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Copaganda, a portmanteau of cop and propaganda, is a phenomenon described by critics of law enforcement in which news media and other social institutions promote celebratory portrayals of police officers with the intent of swaying public opinion for the benefit of police departments and law enforcement. Copaganda has been defined as "media efforts to flatter police officers and spare them from skeptical coverage," "pieces of media that are so scarily disconnected from the reality of cops that they end up serving as offbeat recruitment ads," and "videos, photos, and news clips of police officers dancing, praying, or handing out free food" used to boost public relations. Copaganda has been described as promoting an image of police officers that does not reflect reality, especially for working class Indigenous, Black, and brown communities, and reinforcing racist misconceptions worldwide. The term is commonly used on social media platforms such as Twitter.
Brenden Gallagher for The Daily Dot cites "saving kittens" stories and "Christmas gift surprise" stunts as "age-old versions of what we’re seeing today" and continues by stating that "Copaganda is so old, you can find it in Nick at Night reruns. The media has been regurgitating police PR since the days of Andy Griffith, and now in the era of Brooklyn 99, it is just being used more often and more effectively."
Aaron Rahsaan Thomas comments on the history of copaganda in American television: "The past 60 years have seen shows like Dragnet (1951–59), The Untouchables (1959–63), and Adam 12 (1968–75) establish a formula where, within an hour of story, good law men, also known as square-jawed white cops, defeat bad guys, often known as poor people of color." Subsequent shows such as Hawaii Five-O (1968–80) and Kojak (1973–78) solidified this narrative, along with Hill Street Blues (1981–87), Miami Vice (1984–89), and Cagney & Lacey (1982–89), which were "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."
Without using the term copaganda, historian E.P. Thompson in the late 1970s drew attention to this phenomenon’s British manifestations. He observed a tendency towards the 'populist celebration of the servants of the state' exemplified on British television by the "homely neighbour and universal uncle, Dixon of Dock Green – the precursor to more truthfully-observed heroes of Z-Cars." He emphasised the impact of the Second World War and the early Cold War on views of the police held by the public and even the Labour Party: "The bureaucratic statism towards which Labour politicians increasingly drifted carried with it a rhetoric in which the state in all its aspects was seen as a public good… [T]he dividing line between welfare state and police state became obscure."
The purpose of copaganda is to sway public opinion for the benefit of law enforcement and redirect attention away from news which may generate a negative image of law enforcement. In an article for The New York Times on a lip-sync battle of police officers from the Norfolk Police Department in Virginia dancing to "Uptown Funk" by Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson, reporter Laura Holson describes this as one example in a larger trend of "videos of officers performing [which] have gone viral across the country, as departments step up outreach efforts and seek to improve their image" and characterized it as a "public relations dance." Corporal William Pickering, a public information officer with the Norfolk Police Department, which created the 'Uptown Funk' video admitted "it is allowing the country to see us in another way."
Brenden Gallagher describes that the purpose of copaganda is to win a public relations battle: "If a disproportionate number of articles about the police engaging in 'random' acts of kindness pop up in your feed, while stories about police corruption or abuse are suppressed or go uncovered completely, the public perception of the police eventually looks far different than the reality." According to an academic study on "Media Power & Information Control: A Study of Police Organizations & Media Relations" for The National Institute of Justice:
Most citizens have little contact with law enforcement officers and their opinion of the police is often formed by the mass media's portrayal of our functions. The maintenance of good press relations is therefore a crucial element of public relations. Officers and employees must maintain good rapport with the media and deal with them in a courteous and impartial manner. It must be remembered that the media has a legitimate function in our society and the public trust of the police can be enhanced through proper dealings with the media (#1098-5). The mission ... is (1) to coordinate the release of accurate and timely information to the news media and the public and (2) to promote the positive image of [the Department]. The goals of [the Department] are to maintain public support ... by keeping the avenues of communication among the department, news media and citizenry open. The objectives ... are to utilize the media when attempting to stimulate public interest in departmental programs involving the community [and to] promote a feeling of teamwork between the police and media (#3800). [Officers shall] assume a pro-active approach in contacting the news media with information about the Department that might not otherwise come to their attention, but is newsworthy (#302.3).
Ronnie Boyd describes the role of copaganda as an attempt to divert the public's attention from racism and racist policing in America: "stories of Black folx being shot, murdered, sexually assaulted, and harassed by the police have flooded the airwaves since Black folx started building power to draw public attention. Since then, police departments across the country have worked hard to redirect our attention. One of their strategies is 'copaganda.'" Shanay Lemon for Blavity described copaganda as follows: "In the same effect of a celeb making an appearance at a pediatric burn-ward to save face after getting into controversial shenanigans, Copaganda is no different. It’s cheesy, borderline insulting and means nothing, especially if unarmed black bodies keep falling at the hands of cops." Copaganda media has been shown in a study to reinforce racist misconceptions.
News media are the most common outlets for copaganda, often taking the form of news stories about police officers performing simple tasks that can be construed as laudable by viewers. Amidst the Ferguson unrest in 2014, a widely circulated news story and photographs of 12-year-old Devonte Hart hugging Portland Police Sergeant Bret Barnum, has been identified by critics as a prominent example of copaganda. CBS News picked up the story in an article entitled "Amid Ferguson tension, emotional hug goes viral," with its opening line: "It's being called the hug felt 'round the world."
In 2018, police lip-sync challenges received popular coverage in news media. USA Today called it "the hit social media trend of the summer" and created a bracket for police departments to submit videos of officers lip syncing to be voted on. The article stated that "nearly each of the lip sync videos that hits social media goes viral making everyone (viewer and video-maker alike) a winner."
During the George Floyd protests, copaganda has been identified as a widespread tactic of the police and media. Officers kneeling with protestors in performative displays of solidarity, sometimes moments before teargassing crowds, and the media directing much of their attention on looting have been described as copaganda. An article in The Fader characterized these public relations tactics as being undermined by heavy displays of police brutality: "it feels like we go past the point of no return several times each day." In the wake of the protests, calls to cancel copaganda television shows entered the mainstream discourse. A&E's Live PD was cancelled and Paramount canceled Cops after 32 seasons.
Television shows such as Scandal, Law and Order: SVU, and Major Crimes have been identified as portraying "copagandic narratives" which promote messages such as "trust the system" and "not all cops," while Chicago PD, Blue Bloods, and Rookie Blue have been described as "outright applaud[ing] police" by Ronnie Boyd and "mindless glorification" by Funké Joseph. The CBS prime time lineup, including shows such as FBI: Most Wanted, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: New Orleans, Hawaii Five-0, Criminal Minds, Magnum P.I., Blue Bloods, and S.W.A.T. have been identified as coming under increased skepticism by the public because of their representation of copaganda.
The National Law Enforcement Museum was described as "straight-up copaganda" in a review of the institution for The Washington Post, stating that it "leans more toward propaganda than education." Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the museum was unpopular among the public and was projected to "default on some of the $103 million it borrowed in 2016."
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- Charity, Justin (12 September 2018). "The Spider-Cop Problem". The Ringer.
- Joseph, Funké (5 March 2019). "The Complications of Liking 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' as a Black Man". Vice.
- Thomas, Aaron Rahsaan (8 June 2020). "Is TV Finally Done With "Heroic" Cops? A Black Showrunner Says, "Hell F*cking No"". Vanity Fair.
- Boyd, Ronnie (5 January 2018). "Netflix's 'Bright' is copaganda, plain and simple". Afropunk.
- Metz, Nina (13 February 2020). "Do cop shows like 'Chicago P.D.' reinforce misperceptions about race and criminal justice? A new study says yes". Chicago Tribune.
- Pfarrer, Steve (31 January 2020). "Book Bag: 'Full Dissidence: Notes From an Uneven Playing Field' by Howard Bryant". Daily Hampshire Gazette.
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- Holson, Laura M. (23 July 2018). "Police Officers Lip-Sync as Part of Public Relations Dance". The New York Times.
- Lovell, Jarret S. (2002). "Media Power & Information Control: A Study of Police Organizations & Media Relations" (PDF). The National Institute of Justice.
- Lemon, Shanay (19 May 2017). "Why "Not All Cops Are Bad" Means Nothing". Blavity.
- "Amid Ferguson tension, emotional hug goes viral". CBS News. 29 November 2014.
- Scanlan, Sarah (24 August 2018). "Lip sync challenge: Police battle best songs in this video bracket". USA Today.
- Grasso, Samantha (27 August 2018). "Police are competing for the 'best' viral lip sync challenge in the nation". The Daily Dot.
- LeBlanc, Cameron (2 June 2020). "Let's Talk About That 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' Scene That's Going Around". Fatherly.
- Darville, Jordan (2 June 2020). "How to help in the George Floyd protests and beyond". The Fader.
- Wilbur, Brock (10 June 2020). "The time has come to cancel 'copaganda' television, and it is long overdue". The Pitch.
- Schneider, Michael (10 June 2020). "A&E Canceling 'Live PD' Following Ongoing Protests Against Police Brutality". Variety.
- Dingfelder, Sadie (7 February 2019). "The new National Law Enforcement Museum is straight-up copaganda". The Washington Post.
- Albright, Amanda (18 March 2019). "Richard Belzer and Clint Eastwood Can't Save the Failing National Law Enforcement Museum". Bloomberg Businessweek.