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Policing the Media is an investigation into one of the paradoxes of the mass media age. Issues, events, and people that we see most on our television screens are often those that we understand the least. David Perlmutter examined this issue as it relates to one of the most frequently portrayed groups of people on television: police officers. Policing the Media is a report on the ethnography of a police department, derived from the author’s experience riding on patrol with officers and joining the department as a reserve policeman. Drawing upon interviews, Perlmutter describes the lives and philosophies of street patrol officers. He finds that cops hold ambiguous attitudes toward their television characters, for much of TV copland is fantastic and unrealistic. Moreover, the officers perceive that the public’s attitudes toward law enforcement and crime are directly influenced by mass media. This in turn, he suggests, influences the way that they themselves behave and perform on the street, and that unreal and surreal expectations of them are propagated by television cop shows. This cycle of perceptual influence may itself profoundly impact the contemporary criminal justice system, on the street, in the courts, and in the hearts and minds of ordinary people.

Viewing and Picturing Cops
Viewing and picturing cops

Because they are always on display, cops have a keen sense of image consciousness; keeping up the cop persona requires considerable mental, physical, and emotional energy. The need to be seen doing something—what on the contrasting medium of TV would be classified as “action”—forces them on occasion to behave outside the boundaries of experience-drawn logic and reason. One example taken from my ethnography: an early morning medical call. The officers arrive at an apartment before the paramedics. It is a crib death. A baby no more than a month old is, as the lead officer described, “cold, stiff, and blue.” It has obviously been dead for most of the night. The parents are hysterical, as might be expected. ...

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