Writing Cop Shows
A few years ago, I was working on a television show about cops when one of the crew guys decided to set me straight. Now, this was a dude I liked and respected. He’d been in the industry for decades, had worked for some of the biggest film directors on movies you’ve seen multiple times, and always had an opinion that I wanted to hear. But this time he came at me shaking his head and looking at me sideways.
“You know what your problem is?” he said.
“How many guesses do I get?”
“I’m talking about the script you wrote.”
“Okay. Let’s hear it.”
“It’s got a lot of story and character stuff.” He didn’t look happy about that.
He racked the focus of his wizened stare and spoke to me very deliberately. “Don’t you get it? People want to see our cops take the scumbag by the collar and shove his head into the toilet. That’s the point of this little exercise.”
I smiled, thanked him for the advice, and then went looking for a doughnut at the craft services table. It wasn’t exactly shocking news he’d given me. I didn’t think I was working on an ad for the American Civil Liberties Union. But to be honest, it was a little discouraging. Because I know there’s another side to the story.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-cop by any means. In fact, I wanted to be a police officer for most of my childhood. And I don’t even think it’s enough to say, as many leftists like myself grudgingly do, “the police have a tough job.” There are parts of police culture that I don’t just respect, I envy. The hard work, the diligence, the ability to knock on doors day and night and talk to literarily anyone. And the humor. For Christ’s sakes, no one tells darker jokes or can make you laugh harder than an honest cop after a few drinks.
A week before that conversation of the set, I’d had lunch with a guy I know named Sundhe Moses. We met at Junior’s, on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, near the housing project where he grew up. Sundhe spent 18 years in prison for allegedly shooting and killing a four-year-old girl as she roller-skated past a building in Brownsville. Earlier this year, Sundhe’s conviction was overturned and his name was cleared. In the decision, the judge cited the involvement of one Detective Louis Scarcella, who Sundhe said had been coerced him into making a false confession by beating him and choking him (NY Daily News). Scarcella denied doing any such thing, but it’s worth noting that twelve other convictions have been overturned so far in cases where the same detective is said to have abused defendants, fabricated confessions, and—this is true—used the same crack addict-prostitute as a key witness in six separate investigations.
“That’s thirteen people’s lives,” Sundhe told me over his sandwich. “People talk about police corruption. But if you take it out of that context, it’s almost more like the story of a serial killer.”
A few years ago, I published a novel called Sunrise Highway about a cop who may be a serial killer. Such a thing is possible. A former California police officer named Joseph DeAngelo pleaded guilty to being the Golden State Killer, responsible for at least a dozen murders and more than 50 rapes over a 40-year period. More recently, a London police officer named Wayne Couzens raped and killed a woman named Sarah Everards after using his badge to intercept on her walk home one night.
But the problem is not just a matter of individual pathology in a few “bad apples.” Events like the George Floyd murder have forced many of us to confront questions of systemic racism in policing. But sometimes, I think the issue is even bigger than that. “What we have made of our police departments… America, what we have ordered them to do, is a direct challenge to any usable definition of democracy,” the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a few years ago. “A state that allows its agents to kill, to beat, to tase, without any real sanction, has ceased to govern and has commenced to simply rule.”
I don’t always agree with Coates. But in this case, I think he’s onto something. The problem isn’t simply bad cops acting badly. It’s how the rest of us turn a blind eye and allow such things to happen by being complacent, self-satisfied, or comfortable with the status quo.
Yes, there have been books, a few movies, and a couple of TV shows like The Shield about individual dirty cops. I’ve written a few novels where corruption is a central theme . But the truth is that most audiences want the lines between good and evil to be drawn clearly, and they want the heroes to trail no shadows in their wake.
“It’s not just the Scarcellas doing it on their own,” Sundhe told me. “A lot of other people have to be involved when there’s an injustice like this.”
I think it’s no accident that there have been few long-running TV shows since the heyday of Perry Mason about lawyers who gets the wrongfully convicted out of jail. People want reassuring stories about the good guys always being good after a long day at work and they certainly don’t want to be lectured. And I don’t blame them. I’m not in the business of lecturing anybody or showing them the light anyway. What I do want to do is give you something you’re not expecting, a suspenseful story from an angle that you might not have considered. And if you’re alive these days and halfway sentient, you have to admit the good guys aren’t always good. And getting down to the reality of that can be as riveting and scary as Silence of the Lambs.
At the end of our meal, Sundhe, who is writing a book about his experiences, started talking about the difference between real life and what you see on the screen.
“You know what’s funny?” he said as the waitress dropped the check next to the pickles and cole slaw. “The other night I was watching a horror movie with my girlfriend. Can’t think of the name but there was all this tension in it because the killer was stalking this woman and her daughter.”
“Yeah?” I shrugged and picked up my water, thinking it could be one of a thousand films.
“And then at the end, just when you think they’re going to escape, he kills them both.”
“Ha.” I put down my glass. “Didn’t see that coming.”
“No.” Sundhe nodded. “And my girlfriend hated it. Because she didn’t think that’s how it was going to be. But sometimes life is like that. You don’t always get the ending you want.”