TV detectives found guilty of misleading the public

Officers say cop shows give viewers the wrong ideas about the job
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The Independent Culture

From the cosy world of Dixon of Dock Green to the rough and tumble of The Sweeney through to the modern psychological forensic drama of Waking the Dead, the nation's appetite for fictional television detective dramas never wanes.

Yet, many of these well-known depictions of the police going about their work have "seriously misled" the public and have created a "simplistic narrative of crime solving", a new study claims.

According to a new paper in the journal Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, the "public perception of policing has changed as a result" of the slapdash murder investigations often seen in crime dramas such as Life on Mars and A Touch of Frost.

The study, which conducted interviews with several retired police officers and recorded their views on TV crime dramas, concluded that "if we rely on TV drama for our understanding of [the police's] work and roles, we will be seriously misled".

The study says that "if the majority of the audience has little, if any, meaningful contact with the police or other areas of the criminal justice system, then the cultural representations of institutions become all the more important and possibly influential".

Touch of Frost: Accused of fantasy policing

It also highlighted the fact that "fictional crime portrayal creates a simplistic narrative of crime solving that is almost completely divorced from the reality of modern police work".

Misrepresentations of the police are believed to have stemmed from crime dramas that often romanticise police work.

By exaggerating the role and conduct of the police, television crime dramas "undermine due process" and legitimise the "maverick" side of policing. According to the study, these dramas were often "completely improbable but also full of procedural errors".

The publication also pointed out that "despite the ongoing portrayal of police work as dynamic and exciting, the majority of it is not. Any investigation, but particularly major crimes, will involve a great deal of mundane or routine work such as checking CCTV or taking statements. This is a world far removed from the scenes of psychological profiling and car chases that dominate modern film and TV dramas."

Dr Martin King and Ian Cummins, two of the authors behind the research, believe that criminal dramas often downplay the impact crime and violence has, not only on the victims but also on the police officers.

"What was common with all the interviewees is that they all had one very traumatic story, some case that they'd been involved with," Dr King explained. "I think they felt that the seriousness and the pain of that was something that really hadn't been portrayed in a very accurate way."

The study does acknowledge, however, that there must be a balance between realism and entertainment, with one retired officer commenting that "most police work is boring, so a realistic drama would be unwatchable".

Dr King and Mr Cummins also raised the argument that TV crime dramas were not documentaries and shouldn't be viewed as such.

A world of TV detectives

Denmark Sarah "The Jumper" Lund in The Killing.

Hawaii Tom Selleck, Magnum PI's Hawaiian shirt-wearer.

New York Lollipop-sucking baldy in Kojak or the shoulder-padded women of Cagney & Lacey

Miami Don Johnson in Miami Vice.

Glasgow Polis detective Jim Taggart ("there's been a murrrderr") from Taggart.

Oxford The crossword-solving, Jag driving chief inspector from Morse.

Belgium Cane-toting moustachioed Belgian hero of Poirot.

Los Angeles Shambling, mumbling star of Colombo.

Botswana Precious Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Denton Trilby-wearing star of A Touch of Frost.