Depictions of crime and the police on TV

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Analyse the depiction of crime and the police in the TV-Series “Police Interceptors” (Channel 5), “Police, Camera, Action!” (ITV 4), or “Traffic Cops” (BBC 1).


This essay will analyse how crime and the police are portrayed in the series Traffic cops aired in March and April 2014. Additionally it will draw on how crime, the police and criminals are depicted, along with what type of message the series gives the viewers and before concluding it will look at how the police restore law and order. The televised series this essay will discuss is in connection to Traffic Cops, it is a British documentary which is shown on BBC One with a camera crew following police officers from the Road Policing Unitsfrom variousareas in the UK police forces. Traffic Copshas consistently been one of the most watched factual series onUKtelevision. Traffic cops is broadcasted by the BBC in a prime time slot and therefore draws in a large amount of viewers compared to such programmes as road wars and Caribbean cops. The most dominant message of prime time crime programs such as “traffic cops” is that "crime does not pay" (Carlson 1985). The series shows the viewers what is involved in a traffic officers day to day shift ranging from seriously or fatally injured individual to a standard speeding ticket. Traffic cops rarely show a female individual being stopped, which tends to leave the focus on males within the age range of around twenty to thirty five. This tells the audience that women are not at forefront and their place is elsewhere for example in the home. This type of programme can reinforce gender stereotypes: “There has been a considerable interest in how real ‘reality’ television shows are as well as how such programming creates and reinforces gender and racial stereotypes” (Cavender and Bond-Maupin et al).

How crime is depicted in traffic cops?

Traffic cops is a reality television programme based on crime and provides entertainment to the audience. However, this type of entertainment is not always a true reflection of crime and traffic offences in everyday life. The film crew spend around six months filming traffic cops within the police’s shift work which then further gets cut down to just four hours of televised content for entertaining the public. Researchers such as Eschhotz (2002) and Estep and Macdonald (1983) argue that such reality television programmes based on crime tend to make the difference between entertainment and fact a bit blurred.

The series, Traffic cops gives the audience a wide variety of coverage on different types of offences such as, illegal drivers abandoning their cars, local beat officers needing back up from highly trained officers to help with motoring pursuits, suspicious accidents on motorways and dealing with the death of individuals form a road traffic collision. But we look at some of the other crimes that happen such as minor traffic offences which we all do from day to day, these would be, turning a corner and failing to indicate the direction of travel, going over the white central lines in the middle of the road and driving over flat mini roundabouts, These are all offences police officers will not deal with as they are to minor, thousands, if not millions of people do it and it does not seem to be cost-effective as well as inadequate for the police service. Many people who hear someone say they are a criminal profiler they are inclined to think of T.V. depicted shows such as Profilers, Criminal Minds and movies like Silence of the Lambs. Unfortunately, these examples portray a glamorous classification of capturing criminals, Fulero and Wrightsman (2008).

How criminals are depicted?

Traffic cops depict criminals through the actions of individual’s wrong doings. These are hard core criminals who hi-jack, speed or cause major traffic offences. Through their acts, the BBC are able to develop the plot and produce different series. In media depictions, “criminal psychology is frequently portrayed in a very favourable light, almost as if it were a sort of ‘secret science’” (Hale et al, 2005). The most foremost message of prime time crime programs such as traffic cops leaves us a message that “crime does not pay" and that criminals are highly undesirable and unworthy characters Carlson (1985). Most police series portray a lawful life as clearly superior to an unlawful one, and almost all television criminals are caught or thwarted, Lichter 1983. This type of message can make a powerful contribution to general social control and compliance. Carlson (1985) represents three characteristics of crime and law enforcement programs that fund the messages of obedience as the most suitable behaviour: 1) the sharp distinction drawn between criminals and law enforcers, 2) the often violent consequence of criminal activity, and 3) the effectiveness of television law enforcement.

Criminals on the series traffic cops aired in March and April are mainly middle aged, male, low on the life ladder convicts that tend to either get a thrill from repeat offending, are funding a drug habit, or trying to find a cheaper solution than paying the full insurance price. It’s very unusual to see a female offender in the series of traffic cops along with female officers. “If one based their understanding of crime, law and law enforcement on reality television, one would believe that virtually all police officers are white men” Lenz, (2003).

A provoking question is "Are criminals born, or made?" This is a quarrel that has sustained to go on for many years and has been the subject of regular disputes.

Theorist from a previous era believed that it was in association with an integral disposition, genetic defectiveness or some kind of mental retardation. Over the years, numerous sociologists and psychologists have tried to make logic of this complex question. Several suggesting that with today’s magnitude of chemical substances, enhancers, and habit forming hobbies, combined with poor living conditions, learned morals, lifestyles, lack of income and education, that criminality is certainly not an innate tendency, but a lifestyle forced upon certain individuals in response to their environment, social class, and social relations. To totally appreciate the nature of genes and the environmental inspirations criminal behaviour, you must first know how to define criminal behaviour. Law in our society is well-defined by social and legal institutes. Therefore, determining what constitutes criminal behaviour can cover a wide variety of activities so researchers tend to focus on the wider context of antisocial behaviour (Wilson, 2010).

Televised criminals are often given a wide variety of "negative character traits" Rapping (2003) in addition to their criminality, and their motives are typically greed or base wickedness or cruelty. On the other hand, law enforcers are depicted as relatively moral. While they may be dependent and battle with the government, they are continuously on the side of the law and conventional morality.

How police are depicted

The theory that police officers on television crime established drama such as traffic cops endures to be depicted as white males. Most of the characters on police programmes show that officers were white and their most likely role is to appear as a police officer. Only one of the thirteen officers observed in the series traffic cops was a non-white female. No other minority women appeared as police officers. The fly-on-the-wall techniques used in the Roger Graef documentary Police, and in The Bill since the early 1980s and taken to their extreme in The Cops in the late 1990s have altered visual representations of law enforcement Leishman and Mason (2003). Additionally, it was the expansion of light cameras and corresponding sound recording that significantly aided the development of reality television. Fetveit (1999) notes that the reality television show relies on three types of visual evidence, 'authentic footage from camera crews observing arrests or rescue operations; footage from surveillance videos and recordings of affected accidents and dangerous conditions, Fetveit 1999, p792

One of the original samples on British television was Police, Camera, Action In 1994 where the surveillance footage taken from police vehicles was broadcast by an ex-news reader Alistair Stewart. The series justifies its existence by stressing its safety message: (Police, Camera, Action) which catches moments of motoring offences on camera which has earned applauses from police and drivers alike for its influential safety message.

In spite of their validations of public interest, the genuineness police show such as traffic cops has come across considerable criticism, suggesting that this form of television is about: maximising ratings whilst minimising production costs. And they do so by pandering to the “oldest and most disreputable traits in human nature - the desire to gawp at other people's misfortune”, Hill (2000).

Traffic police without a doubt need to exist as If you are driving while intoxicated, driving recklessly or exceedingly aggressively there needs to be an official body that exists to police that kind of behaviour.

Police officer that we see on traffic cops are ideally sent on real life calls to interact with actual criminals. Over two decades ago, Sheley and Ashkins (1981) accepted that the officer and perpetuator most likely depicted on police television dramas were far from reality (Oliver 1994; Oliver and Armstrong 1998). Oliver (1994), in a content analysis of reality based police shows, found that white characters on police shows were more likely to be portrayed as police officers than perpetrators of crimes. However, as Prosise and Johnson (2004) write, most people report that their knowledge of crime, as well as their understanding of law enforcement generally, comes through the media rather than from direct experience Oliver & Armstrong (1998). Factual, fictional and factional illustrations of policing are, for a big amount of the British public, the most important source of information regarding law and order. In recent years there has been a blurring of the boundaries between these three media depictions of policing. The growth of faction or infotainment, through the hybridisation of factual programming, in particular, has significant implications for media constructed images of policing, Rapping (2003)

This paper seeks to explore three aspects of such police depictions. Firstly, the construction of a police reality through reality television shows such as Police, Camera, Action! and the US show COPS in which police-media relations collude to produce a unified crime fighter image of policing. Secondly, the legal implications of using police and surveillance footage without suspects permission. In particular, the potential breaches of the Contempt of Court Act1981 and questions of breach of privacy under Human Rights Act 1998 and the common law.

Thirdly, some theoretical perspectives are proposed on the use of surveillance footage. The CCTV footage in reality police shows suggest a further development of Foucault's account of panopticism as proposed by Lyon, Haggerty & Ericson and Armstrong among others.

Matthiesen's work on the synopticon and the consequent impact on police accountability is also discussed.

Fetveit (1999) notes that the reality television show relies on three types of visual evidence, 'authentic footage from camera crews observing arrests or rescue operations; footage from surveillance videos and recordings (often by amateurs) of dramatic accidents and dangerous situations' (Fetveit 1999:792).


Wilson, j, Causes of Crime, (2010), hard times, less crimes

Cavender, G. and L. Bond-Maupin. (1993). Fear and Loathing on Reality Television: An Analysis of Americas Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries, Sociological, Inquiry 63:305-17. Eschholz, S, B.S. Blackwell, M. Gertz, & T. Chirilos. (2002). Race and attitudes toward the police: assessing the effects of watching reality police programs, Journal of Criminal Justice, 20:327-341.

Estep, R. and P.T. Macdonald. (1983). How Prime Time Crime Evolved on TV, 1976-1981.î Journalism Quarterly 60:293-300.

FETVEIT, A. (1999) 'Reality TV in the Digital Era: a paradox in visual culture Media, Culture and Society vol. 21 pp.787-894.

Fulero, M, Wrightsman, L Wadsworth Publishing Co Inc; 3rd edition (2008).

Hill, P, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics. (2000).

Leishman, F, Mason, P, Policing and the media:facts, fictions and factions (2003)

Oliver, M.B. (1994). Portrayals of Crime, Race, and Aggression in Reality-Based Police Shows: a content analysis, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 3:179-192.