For those of us concerned with social justice, abolitionist positions become a natural endpoint with enough study and experience of police behaviours. In recent years the rest of the world has become more aware of the downfalls of policing, and how as a system it falls short of what we need to achieve true liberation for all. As we continue to have these conversations, and hopefully find ways to dismantle these systems, understanding the role of copaganda is increasingly important. Here’s what you need to know, and what we can do.
What is copaganda
The term copaganda is a portmanteau of cop and propaganda. As a concept, it encompasses any form of media, news coverage, or social media content that portrays police and law enforcement in favourable ways to the public. The image of policing it creates often serves to shield police from accountability and sceptical coverage, boosts public relations of police departments, and portrays a version of policing that is dramatically different from reality, particularly in regard to the treatment of working class, BIPOC and other marginalised communities.
For at least 60 years we’ve seen copaganda play out in television shows, particularly in America, which have portrayed narratives of good, white police officers taking down bad guys, often poor people of colour. Shows are:
for the most part, told from the point of view of white cops occasionally interacting with people of color who were, at best, one-dimensional criminals, colleagues, bosses, sidekicks, and best friends. Even when blackness was not equated with criminality, it was often supplemented by an inhuman lack of depth or presence.
Types of copaganda
Copaganda can come in multiple forms. It’s often recognised in fictional, positive depictions of police in film and TV. In these areas, the role of the police is seen as one that protects the people, rather than being the wing of the state that enforces the law (regardless of the morals of said laws). These portrayals are often one-dimensional, presenting police as friendly figures and public heroes, misleading people on how carceral systems actually work, and overlooking the violence and racism embedded into systems of policing.
“We know through cultivation theory research that unless a person has a personal experience with an issue, the more one consumes specific messaging, be it imagery or statements of information, the more they are likely to adopt it as fact,” Wilson said. “If you couple all of this with the fact that law enforcement related programs have accounted for 20-30% of programming since the 1970s, it’s hard to imagine it has not had an impact.”
These messages start reaching us from childhood; one example is Paw Patrol, an animated children’s show that follows police puppies as they fight crime (among other things). Spend time with children and you’ll notice Paw Patrol is pervasive, telling viewers to trust the system of policing and spreading the message of ‘not all cops are bad’, before children even reach school age.
But copaganda is rife on social media too. As awareness of police brutality has grown, more people are aware of the importance of documenting abuse to expose law enforcement. Simultaneously, many police departments are using the same tools to depict themselves as heroes who outweigh a few bad apples. This copaganda is created by the police themselves, including a country music video released by the Metro Nashville Police Department in which a police officer expresses upset over the murder of George Floyd. Other examples include social media posts that push back on negative narratives, showing white officers holding Black Lives Matter signs, kneeling, hugging protesters, and even crying when Black children are openly afraid of them. These posts are active efforts to show that individual police officers are kind at heart, however this doesn’t negate the fact that the system of policing is inherently violent and brutal, while officers still hold qualified immunity that shields them from accountability for misconduct (note: in the UK this only stopped being the case very recently).
Take, for example, the Ohio “dancing cop,” a white police officer who went viral in 2015 for a video in which he danced outside with Black children. That officer was investigated and eventually cleared, in 2019, after body camera footage surfaced of him punching a Black man in the face.
Copaganda is also present in media coverage and news stories about police officers. Most notably, news reports often report on police violence using the passive voice, including US outlets using phrases such as ‘officer-involved shooting’, which obscures the active role police have played in a violent situation. This practice was disallowed by AP Stylebook in 2017 and is discouraged by NPR, but these forms of passive reporting remain pervasive.
The reality of policing
It’s also key to note that many ordinary people have minimal contact with the police, meaning their opinion is often formed by these portrayals in media. For example, only 21% of Americans ages 16 or older experienced some type of contact with the police in 2015. It becomes crucial for police departments to maintain good public relations in order to maintain public support, and copaganda achieves this by diverting public attention away from embedded cultures of racism, violence, misogyny and harassment against marginalised communities.
However, the truth of policing doesn’t resemble the images created by copaganda. Much of it is bureaucratic and noncriminal, dealing with traffic and parking issues, noise complaints and paperwork. TV and film make police work look like non-stop ‘catching bad guys’ when in reality only 9% of crimes in England and Wales see suspects charged or summonsed. Simultaneously, we’ve seen countless cases where police escalate minor situations into distressing scenes, in ways that usually involve violence, racism, injury and death.
This is important to note specifically when it comes to the role of copaganda and storytelling.
A demonstrator in Orlando shared an image of officers praying with protesters, with the text: “Literally 45 minutes later [members of the department] maced us in the face for the crime of standing in their vicinity.” Another protester in New York City tweeted a video of police officers taking a knee, with the text: “They beat the living shit out of us one hour after this.” And after the highest-ranking uniformed NYPD officer was filmed on his knees linking arms with protesters in the street, reports continued of his department kettling crowds, beating them with batons, and pepper-spraying demonstrators across the city. This pattern raises the question: Are these police officers really standing in solidarity with Black lives or are they engaging in performative displays that subdue the public?
Copaganda on social media captures a moment that’s good for publicity, that tells a story that these are good individuals. However, no momentary instance of an officer being nice can solve the issues of systemic police violence and oppression.
This kind of cognitive dissonance continued during Pride Month, as New York’s police department politicised rainbow logos by putting them on cop cars in a seeming show of support for pride, before then showing up at the city’s Queer Liberation March with pepper spray and a brutal show of force.
Copaganda tells us a story, but zoom out a little and the reality is much more stark.
So what can we do?
Visuals and narratives inform the policies, practices, and behaviors that shape oppressive systems, and how they can instead lead us toward a more just and empathetic future.
When police put such huge effort into trying to prove they are ‘good people’, those who buy into this narrative ultimately end up undermining the work of abolitionists and anti-racist movements. Marginalised communities have been speaking on police misconduct and brutality for decades, meaning we need to be vigilant against narratives that suggest otherwise.
I watched firsthand at a recent protest in Louisiana when several activists urged police to march with them, while others on the frontlines questioned this demand, arguing that whether or not cops march or kneel with activists, they’re still in uniform, wearing their badges, and have the power to continue killing people. When cops coerce activists into allowing them to kneel with them or join marches, it becomes easier for them to push their “good cop” narrative, at the expense of the march’s true goals…
…The recent wave of copaganda aside, a deep dive into the history of policing shows a corrupt system that doesn’t leave much room for sympathy. Police have always been “a force of violence against Black people,” as the abolitionist organiser Mariame Kaba wrote for The New York Times. Modern police departments first emerged as slave patrols in the South in the 18th and 19th Centuries; they have always been an adversary to labor movements; and they regularly terrorise communities and kill people with impunity. It’s no coincidence that in a moment of national unrest, when demands to “abolish the police” are gaining widespread popularity, that cops would ramp up propaganda to paint themselves in a different light.
As copaganda circulates, particular in the wake of high-profile police violence, it’s vital that we endeavour to think critically. Police already have vast amounts of funding, power and immunity to promote their image to the general public, and we must be vigilant in pushing back on narratives of individual bad cops rather than fundamental, systemic issues.
We must follow in the footsteps of abolitionists before us, learning from resources and understanding aboliton as ‘a practice, framework, and tangible goal for our shared liberation‘, dismantling and replacing systems that have led to extreme violence. Ultimately we must resist copaganda when we see it, engaging in conversations with those around us when it comes up, and critically evaluating portrayals across film and television.
At the same time, we must understand abolition as a practice of working to create the conditions of a society that render police unecessary. We must change our perspectives and show up in our actions in order to reflect this.
Instead of sharing copaganda videos to foster hope, what if we reframed what hope looks like? What if we shared images of volunteer street medics treating and supporting injured protesters? Or the wall of moms who formed a human chain to block federal agents in Portland? What if we shared photos and videos of the various mutual aid groups across the country handing out water, snacks, masks, and other supplies to protesters on the streets? The videos and images that get shared during protests shape how history is told and our futures are imagined. So, before you post, remember the movement is not fighting for more cops, even nice ones, but rather real investment and community-led/centered solutions to support Black lives.
Alongside this, we must push for equitable access in film, tv and all other mediums of storytelling. Only with diverse voices across race, class, disability and more will we be able to access collective stories and understandings of the real world around us, rather than a false narrative that serves to uphold violent systems.
dismantling the police’s stronghold on our collective psyche means dismantling the pop culture that has for so long portrayed them as a positive, non-violent societal force. As the Color of Change’s report on policing on TV suggests: if police are to be portrayed on screen, firstly, there should be people of colour in the writers’ room, and people who have been on the receiving end of the criminal punishment should be consulted. Secondly, the realities of policing should be made transparent to viewers – this means getting rid of both the badass car chases and explosions, and the socially awkward antics of buddy cop duos.
Finally, whenever we come across media coverage of crime and policing, we need to always engage critically. I’ve written on media literacy and bias before, but these points from Defund MPD are also useful:
- Does the news cover things which cause the most harm? Does the outlet only focus on crimes committed by poor people, for example theft, while ignoring the actions of the rich (tax evasion accounts for the loss of 40 times more money yearly than shoplifting)?
- Which voices are quoted? Police and prosecutors have a track record of manipulating crime statistics, making false claims, and covering up acts of violence, including sexual violence, committed by police officers. Instead, news outlets should include voices from victims, defence attorneys, and people harmed by policing and prisons. When articles quote mainly police and prosecutors, readers should question whether the article is accurate or objective.
- How is data presented? News stories often sensationalise interpersonal violence and only report on increases in crime rates without giving more context. Data on crime can also be inaccurate; police have a track record of manipulating crime statistics and can cover up police violence in many ways. In the last 30 years, more than half of all homicides by police–over 17,000 killings–weren’t reported in official government data. It’s useful to look further into data presented and its wider context.
- What is the writing style? Manipulated writing styles can make police seem like heroes, even in instances when they have killed someone. Is passive voice used, are arrested people described in dehumanising terms (eg. convict or felon) that reduce them to acts they may or may not have been involved in. Are mugshots published even when a person hasn’t been convicted of a crime? Studies show that publications disproportionately publish mugshots of Black people, which can promote racial stereotypes. When mugshots are online and searchable, they publicise people’s criminal records and can inhibit them from finding jobs and housing, even decades after their case is over. All of these are reasons to be wary of media you engage with.
I will also include these recent words from journalist Allison Hantschel:
Whether you are freshly graduated from journalism school—hell, if you’ve so much as thought about applying to journalism school—your first instinct should be to assume that anyone wearing a badge or speaking at a podium is at least partially full of shit, and the tenor of your coverage should reflect that.
Above all remain critical and have conversations around this. Let’s push for a better world, one where abolition moves from practice to daily reality, and violent systems are dismantled all around us.