We need to have a conversation about how police are portrayed in Australian film and television dramas.
With the Black Lives Matters movement, the Don Dale torture revelations and Australia’s domestic violence epidemic, the international conversation is moving towards an understanding of a police force as something that is not always inherently good, but an institution that has protects certain sections of the community — that protects discriminately. Be they women, people of colour or members of the queer community, the victims of violent crimes have been let down by law enforcement agencies.
The issue goes beyond mere neglect: the perpetrators and protectors of violent crime are often police officers themselves, and the roots of collusion and protection are rank within institutions of supposed justice. We know this from the Indigenous children who were tortured in Don Dale, from TJ Hickey’s death in Redfern more than a decade ago and the murder of Cameron Doomadgee by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley Hooper on Palm Island. There is a constant stream of less famous instances: when the law tasers an Indigneous man at his grandmother’s home and assaults a 22-year-old black man in custody, what forms is a history of systematic illegitimate and discriminatory policing.
So why is it that the portrayal of the police in Australian screen stories has remained the same, based on archetypal figures of a detective as either a good hero or a lone, corrupt baddie? Across new Australian dramas, most recently SBS’s Deep Water, which investigates Sydney’s history of homophobic violence, we are stuck in a simplistic, cops-and-robbers, goodies-and-baddies view of the police. Within the template of a procedural cop investigation, Deep Water involves a police officer called Tori (Yael Stone), who is assigned to investigate the case of a young, queer man battered to death in his bed, which leads to a deeper trail of unresolved homocides of gay men from the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Why are fictional screen stories clinging to a myth of police as indiscriminate protectors of the community?
Similarly, in shows like Water Rats, City Homocide, Stingers and Rush cops are the good guys, protecting indiscriminately. Issues of corruption and violence are not shown as a deeply systemic issue that often stems from law enforcement agencies, but as problems with rogue officers. Think of Richard Roxburgh’s Roger Rogerson in the 1990s ABC series Blue Murder, Tom Wilkinson’s Detective Carl Summer in the more recent Felony or David Wenham’s Al in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. These shows focus on individual and isolated incidents of illegitimate policing, as if they are exceptions committed by lone wolves or bad apples.
But they’re not exceptions. In the case of Deep Water, homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1984, resulting in a lingering culture, in both the police and broader society, of seeing queer people as criminals rather than citizens worthy of protection. It’s a huge problem that this systemic part of the narrative is only in the background of the Deep Water when in fact it is a key part of the history.
Rather than looking at the problems inherent in policing at the time, the series constructs a dramatic tension between the cops’ interpersonal dynamics: Tori as an intuitive young, female officer contending with older, emotionless, aggressive male superiors who have a machine-like approach to building evidence. The show suggests that the main problem was that some parents of gay homocide victims were reluctant to push for proper investigations, because it would mean acknowledging their children’s queerness. It also suggests that the problem of gay-bashing stemmed from “gangs of youths looking for prey” — in the fictional show’s case, an organised group called the Pointer gang, with the main perp a monster acting out of fear and prejudice.
Cultures of violence do not just exist because of prejudiced attitudes; they are enabled by police impunity.
But the baddies weren’t just the gay-bashers, the baddies were also inside the police force. We know this from the testimonies in the accompanying SBS documentary, Deep Water: The Real Story, which revealed chronic mistreatment of queer people by police in Sydney in the 1980s and ’90s, a time when the usual protocols of investigation were thrown away when it came to homophobic homocide.
Cultures of violence do not just exist because of prejudiced attitudes; they are enabled by police impunity. There was a knowledge among perpetrators of gay hate crimes that their actions would go unprosecuted, and there was, and is. a culture of self-protection within law enforcement. As with most crime genre dramas of this type, Deep Water is told from the perspective of the valiant, straight, white police officer. Rarely do we see violent crimes stories from the viewpoint of the victims and survivors, and this is part of a wider trend within Australian storytelling.
We expect documentaries like Deep Water: The Real Story to hold close to the truth. But fiction can be more adventurous in its imaginative dimensions — it can go beyond naive, narrow view of cops as inherently good guys. So why are fictional screen stories clinging to a myth of police as indiscriminate protectors of the community?
Forget about commercial television’s obsession with the figures of bike gangs and mafiosos, as with Underbelly and its endless installments and all the weeknight cop shows. Forget about the Australian films about organised crime rings, mobsters and drug syndicates: Chopper, Romper Stomper, Dirty Deeds, Animal Kingdom, Two Hands, The Combination, Son of a Gun and Little Fish. Australian film specialises in the crime genre, but from a very one-sided angle. There is another form of organised crime in plain sight. So where are the screen stories of Cameron Doomadgee? Of TJ Hickey? Of the corrupt networks of criminals inside law enforcement? Of the racial disproportionality in police violence and misconduct?
If you think that illegitimate policing is not a widespread problem, it’s because you are a citizen deemed worthy of protection.
Deep Water made me wonder: who does law enforcement force deem worthy of protection today? It has taken a full-blown epidemic for women dealing with domestic violence to start to be taken seriously by police. If you think that illegitimate policing is not a widespread problem, it’s probably because you haven’t directly experienced it, because you are a citizen deemed worthy of protection. Today, police officers seem to know that their own violence and excessive force against Indigenous people — the abundance of which constitutes no less than a set of institutionalised behaviours — will go unnoticed.
As The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowrey said recently, incidents of police corruption and brutality are “interwoven with a broader story [of] thousands of other experiences, generations of experiences. We hyper-focus on the individual specifics of certain incidents. While those specifics matter, sometimes that misses the forest for the trees. When someone is killed by the police, the government has killed that person.”
There has been a loss of faith by those experiencing that illegitimate policing in the protective nature of the police, in the repeated lack of justice. The loss of faith is more acutely discussed in the USA, where esteemed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has said that, “in black communities, the police departments have only enjoyed a kind of quasi-legitimacy. That is because wanton discrimination is definitional to the black experience, and very often it is law enforcement which implements that discrimination with violence.” Here too in Australia, what we are looking at is a history of abandonment and abuse by police at segments of the community that are not white, middle-class or heterosexual: the certainty of police violence against certain parts of the community.
It is becoming harder to ignore the police as a source of crime.
Overseas, shows like The Wire and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story have talked about the problems inherent in hard-edged and sometimes actively racist policing strategies against people of colour and poor communities. I cannot think of one equivalently critical approach within Australian storytelling. Similarly, storytellers have changed the way they portray church institutions following the decades-long unfurling of child abuse revelations; the Oscar-winning film Spotlight is exemplary of that process.
It is becoming harder to ignore the police as a source of crime: as the perpetrators of violence against certain parts of the community. So why is Australia’s screen industry clinging to naive tropes, when the political conversation is beginning to own up to the problems inherent in the so-called justice system?