How come people are obsessed with stories about police work and law enforcement? Isn’t the crime rate actually falling?

I believe that the main reason that people are obsessed with stories about police work and law enforcement is because they trust in the fact that the media acts as the 4th estate, playing the role of watchdog over government, police, and judicial matters.  They want to have faith that the press are doing their job and protecting everyday citizens from injustice, police brutality, and high crime rates.  Since the 1970’s following the Watergate scandal, the public eye has looked towards journalism entirely differently.  While sensationalist journalism still remains omnipresent in our materialistic and fleeting society, a lot more respect has been given to investigative journalists and their role as protectors of public justice and civil rights and liberties.  As Time Magazine reports, crime rate has indeed been falling since in the last 40 years:  “Then, a breakthrough. Crime rates started falling. Apart from a few bumps and plateaus, they continued to drop through boom times and recessions, through peace and war, under Democrats and Republicans. Last year’s murder rate may be the lowest since the mid-1960s, according to preliminary statistics released by the Department of Justice” (Time.com).  Time‘s article continues on to explain that the reasoning for such a dramatic drop in crime statistics has to do with a mix of factors.  Namely, the increasing number of cops on the street combined with the highest ever number of Americans in state and federal prisons are believed to be among the main causes for such an unexpected drop.  However, despite the falling crime rates since the 1970’s and 80’s, obsession with stories surrounding police work and law enforcement continues to pervade our society, which I believe has a lot to do with the often unavoidable mass media entertainment revolving around police stories, court hearings, criminal sentencing, etc.  Shows like Cops, Law and Order, Criminal Justice, and even The Wire allow the viewer to engage in these often fictional investigations, trials, and punishments.  By making such highly debatable and contentious issues the subject of television programming readily available for masses of Americans to consume, it is almost inevitable that the inquisitive and suspicious minds of our society will be drawn to such drama.

An example of the falling crime rates since the 1970s, according to the Gallup census survey.

Another example of a popular crime-based television program, enabling viewers to personally engage in the outcome of investigations.

A prime example of the manner in which television programs revolving around crime actually seek to actively involve their audiences in the pursuits on the screen. A COPS I-phone app? The obsession continues...

Aside from simply being pulled in to the crime-related drama that unfolds on television and big screens around the country, viewers and average citizens often feel that they have a sense of agency in the matters.  Just like a baseball game or boxing match, I feel that the audiences and readership of crime television programs and daily newspapers have a tendency to form their opinion regarding which side they support in a story, and stick to it heavily.  As Christopher P. Wilson explains in Cop Knowledge, the rise of television dramas depicting the world of crime and police work has believed to have created a sort of “community watch” over viewers’ local environments: “The public image of the police, meanwhile, seemed on the rise: in television melodramas like NYPD Blue, Homicide, or Law and Order; in live-action shows known as “cop TV”; and finally in the heralding of what has become known as the philosophy of “community policing,” claimed to be responsible for reducing urban crime rates in the late 1990s” (Wilson, 3).  Whether this community policing has actually factored into the decline of crime rates throughout the last few decades is hard to exactly isolate, but experts such as Christopher Wilson believe strongly in the idea that the news media has become an enormously powerful watchdog over police activity in general: “In one influential study of recent crime reporting, the news media are described as ‘as much an agency of policing as the law-enforcement agencies whose activities and classifications are reported upon.’ ‘Crime reporter,’ it is sometimes said, is a misnomer; it should be ‘police reporter'” (Wilson, 5). Thus, through an amalgamation of pervasive television crime dramas and heavily read and highly popular print media stories on violence and death, the American public has indeed become obsessed with the practice of police work, and the nature in which it significantly effects the streets that surround their homes and places of work.  However, even though crime rates have been falling in the last 40 years, we often only see reports of murders and scandals, which I believe has a lot to do with the rising interest in such mediated angles of drama and violence.  For instance, we don’t see a lot of reports on the cases that are solved in Oakland, or the way in which certain officers may handle situations bravely or in a noble manner.  Instead, we are saturated with tragic stories like the Oscar Grant shooting, or violence outbreaks at protests, etc.  The press understands that controversial issues sell papers and online ads, thus rendering these kinds of stories much more significant in terms of their inevitable capitalistic motives.  If a reporter had the option to write on a story about a police officer saving an old lady from a car wreck as opposed to a similar story in which an elderly person was shot by an Oakland gang member, they would almost undoubtedly choose the latter.  At the end of the day, drama sells, and in our 21st century culture and society in which violence, crime, and drama defines a majority of our visual media, it is only logical that the press and television networks would focus on those kinds of stories,  which can understandably cause a surge in public interest and obsession over similar issues.

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