Summer in Australia (December to February) is the non-ratings period on television, which means the expensive dramas (both local and foreign) are replaced by cheaper alternatives. Locally made police reality TV shows dominated this summer, such as Gold Coast Cops, RBT (about Random Breath Test units), Kalgoorlie Cops, Territory Cops and Highway Patrol. I found myself somewhat obsessed with these the fly-on-the-wall style ‘ride along’ documentaries that follow a formula, stretching four or five stories into a one-hour episode.
While watching, I started to wonder why I found them so fascinating. After all, like many people from working-class backgrounds, I am ambivalent towards the police. Working-class people often have cops in the family, like my mother, who was a member of the London Metropolitan Police in the 1950s. But working-class people are also likely to have witnessed or experienced police harassment, discrimination, and sometimes, brutality (especially if they are working-class people of color). When I was growing up on a public housing estate in London, my peers taught me to call the police ‘pigs’ or ‘the filth.’ At the same time, adults told me to call a police officer if I was in danger, and the police are usually the first people we call when trouble occurs.
I find myself having arguments with some of my middle-class left-wing activist colleagues who are often quite quick to describe the police as the violent arm of authority, and I have seen police use heavy handed tactics when I’ve been involved in rallies or pickets (as a white woman I have never experienced police harassment due to my race) . But I can’t help but think of the police as individuals, usually from working-class backgrounds, who in the end often share the same concerns as the protestors. I am aware that some police are racist, sexist, and homophobic. Some are quick to use violence, and many are blind to the entrenched racism within their ranks. But there are good police, too, who try to make a difference and view their work as a community service.
The relationship is complicated. I am often disturbed and outraged by police behavior, but I love to watch police reality TV. I like the characters, both the cops themselves and the people they interact with (who are usually working-class, too). Police reality TV is one of the only formats in Australian TV that depicts people working. The audience is given the chance to ride along with the officers as they work through their shifts. I value these representations of a working day (or night). We get to see the cops filling out paperwork and waiting around as well as chasing down suspected criminals. It isn’t all high drama (at least not in the Australian shows), and it looks very different from the slick police dramas that dominate the ratings for the rest of the year. Some of the police are charming, others are brusque. Some are overweight or unfit, some share interesting insights, and others just get on with the job. They don’t always catch the criminals, and we witness their frustration or resignation when things go awry. Some seem to be extremely patient as they calmly take notes while being subjected to a barrage of abuse. Others seem to be keeping a short fuse tightly under control for the sake of the cameras. And there is diversity, too, in the cultural backgrounds of the officers and in the gender mix.
What do these shows communicate? Do they educate? Entertain? Provide good police PR? Criminologist Paul Mason suggests that many people gain an understanding of the police from representations on television, so it’s possible that the shows educate the public on police procedures, protocols, and duties. The audience can learn police jargon and terms such as DUI (driving under the influence) or about potential punishments for the alleged crimes depicted (the shows often include a coda explaining what happened to those arrested). As a viewer, I like to watch the officers preparing a breathalyzer test or reading suspects their rights. These aspects highlight the repetition of their jobs and provide insight into the everyday aspects of policing, in contrast to the unrealistic glamour represented in many police dramas. They demonstrate that work is often tedious and frustrating (as well as dangerous).
These shows can be educational in other ways, too. They raise social issues, such as alcohol abuse, domestic violence, or the role police play in assisting people with mental illnesses. They might also send a warning to people thinking about driving while drunk or behaving anti-socially, reminding viewers of the consequences of such behavior (and implying that the cops are present and will catch those who break the law).
How do they operate as entertainment? There is an enjoyable voyeuristic element to the ‘ride on’ format, not just in terms of watching the cops but also watching the public interacting with them (whether they are the suspects or those calling for help). Riding along by watching these shows also offers vicarious pleasure, feeling part of the arrests and the chases and helping the public.
The shows also operate as excellent PR for the police and depict the police in a sympathetic light. The police units involved cooperate with the program makers, and police chiefs often endorse the shows. Although the shows might include the occasional harsh word or impatient tone, or even a slightly heavy handed, physical restraint of a suspect, they never show police brutality. There is no hint of racism, sexism, or homophobia on the part of police. There are no police shootings (which contradicts the reports of shootings seen regularly in the press). There are no deaths in custody, or suggestions of corruption. The world of the reality show cops is wholesome. Sometimes it might be a little bumbling, but it is never sinister.
Overall, I think the shows work on a variety of levels, but ultimately they represent the police in a positive way. That means we need to pay attention to what they leave out. Enjoying the representation of working-class jobs is all very well, but the gaps need to be exposed and relationship of working-class people with the police (often fraught with contradictions) should be acknowledged.