The presence of African-American police officers has been shown to increase the perceived legitimacy of police departments; however, their depiction in film may play a role in delegitimizing African-American officers in real life, both in the eyes of the general public and the African-American community.
In their recently released study, Sam Houston State University associate professor of criminal justice Howard Henderson and Indiana State University assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice Franklin T. Wilson found that African-American city police officers rarely have been depicted as leading characters in theatrically released films over the first 40 years of the cop film genre, and when they are, African-Americans are overwhelmingly portrayed as comedic entertainment, while white officers are not.
“The Criminological Cultivation of African-American Municipal Police Officers: Sambo or Sellout” was published in Race and Justice, the official journal of The American Society of Criminology Division on People of Color and Crime.
“Given the racially charged nature of this past year with instances like the Paula Deen case, the Trayvon Martin verdict, the recent ‘Loud Music Case’ of Michael Dunn, among others along with the profit-driven nature of entertainment media, I fear the pattern we have discovered may not be a matter of negligence on the part of Hollywood,” said Wilson, who led the research. “Instead, it may be a reflection that many United States citizens are not ready to accept an African-American in a serious authoritative role.”
The study of 112 films revealed that white officer depictions dominated the genre, appearing in the lead or joint-leading roles in 89 percent of the films; African-American officers were depicted in 19 percent of the films, while other minorities only appeared in 3 percent of the films.
While the study examined films released