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Copaganda: A powerful and dangerous police PR tool

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

Picture credit: @sebbarros

By Sara Chitseko:

For many, policing is a necessary system, utilised as the main way of dealing with society's problems. Recent calls to defund the police have led to questions of what a police-free society would actually look like. It's important to recognise that many communities already live in a world without police. Well-off, predominantly white, suburban communities; communities with good jobs, schools, strong economies and where social safety nets are already in place, are unlikely to have had much police interaction. This begs the question of where communities that have grown up without the presence of policing get their understandings of policing from.

Television, film and popular culture more broadly play a pivotal role in knowledge production. These creative forms have historically portrayed the police as heroic agents of justice, playing a key function in what has been labelled, the “police PR machine.” Shows of this kind are referred to as “copaganda,” because they celebrate policing, while shaping public opinion.

In the UK, shows such as Luther and Line of Duty not only glamourise and sensationalise policing, but also mislead the general public as to how the criminal justice system works. We’re led to believe that the only way police can truly be effective is if they break the rules. When police do break the law on TV, we’re led to believe that it’s only because they “have to.” Most often, this takes the form of violence to “help them do their job.”

This has serious implications for how unlawful police behaviour is excused without accountability in the real world. In the last week, video footage has gone viral of a police officer kneeling on a Black man’s neck in Islington during arrest. Restraint of this kind - for up to 7 minutes - is legal in the British justice system. This is not only shocking given the circumstances in which George Floyd was killed in the US, but also given how so many have been killed by police in the UK. Sean Rigg was killed as a result of police restraining him face down for 7 minutes. Edson Da Costa’s upper airways were obstructed while being restrained face down and Rashan Charles was restrained in a headlock until he became unresponsive. These are not isolated incidents. The police have never been held accountable for these deaths, nor for all those who have suffered yet survived police brutality.

It is not only hyper-masculine, assertive and dominant representations of policing in popular culture which impact how we understand their role in society. In fact, it is perhaps the more “silly” and “humorous” portrayals which have the most insidious effects. In the Simpsons, Officer Wiggum is portrayed as an incompetent but harmless character who enjoys napping and eating donoughts. The film, Hot Fuzz, depicts a comedic relationship between two white officers who attempt to solve a murder mystery through clumsy police chases and arrests. However, to suggest that police are harmless, “loveable idiots” is to undermine the real-life experiences of systemic racism and calculated state-sanctioned violence that the police enact.

While some communities barely interact with the police at all, others, in particular Black communities, suffer from continual police intrusion, harassment, violence and killings with impunity. Popular culture is a powerful tool which shapes how the public see the police and how accountable they are, but it is one-dimensional. In the real world, some may experience a police service, but many Black communities only experience a police force. Police increasingly respond to situations that are not about ‘crime,’ such as mental health crises and even when they respond to crime they overwhelmingly fail to solve, resolve or prevent harm and violence.

Copaganda is a powerful and dangerous PR tool. However, in this age of social media, many are using film as a unique opportunity to self-document and share experiences of policing which can disrupt wider public understandings. These videos can be distressing to watch, particularly for Black communities that are disproportionately impacted by police violence. But these personal videos have also undeniably contributed to increased scrutiny of policing and wider popular support for the Black Lives Matter movement across the globe. They flip the binary representations that we see in popular culture that equate policing with good and “criminal” with bad. Instead they show how police abuse their power, violate and brutalise communities - actions which are legitimised through popular culture.

Moving forward, we must hold the producers, directors and wider popular culture designers to account for the false representations of policing that they create. Communities should not have to document their experiences of police violence on social media for communities that are not impacted by policing to pay attention. Furthermore, we should promote community media which moves beyond only documenting police violence and work to create a new popular culture which documents how our communities are building peace, without relying on the criminal “justice” system or policing.

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