but to provide more questions so that we can have a more informed conversation. But our show is very much aware and we live in the zeitgeist of what’s going on. The pilot of our show, the very first episode, dealt with a black kid being accidentally shot by a white officer. We go right into Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter from the very beginning. And so we’re very aware, while at the same time we do take a half step away from reality in that we’re not obviously portraying real cops. These are fictional cops in a fictional version of Los Angeles informed by the real events and the real emotions and the real dilemmas that are going on around us.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||How has this work shaped your view personally of police and what they do?|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||I’ve written on several police procedurals. I’ve been fortunate. I wrote on a show called Numb3rs, which is a FBI procedural. I wrote on CSI:NY. I wrote on a show called Southland that worked very closely with LAPD officers and consultants, and of course, I’ve created S.W.A.T. I grew up in a neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, that had a very complicated relationship with police officers. I grew up in a neighborhood where my next door neighbor, who was a young kid, was shot in the head and killed by a police officer. And this was also the same neighborhood that I lived in, where there was a police officer who lived in the neighborhood who taught kids how to ride bikes and throw spirals. And so there was a little love hate relationship with police officers growing up.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||In working on police shows and police procedurals, I have a respect for the job and the post. I understand how, as much as a civilian can, I suppose, how dangerous the job can be, how challenging it can be and I have respect for those who attempt to do the job well. At the same time, having been a young black male, having been pulled over without, in my case, without justification, having been followed around a shopping mall because I happened to be with a friend or two, having been seen as a threat especially as a young black male, I understand that while it’s a challenging job, there are also many aspects that can and need to be and must be improved as far as how the job is done. But I’m always looking for, and that’s why in looking at entertainment, I’m looking for what part am I playing in this conversation. I’m always looking at trying to improve communication.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||What are ways that we can try to bridge more of an understanding and improve the communication between our public, our community, our audience, and I would say police officers? And in this case, I think on both sides there can be improved communication. I’m not sure that everybody understands how tough the job of a police officer is. And at the same time, I think it’s very common for some police officers to dehumanize the people that they’re supposed to protect and serve. I’ve been on the other end of that. And where real life consequences, where that can lead to fatalities, as unfortunately we’ve seen, that’s something that when we’re telling a story about police officers, I take very seriously and personal. And so always looking for a way to, as we tell the story, to look at what we’re trying to say with the story. There is no story that is pure entertainment. Every story has something to say. The good ones do. And so we’re always examining, what are we trying to say here as we entertain the audience?|
|Jeff Schechtman:||There’s always the danger with a lot of these shows, I mean, going back to the original Dragnet, I guess, as the ultimate example of this, that they become propaganda or as the phrase goes which I love, copaganda.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||Well, yes. You’re talking about a very real situation. The risk always when you’re working with, in our case law enforcement consultants, is weighing how much of this is… I mean, normally with a writing staff, you’re using insight from a law enforcement consultant to try to make sure that you have as much reality as the show demands. And some shows demand more than others, right? Whether that’s tactics, whether that’s jargon, whether that’s the inner life, inner workings, inner mindset of a police officer, whether it’s the history of police, all of the above. Certainly there’s a line that you’re always looking to make sure that you’re walking carefully, whether that’s with the information from a police officer or not is, are you, in essence, are you trying to… Is the story taking a back seat to your agenda, so to speak? And everyone has an agenda.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||And you’re always looking at, at the end of the day, again, what is the purpose of each episode? What’s the purpose of the series? In our case, we’re still looking, at the end of the day, to try to entertain the audience. You’re looking to tell a good story. The goal is that within that you can infuse it with enough reality, enough research that fits our world. We tell a heightened story. We’re SWAT. We tell a story about SWAT officers. We’re handling situations every episode that would probably be once in a lifetime situations for your average SWATs. So in that heightened environment, the question is not so much do things feel real, but do the emotions feel real? If the emotions feel real, are you, within that, saying what you want to say without simply preaching or being too didactic. The concern of being didactic is certainly one that Hollywood had shared, but I feel like it’s gone the opposite way where many shows try to stay away from saying anything, from conversation, period.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||And the danger with that is that if you’re not addressing what’s going on around you, at the very least that comes across as tone deaf and even more dangerously that can come across as not contributing to what is a very vital conversation, literally, for some.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And personally, how did you get involved in this area of writing and producing?|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||I was very fortunate in that I was able to come out to Hollywood. I attended film school at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and it was there that I was introduced to the notion of what it is to write for television. I had grown up as a fan of television for my entire life, but I didn’t know what it was to be a TV writer until I came out to Los Angeles and I was able to do an unpaid internship for a show called Soul Food, the series on Showtime. And it was through that internship where I was able to observe the experience of a television writer. To be able to break stories, come up with ideas every day. That staff was made up largely of people who looked like me, by the way, and that had a huge impact. That is not something that is necessarily common in Hollywood or in TV rooms.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||And all of that left an impression on me as this being the type of job that I thought would be a lot of fun. And then coming out of the internship years later, I was fortunate enough to get my first break on a show called Friday Night Lights. And that was one of the best staffs that I’ve ever worked with. I was able to see really how great stories are put together, character stories are put together, character arcs were mapped out. Learning the craft. And then from there, been really fortunate in that I’ve had a career where I’ve been able to switch between genres.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||I was able to do… Friday Night Lights deals with families and fathers and sons and young athletes playing football in West Texas. And I was able to go from that and work on cop shows like Numb3rs, like CSI:NY which are a little bit more about plot and clues and twists and turns and crafting a good mystery and less so with the character emphasis and in being able to exercise both of those muscles, I’ve been fortunate to carry that through my career.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||And so that was a deliberate choice, to answer your question, is to move from more character-based stories to learn what it is to craft stories about investigations, about police officers, about the camaraderie between officers and detectives. And I was glad I was able to do it because it taught me structure. It taught me the world of police officers, at least in the TV realm. And it taught me also what the environment is on TV police procedurals. And coming in as a young, well at the time, young black male drama writer, there weren’t many people I could look around and point to and say that that person seems to be coming from the same place as me or looks like me.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||I have a few friends that have a similar journey, but not many. And I’m also a student of history. So looking back through the history of police procedurals, not only that there was not many while I was coming up, there’s not many historically. And so it became, for me, even more of a reason to really learn this particular part of the craft and understand what it is to try to craft a story that works for television police procedures.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And finally, what would you still like to write? What would you like to do, even in this realm or out of this realm?|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||Great stories. That’s, of course, that’s the answer that I think most writers would say. You want to tell as many great stories as you can while you can. But certainly I teach at SC when I have time and what I tell my students is, if you look at enough of the stories you’ve written and you have enough self-awareness, a lot of times you can notice certain common denominators and things that you like to write about. And so for me, always common things, I love fathers and sons stories, coming of age stories certainly. I was able to do that with Friday Night Lights. And there’s a show called The Get Down on Netflix that incorporated those elements. Certainly the idea of teams working together. People of action. Definitely when we’re talking about people of color in spaces where there may not be many of them, and how do they navigate that? That’s something that certainly I relate to.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||But overall, from the very beginning, from when I started writing as a kid, all my stories tended to attempt to entertain and also engage audiences. And I’ve never quite felt the luxury of just being able to tell just an entertaining yarn without the awareness of what’s going on around these characters in society, sociological aspects. So I’ve always had that, and that continues through the stories that I’m telling now.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.|
|Aaron Rahsaan Thomas:||Thanks for having me, Jeff.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.|