The glaring difference between British and American cop shows

My dad's been pestering me since the summer to watch the Irish police soap opera Red Rock now that it's on AmazonPrime. While I'm always down for a good crime story, I'm not always keen on cop dramas. But I finally got a chance to watch the pilot episode over the holidays — and lo and behold, I enjoyed it, too.

Why did I enjoy this cop show, when I roll my eyes at the self-important melodrama of Law & Order SVU every time my wife puts it on (we all have our trashy TV vices)? I can't even stomach a gag on Brooklyn 99, despite my love for the rest of the Michael Schur ouvre.

I thought back to an article I'd read in The Atlantic by Christopher Orr titled, "Why British Police Shows Are Better." And while I would never dare to conflate British police shows with Irish ones, Red Rock still fit the criteria for the author's two central arguments.

First, that:

Crime shows set in Britain may offer the best way—apart from actually moving there—to appreciate how much the nation has become a quasi-benevolent surveillance state. If the police need to determine someone's whereabouts at a particular hour on a particular night, they will dutifully interview witnesses, check phone records, and otherwise establish alibis much as they would in the United States. But they will also—as any fan of these shows can readily attest—check the CCTV. (According to the BBC, Britain has one CCTV camera for every 11 inhabitants.)

This pervasive video footage is an obvious boon not only to British police, but to the writers of British police dramas as well. Is your plot missing a link in the chain of evidence, a way from narrative Point A to narrative Point B? Just check the CCTV footage, and discover a familiar face exiting a pub or a telltale license plate on the highway.

In a way, this cultural detail forces these police shows to rely on good ol' fashioned detecting. Orr refers to this as a "quaintness," and it does certainly make the police work seem more quiet and understated in comparison to the exciting cops-and-robber shoot-outs of their American counterparts. But there is something refreshing in seeing a Bobby (or, in the case of Red Rock, a Garda) whose job involves some monotony. Not only do these police officers have to comb through the CCTV footage, they also have to fill in the gaps from that footage by speaking with neighbors and local businesses. And that means convincing those people to help them, instead of showing up guns a'blazin' to compel a hostile witness to cooperate. Which is inherently dramatic, because it involves actual detective work (and also provides more opportunity to explore communities and characters, and the tangential effects of the crime).

And that brings me to point two:

The more glaring contrast between American and British law enforcement—both real and fictive—is the near-total absence of handguns in Britain. (In 2018, for example, London—home to 9 million people—reported just 15 gun homicides.) There are a few American-style TV exceptions that deal with terrorism (Bodyguard) or serial killers (Luther), in which guns are prevalent. The anti-corruption team in Line of Duty sees its share of trigger-happy "authorized firearms officers"—although even they are required to sign their guns back in after each assignment. But on TV as in life, the prospect of gun violence, either by or against the police, is remote.

The cumulative effect on British police shows can't be overstated. Everyone weaned on American cop dramas, for instance, knows the right way to approach a door behind which a suspect might be waiting: His gun drawn, an officer stands to one side before knocking and declaring himself loudly. The anticipation of violence is so primal that it dominates almost every interaction that involves the police.

They don't have fucking guns.

(The desire for some of the Garda to be gun-toting action heroes is actually a bit of a recurring gag in the start of Red Rocks).

This isn't to say that British (or Irish) cop shows are devoid of the inherent propaganda aspects of the genre. There's obviously a benefit for the State in depicting the good, upstanding, moral police officers who want to do the right thing, using the mass surveillance operatus to do good and improve the lives of people in the community. But Orr points out a crucial distinction here as well:

The awareness of supervision lends British series a greater sense of control, of order, relative to the urban chaos that prevails on American television. Crime is experienced as a deviation from the norm —something that fell into the cracks between the cameras — rather than the norm itself.

This, in turn, reminded me of a recent workshop I participated in about policing and reporting. The presenter had surveyed tens of thousands of US police officers about the top reasons why they chose to go into their professions. Naturally, the overwhelming #1 reason was "To help people" — because of course that's the polite answer to give.

But even more telling was the answer that came in a close second to that: because it looked fun.

That, to me, is the biggest difference between British (or Irish) cop shows, and their American counterparts. Across the Atlantic, there's a monotony to the work; there's nothing glamorous about knocking on doors and combing through footage, but it's still presented as important work despite this. That's a stark contrast to the United States, where every episode offers a new opportunity for the cops to roleplay as gun-toting action heroes—even though, in reality, only about one-quarter of US police officers ever use their guns on the job.

Makes you think.

Why British Police Shows Are Better [Christopher Orr / The Atlantic]

A closer look at police officers who have fired their weapon on duty [Rich Morin and Andrew Mercer / PEW Research]

Image: Public Domain via Wallpaper Flare