Who says television doesn't take its cue from real life? The trial of four Los Angeles police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King and the trial in Miami of William Lozano, whose shooting of a black motorist in 1989 set off three days of rioting, have found their analog in a new crop of TV dramas that portray the police less as guardians of the public order than as good guys gone bad.
Last Tuesday, for example, CBS aired "With Hostile Intent," a made-for-TV movie about sexual harassment on the police force of Long Beach, Calif. When a female officer on the force breaks off an affair with her married sergeant, he makes her life miserable. Another female officer is forced to endure the taunts of her male colleagues when she is admitted into the all-male K-9 unit.
On Wednesday, NBC broadcast "Manhood," an episode of its "Law and Order" series, in which a homosexual policeman is murdered because homophobic colleagues fail to respond to his urgent requests for backup. Much of the episode deals with the officers' effort to cover-up the department's complicity in the gay patrolman's death.
What makes these portrayals different from the usual run of cop shows is that they suggest a deeply rooted institutional corruption among the supposed guardians of public order.
Other shows, such as the popular "Hill Street Blues" series, have dealt with police misconduct, but almost always in the context of stories that focus on the acts of one or two "bad apples," whose removal promptly sets things right.
Still, it's not clear to what extent the newly critical view of police being created by Hollywood is shared by most viewers. Americans are so frustrated by the crime problem that many may actually be inclined to tolerate a certain amount of police abuse, especially at the margins.
Perhaps the erosion of the idealized image of police is part of a more general disenchantment with institutional authority. The danger of such reduced expectations, however, is that once we begin to demand less from the police, it's only a matter of time before that is exactly what we get.