'Power' Creator Courtney Kemp: "The Cop Shows Aren't the Problem, It's the People Who Write Them" (Guest Column)

Courtney A. Kemp at STARZ Madison Square Garden Power Season 6 Premiere-H 2020
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for STARZ

The creator, who runs writers rooms for 'Power' and HBO Max's upcoming corrupt-cop show 'Dirty Thirty,' expounds on where police procedurals go wrong.

Recently, as the enormity of the crisis of American police brutality has become obvious to the many — it was always evident to some of us — there are calls to cancel television series dedicated to police officers as main characters. "Why are there so many cop shows on TV?" asks think piece after think piece. Does this have a net effect on how police are perceived by the greater media and by the American voter? Are positive depictions of the hero cop causing harm making television viewers believe that members of law enforcement are omnipotent demigods, incapable of making mistakes? Is that why footage of George Floyd's murder — or, two nights ago as I write this, Rayshard Brooks' — is so shocking to the American public, who I guess were somehow unaware of the traditional dynamic between BIPOC and the police?

On TV — unlike reality — rarely is someone arrested because of his/her/their race. They are arrested because they are the guilty party — a fact backed up by evidence and interviews that the audience witnesses in real time, by good police work and, in the case of our favorite national fetish, DNA. And when our law enforcement characters get things wrong and mistakenly convict an innocent man, they do their best to find the correct guilty party. At the end of an hour, we can all rest easy. The bad guys are in jail and the good people at home can relax, knowing that in the event of chaos, someone is coming to right the wrongs.

I agree that the narrative is highly problematic. But calling for cancellation obfuscates the real issue: Why are these cop shows written this way? Why are the law enforcement dynamics that, as a Black woman, I've known so well for years, almost entirely missing from drama series?

The problem is not the existence of the shows. It's the people writing them. Sixty percent of shows on television depict the police; 4.8 percent of working television writers are Black. The percentages of Latino, Asian American and Native writers are even lower. Do you see the correlation?

Before Power, I made my way up the ranks as a procedural writer. But I have never written a "hero cop" narrative. In the years before I became a showrunner, I was always either the only person of color or one of two on a staff. I was a "twofer" (shoutout to Keith Powell on 30 Rock), both Black and a woman, and showrunners could check off both their diversity requirements for a season by hiring me.

Often, like the lower-level writers in the same position today, I was asked to explain the Black point of view, as though I represented everyone, or argue against a racist storyline by myself. I'll say some staffs, especially those led by Greg Berlanti and Robert and Michelle King, were integrated well with women and I was not alone in my race or gender. When I created Power, I made a conscious decision to write every single character as a mix of good and bad, the cops and the criminals in equal measure. I've worked with cops (including some real heroes), prosecutors and defense attorneys to anchor those depictions in reality — including brutality, police and prosecutorial misconduct. I'm currently developing a show about police corruption. You might say it's an obsession. I'm always looking at cops through a complicated, shattered lens because … I'm a Black woman.

I know too well that I could be the next Breonna Taylor. I go to sleep in my bed at night, too.

When you exclude writers of color from the room on a police drama, then you exclude that outsider perspective and eliminate nuance and discovery. And make no mistake: That exclusion is systematic and purposeful. Showrunners will say they want to hire BIPOC writers, and then they don't. Or they do, and never promote them above staff writer or story-editor level.

"I tried." "I couldn't find anybody good." "I don't know how to find writers of color now that no one has agents." "I don't know any writers of color." "I hired a few writers of color at the beginning of the season, but they didn't work out." "I've tried before, but they just don't blend with the culture of the room."

More than a few showrunners have called me personally — people who didn't even know me that well — to say, "Hey, do you know anyone of color who can really write?" When I get this call, I'm always torn. I want to yell: "Why don't you know us? Why haven't you taken the time to read our scripts, to meet with us and hire us before now? Before it was fashionable or required by your studio?" But if I yell at this person, it gives them an excuse not to make the hires. They can say, "I tried."

I have four writers rooms open now. All are staffed with intensely diverse writers — men, women, LGBTQ and straight, young and more experienced — and we did most of this staffing in the last year. How were we able to do it if it's impossible? It's because we were determined to do it. I would love to see what would change about that shameful 4.8 percent number if you didn't count rooms with a showrunner of color. What do you think would happen?

If you think this is unrelated to the cop show problem, you're mistaken. It has an impact on every single series. The lack of BIPOC representation in writers' rooms equals a lack of diversity in voice and perspective, period. If you want to make shows more nuanced, then you have to invite nuance into the room and listen when it speaks. About 25 percent of Black series regulars on broadcast television are on cop shows, right now. If we cancel all those shows, we also cancel those jobs — including S.W.A.T., one of few police procedurals on the air with a Black male showrunner, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, and a Black male as No. 1 on the call sheet. I'm not sure that canceling that show really helps the cause of BIPOC everywhere, since Aaron can hire and promote more BIPOC writers, and Shemar Moore is playing a cop from the hood who continually navigates the conflict between his race/neighborhood and his badge — and because he's the lead, it's not a side C story. It's fully explored.

Rather than canceling police shows, I'd argue that now is the time to push for series that can illuminate the problems we've seen for years in American policing. But in order to create cop series that are diverse and multi­dimensional, we have to change the ownership of the narrative — which goes beyond just the showrunners and writers. During the pickup and notes process, studios and networks stamp out any levels of nuance or shading to create simple narratives — and, no surprise, there's a distinct lack of diversity at the studio and network levels as well. The people saying yes haven't changed. The pressure on them has. I'm writing this to be part of that pressure: Hire us, and get our voices in the room and represented on the screen. I promise you'll get better and more compelling television as a result, not just in the crime genre, but all the way across the board.

This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.