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Bruce Willis in 'Live Free or Die Hard'

Police gun violence is glorified on screen. But more armed and aggressive policing doesn’t actually make us safer

American popular culture dominates international markets. Among its most enduringly successful products are police dramas and movies. Many of these feature frequent and overwhelmingly positive depictions of police gun violence – a popular example, and a favourite at this time of year, is Die Hard.

These works are, of course, fictions. But popular fictional depictions of policing can have real-world consequences for police and communities.

Our new book chapter, published in November, argues that continued exposure to frequently repeated media tropes and narratives can affect public perceptions and expectations of policing.

In many parts of the world, policing is becoming more militarised. Even in Great Britain and New Zealand, two of the small number of jurisdictions where police do not routinely carry firearms, the appetite for armed policing has increased. This shift is justified by police in the name of ensuring safety.

But there’s no clear empirical evidence that routinely armed police are less likely to be killed or injured in the line of duty, or that communities whose police routinely carry firearms are safer.

On the contrary: our research indicates that a more armed and aggressive style of policing is associated with lower levels of safety.

Weapon product placement

Most of us are familiar with product placement – the use of identifiable products and brands in media. When the products are relatively harmless, such as sunglasses or luggage, the practice is arguably relatively innocuous.

But there’s greater concern when the products are inherently more risky, such as alcohol and tobacco, where their use can be harmful in the real world.

On-screen depictions of smoking have become steadily more restricted.

But less attention has been given to the sponsored use of recognisable branded firearms, particularly in United States’ police procedural dramas and movies. We call this “weapon product placement”.

Firearms company Glock has its weapons prominently featured in many US TV dramas and movies, so much so that in 2010, a branding website gave Glock a “lifetime achievement award for product placement”.

Product placement can have a significant and long-lasting influence on behaviours, expectations, and popular understandings. Prior to the restrictions introduced during the 1990s, smoking on TV and in movies was often synonymous with glamour, sophistication and success. US police-based dramas and movies now present firearms as essential for successful policing.

On-screen police gun violence is often revered

A study of US TV programming between 2000 and 2018 found the rate of gun violence has increased in popular TV dramas – both in absolute terms, and as a proportion of the violence in these programs.

Depictions of police gun violence in US movies and TV dramas typically reflect the well-worn US National Rifle Association mantra: “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun”.

Viewers of US police-focused dramas and movies are exposed to frequent and extreme gun violence by police officers. Much of it is presented as essential, positive and heroic.

But such valorisation risks eroding the public’s understanding of the crucial doctrine of minimum-force policing. This requires police officers to use the minimum force necessary to bring a situation under control.

Read more: Police are more likely to kill men and women of color

On-screen glorification of police gun violence can create unrealistic and undesirable public expectations of how police go about their work, and how critical incidents should be resolved.

Police-focused movies and TV shows rarely include realistic depictions of the consequences of a shooting, such as wounded people screaming. There’s typically little consideration of the potential for police shooting the wrong person, or a person who has a mental illness, or a person assumed to be an offender because of racial or other stereotyping.

The human consequences of gun violence – pain, suffering, loss – are usually acknowledged only when one of the “good guys” is hurt or killed. The overall effect is to dehumanise those depicted as “bad guys” and to present their deaths as being of little consequence.

Excessive force

Too often, this dangerous perception plays out in real-world policing.

In the US, excessive force is commonplace, and roughly 1,000 people are killed each year by police officers, many of them needlessly, and some unlawfully.

Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are recent high-profile examples.

Yet research examining public perceptions of US police gun violence has found respondents typically support the use of deadly force.

Media priming

Do these media tropes contribute to a belief that firearms are central to effective policing? And do they contribute to instances of police aggression in the real world?

There’s no simple causal link between the fictional presentation of police gun violence and specific actions in the real world. Indeed, the effects of screen depictions of police gun violence are complex, nuanced and multidimensional.

However, the associations between media priming and copycat behaviours are well documented. That is, people can perceive what they view (such as how police behave in a TV drama) as being indicative of real life, and some may even act out what they see on screen.

Imitation is a key learning tool. We derive such learning from many sources, including family and friends, and also broader social and cultural influences.

Read more: The Kumanjayi Walker murder case echoes a long history of police violence against First Nations people

Our research suggests that the prominent use of firearms by police within US TV and movies, and the particular ways in which their use is depicted, can affect public perceptions and expectations of policing. For example, it might lead to a belief that it’s appropriate for police, in almost any scenario, to arrive with their firearms drawn and ready to discharge.

Despite the publicity surrounding high-profile unlawful killings, one study found respondents who watched US crime shows were more likely (than those who do not view such shows) to believe that force is only used by police officers when necessary.

Serving and potential future police officers are also viewers of TV and movies. Our contention is that the widespread and positive depictions of a firearms-focused, aggressive yet heroic style of fictional policing has the capacity to influence the way in which police officers themselves behave.

Ultimately, real-world evidence confirms that minimum-force policing is safer and often more effective than the style of policing so colourfully depicted in US police dramas and movies such as Die Hard.

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