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Black Criminal Justice Activist Hill Harper Explains What It’s Like To Play A Cop On TV

Hill Harper speaking about activism and the arts. CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS/CHRIS PIZZELLO
Hill Harper speaking about activism and the arts. CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS/CHRIS PIZZELLO

Thanks to shows like Law & Order, NCIS, Criminal Minds, and CSI, binge-watching cop dramas has become one of the great American pastimes of the 21st century. In the span of an hour, we get to see a horrible crime committed, the police work to catch the perpetrator, and, usually, the criminal convicted for his wrongdoing. As predictable as the dramas have become, we still watch them, enraptured for hours on end, as if every plot twist is new and exciting.

But these shows glorify the harsh realities of the criminal justice system in America, ignoring deadly police encounters and inhumane conditions behind bars.

“[On] our shows, everybody is guilty,” Hill Harper, whom you may know from CSI: New York and, more recently, Limitless, told ThinkProgress. “When you do a show, we the law enforcement on the show catch the bad guys — and they did it. They did exactly what we caught them for. That’s not the way our criminal justice system [works].”

Cops on TV tend to be upstanding citizens with bulletproof morals, who become emotionally invested in every single one of the victims they encounter. Sometimes, they’re the underdogs, with criminals one step ahead of the police and a judicial system that makes prosecuting people extremely difficult. So when people like Detective Elliot Stabler punch, drop-kick, choke, and body-slam suspects, it’s totally fine. They’re just doing what they have to, in order to catch the bad guy.

[On] our shows, everybody is guilty.

Fortunately, though, entertainers are becoming more concerned with the state of the justice system — and more vocal about it.

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As an actor, Hill has played law enforcement for nearly a decade. He’s also taken on prisoner roles. And as an advocate, he’s written a book about mass incarceration and developed a foundation for underprivileged youth — including juveniles behind bars. Throughout his career, he’s worked tirelessly to share the stories of people who are roped into the system of injustice.

“I started doing more work in the actual institutions themselves — juvenile justice facilities and prisons — because my first book, Letters to a Young Brother, gets passed around the facilities. And I get a lot of letters from guys in these prisons,” Harper told ThinkProgress. Those letters and interactions have informed his political advocacy and professional body of work. “As I got to know them and work with them, I realized there’s a big machine that is impacting their lives in transformationally negative ways.”

But that’s not what we tend to see when we tune in to hour-long procedurals. These dramas are almost always told from the perspective of law enforcement, so the criminals only get a few minutes — if any — to talk about who they are and contextualize their missteps. As someone who played law enforcement for nine years on CSI, that’s not lost on Harper.

The people we see on screen are serial killers, rapists, armed robbers, or white collar criminals who prey on the weak. Oftentimes, they are fanatical in some way and/or have a mental illness. The majority of them are white males.

They are very different from the average person behind bars.

“By and large, you have to remember that most of the people that are incarcerated right now in this country are non-violent drug offenders,” Harper continued. “Those aren’t the people we’re showing on our shows. We’re showing the most egregious and violent people because that makes for more drama.”

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Mass incarceration is inextricably linked to day-to-day policing. A turn signal violation can get you killed by cops. Carrying pot can result in a life sentence in prison. When it comes to their interactions with law enforcement, the people Harper meets have very similar experiences. “It’s a constant level of harassment, meaning always feeling watched, stopped, and collected. Very rarely are they stopped as individuals — they’ll be stopped as groups,” he explained.

That’s not what we see on an episode of Hawaii 5–0.

We’re showing the most egregious and violent people because that makes for more drama.

Luckily, in real life, people are learning more about injustices perpetuated by law enforcement. Harper is one of many high-profile figures who are eager to raise awareness about the country’s incarceration problem. In addition to his work in correctional facilities, he’s one of 90 celebrities in the movie, TV, music, sports, and fashion industries who signed on to the bipartisan Cut50 campaign this week, which aims to reduce the prison population by 50 percent in 10 years through smart legislation. Other names attached to the campaign include Amy Schumer, Shonda Rhimes, Julianne Moore, Stephen Curry, and Zac Posen.

“I believe that injustice registers with people. The good thing is, we’ve been able to educate people around this issue,” Harper said. “When people start hearing things like the U.S. is 5 percent of the world’s population and we have 25 percent of the world’s inmates, something doesn’t quite register. People started asking more questions.”

The next frontier is translating the lived experiences of people in the criminal justice system to the TV screen — packaged in a nuanced way. Over the course of his career, Harper says he’s worked with people behind the scenes, such as CSI: New York showrunner Pam Veasey, who are receptive to concerns that cop dramas can raise. “I’m sure there have been times…when I’ve gone to the writers, producers and said ‘I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t think this is accurate.’ But I must say that by and large, my experience has been that the writers and producers I’ve worked with have been extremely sensitive to these issues,” he said.

Artists and creatives in the entertainment community are taking on this issue, and have been.

Harper thinks that in the future, the entertainment industry will not only be receptive to criticism, but take an active role in changing up the narratives about the criminal justice system.

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“I think that we’ve seen independent films address these issues, and usually Hollywood follows suit with the independent creative mind,” he said. He’s even seen a shift in traditional theater, having a played a prisoner involved in the largest prison uprising in U.S. history in an Off-Broadway production, Toast. The event happened in 1971 at Attica State Penitentiary, when inmates grew tired of not having their basic rights met.

Typically, darker, more nuanced portrayals of the justice system have been relegated to prestigious circles — like the theater. Over time, crime shows — The Wire, True Detective, Fargo, and Dexter — that fall under the category of “prestige television” have also flipped the script, portraying law enforcement officials as flawed vigilantes who will break the law without batting an eye. These artistic representations have largely been left out of mainstream programming, but Harper thinks that will change in the near future.

“Artists and creatives in the entertainment community are taking on this issue, and have been. I believe we’ll continue to see it on bigger and bigger canvases, because it is something that’s on people’s minds,” he noted. “These are stories that deserve to be told, and that’s the beautiful thing about being in entertainment: we can actually move the meter and educate people at the same time.”