As the longest-running crime procedural drama in the US, Law & Order started a wave of television programs that explored both sides of the criminal justice system, both “the police who investigate the crime and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders.”1 With 4 American spinoffs and a movie, Law & Order earned its renowned fame and household recognition.2 In 2009, the UK aired the first season of Law & Order: UK, making it the first international component of producer Dick Wolf’s primetime empire. Though Law & Order: UK shares fundamental similarities to its mother television show, a few key differences remain in the actual setup of the program and the purpose it served in society.
In 1988, rap group N.W.A. released their single “Fuck tha Police”, explicitly describing the hostile relationship between the black community and police officers throughout the US.3 Police brutality had been prevalent African-American communities for decades, though it was not brought so drastically into the public sphere until that 1988 single. Tensions were rising between the African-American population and the justice system, and it caused mass hysteria. The summer after its release, N.W.A. was banned from performing the song in every city they toured in. According to O’Shea Jackson, known as Ice Cube and a member of N.W.A., stated that “police would come backstage and read us all these obscenity laws […] regarding profanity onstage,” effectively stifling their right to free speech.4 After this, the record was banned from stores, libraries, etc. Consequentially, violence and unrest in African-American youth was blamed on music such as this, creating an endless loop of blame on the African-American community. Society became uncomfortable with this image of a prejudiced police force and an angry sector of the American people.
That same year, Dick Wolf began working on a concept for a procedural drama that would optimistically portray the US justice system. In 1989, NBC picked up the show and ordered the first 13 episodes based on the concept alone.5 Media shapes the way people view the world; if a television program shows a positive police presence in society, that will become the reality. Law & Order began as a reaction to fear from the white majority; while African-Americans had just cause for years to fear police, NBC reassured the audience that they had nothing to fear and could continue trusting police as they always had. After years and years of its success and 4 spinoff shows later, Law & Order expanded its horizons to an international series focusing on the procedures of law enforcement in the UK. Though cases of police brutality in England were few and far between, in 2009, policing of the G20 London summit protests went awry when a bystander was killed after being shoved to the ground by an officer.6 Though the instances of police brutality that occurred immediately before each show was premiered were causally different, the reaction to these instances was for the same purpose: to gain trust for the police back from the public.
Media can be used to influence the way audiences perceive the world around them. A Pacific Standard article, crime dramas are “consistently ranked among the most-watched shows […] [that] follow the lives of passionate and well-intentioned police officers in their quest to solve what are often heinous crimes.”7 Though this setup does not actually follow the events of real life, it becomes reality when it is projected through a television media source. While some crime dramas deviate from this formula, most programs “paint relatively simplistic portraits of good guys and bad guys.”8 Primetime television is given the power to represent reality, and through both Law & Order and Law & Order: UK, police forces are depicted as valiant servants of society who “frequently resorted to using force against offenders (though the force was nearly always justified by the disrespectful or dangerous behavior of the fictional subjects)”, directly contradicting the way police had been portrayed briefly before the premiers of the shows.9
In this way, both Law & Order and its spinoff Law & Order UK serve the same purpose within their respective societies; this cause-and-effect reaction to police brutality shows how media is used to shift attitudes about socials problems to a certain mindset. However, Law & Order is in reaction to an enduring system of oppression whereas its UK counterpart is in response to a few instances of police brutality. Other differences can be seen mostly in the prosecution element of the UK version, as the Crown Prosecution Service is an independent public authority to which police officers refer criminal cases; this creates a relationship between the police and the prosecutors that seems dominated by those prosecutors, in which they pick and choose who justice serves. Law & Order creates a dynamic between the DA and the NYPD that seems codependent, both forces equally working themselves to the bone to advocate for justice. These different dynamics, set in drastically different social climates, selling to audiences with different media appetites, came into being with the same purpose: to ease tension between the public and their relationship to police forces and create that reality through television media.
Both television programs use positive reflections of police officers and prosecutors to construct a better reality; it is seen with the creation of the original US production of Law & Order as a reaction to the black community’s unrest with police brutality and injustices. By using the “ripped from the headlines” writing approach, Law & Order is able to dictate how social issues are handled in the media sphere to their advantage. When a television show uses its outlet to contort real-life criminal cases from vantage points of hard-working, heroic police officers, it alters the audience’s view of how the justice system really works, and this is also seen in the UK counterpart of Law & Order. Though technicalities raise differences to the surface, such as accent, cultural customs, and attire, their purpose is the same. Media such as these shows influences the public’s reality, and therefore clouds important and sometimes underrepresented voices.
1 Wolf, D. (Producer). (1990, September 13). Law & Order, intro. NBC.
2 Law & Order: About the Show. (n.d.). NBC.com
3 N.W.A. (1988) Fuck tha Police. Andre Young and Antoine Carraby. Ruthless Records.
4 Carter, K. L. (2015, August 13). How “Fuck tha Police” Started A Revolution.
5 Courrier, K., & Green, S. (1999) Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion. Macmillan.
6 Gammel, C. (2009, April 16). G20 protests: Further claims of police brutality. The New York Times.
7 Wheeling, K. (2015, October 1). How Primetime TV Influences Perceptions of Police. Pacific Standard.
8 Wheeling, K.
9 Wheeling, K.