Aaron Rahsaan Thomas grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was aware of the complicated relationship between his community and the cops. One day, a police officer would be teaching neighborhood kids how to ride a bike; the next week, a 12-year-old kid would be shot and killed by an officer.
So when it comes to being an executive producer of “S.W.A.T.” ― a police show following Daniel “Hondo” Harrelson (Shemar Moore), a Los Angeles S.W.A.T. lieutenant assigned to lead a highly skilled unit in the community where he grew up ― Thomas approaches storytelling differently than his white colleagues.
And that’s what makes his seat in the writers’ room all the more vital.
Within the first few minutes of the pilot episode, a Black teenager is accidentally shot and injured during a police shoot-out. For Thomas, an incident like that is something he thinks about every day. Now, the world ― and Thomas’ co-workers ― have joined him.
“The hope has always been to try to have an entertaining hour of television that can also pose questions ― not provide answers, but pose questions ― that will help some people whose only exposure to Black people might be on our show during that week,” Thomas told HuffPost during a phone call.
“From the beginning, before the latest wave of public police brutality was exposed, it was something that I always knew was already in the ether, something that I wanted to address,” he said, “and it only becomes more timely, unfortunately, with what’s been going on.”
Following the death of George Floyd on May 25 and the ensuing protests against police violence, many have been questioning the cop procedural’s place in the cultural landscape. As Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk writes, “The overwhelming mountain of cop shows amounts to a decades-long cultural education in who deserves attention, and whose perspective counts most. In stories of American crime, TV teaches us that cops are the characters we should care about.”
Even “Law & Order: SVU” showrunner Warren Leight told The Hollywood Reporter that, “collectively,” police officers are portrayed too positively on screen. “Individually am I miscontributing to society?” he added. “I don’t know.”
Last week, actors who’ve portrayed police officers on screen donated parts of their salaries to the National Bail Fund network. The cast of NBC’s fluffy cop comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” followed that charge, donating $100,000 “to support the many people who are protesting police brutality nationally.”
But despite those gestures, HuffPost received few responses from individuals and networks associated with this genre of programming ― leaving many questions unanswered about the role cop shows play in sustaining an indefensible cycle of violence.
The “S.W.A.T.” crew, for one, did release a statement about how they could do better moving forward. It read:
When S.W.A.T. began three years ago on CBS, as writers we examined the intersection of black communities and law enforcement through the eyes of Daniel ‘Hondo’ Harrelson, an African-American cop who has one foot firmly planted in each world. Since then we have continued to tell stories that have explored themes of race and policing in minority communities. We also asked questions about what is required to build trust and bridge these two worlds. We are watching recent events in horror and sadness along with everyone else and will continue to mine the truth about these issues in the writing of our upcoming season as we all work towards a fairer, better system. In the meantime, we encourage protestors to express their frustrations peacefully and implore law enforcement to deescalate conflicts, not exacerbate them, as people work through their understandable anger and grief.
Thomas, who’s written for shows like “Friday Night Lights” and “Southland,” agreed to talk through his own anger and grief with HuffPost and insisted that for cop procedurals to tell more truthful stories, the industry needs “not just white people who have spent time in those communities, but people who actually come from those communities” to be involved in the production process.
We’re in the middle of a pandemic, but we’re also dealing with some painful realities in our country right now. It’s a difficult time to process. How are you holding up?
Yeah, I mean, if I’m being honest, it’s a new adventure every day, and it feels like there are new fires to start, literally and proverbially. Even this morning, just reading and catching up on some of my news, reading social media way more than I normally do, there seem to be new developments in every city, in every corner, and a lot of them raise more questions. So I’m constantly looking inward to ask myself, ‘Am I doing enough?’ ‘What more can I continue to do?’ Just looking for ways to hopefully improve the conversation. That’s pretty much the status quo.
This is an unprecedented time with so much going on simultaneously. And with writing and television, I have a platform to at least try to add to the conversation, and I take that responsibility very seriously. I want to make sure I’m informed, but also want to make sure that I’m adding something new and also writing something that’s hopefully helpful. There isn’t such a thing as a leisurely read right now.
The “S.W.A.T. team” was one of the only cop shows to release a statement about George Floyd’s death and the protests against police violence toward the Black community happening around our country. Walk me through your and co-creator Shawn Ryan’s decision to speak out.
Shawn had the impetus for wanting to say something, and our entire staff had a desire to not sit on the sidelines. We’re a show that tells a story about an African American SWAT officer in Los Angeles; there’s no way that we can sit silent when Black men are being killed by police, when you have a public that is hungry to do something to change the system; you know, we just felt the responsibility that silence is not an option. Silence makes his own statement, and it can be a very dangerous statement. Certainly, considering our staff, which is a pretty diverse staff, although we can always do better. I want to stress that right, we’re not satisfied with that, we can always do better.
But we have these discussions all the time; we have discussions in our room when we talk about what the point of the show is. Yes, entertainment is definitely key and you have to have an entertaining show that people want to watch, but also, at the same time, we do actually hope we’re putting out a product that will help to improve the situation, meaning the relationship between police and community. So when we see this happen, tragedies like this, and you see that there could be a breakdown in communication, there’s no way that we can just be silent and allow that breakdown to continue to go without any type of response.
And so, independent of anybody, we thought as a group that we needed to say something. This is something that the entire writing room was a part of, and we want to make sure that we’re making a statement that’s about trying to genuinely and sincerely improve things. This was not done, in our case, to try to protect a product. It is not done to try to preserve properties. This was not done to cover our asses. It’s something that we wanted to initiate because we feel very strongly that these are the types of things that we want to do our part in preventing as much as possible.
The problems right now that have been exposed are not unprecedented, they were just undocumented. This didn’t begin and end with George Floyd. This is something that’s been present for decades, centuries, in this country, and it’s something that I’ve always had on my heart, every day.
Aaron Rahsaan Thomas
Have you been grappling with moving forward with “S.W.A.T.” and considering storylines you could explore? I’m sure there’s a little bit of fear, too, because you could be touching an audience who might not be as informed as you are.
It’s no secret that we air on CBS, and certainly, there are responsibilities with our audience and with our format that are different, you know, and things that we’re very aware of. I look at it, though, not so much as something to be fearful of but as an opportunity. Our show is an aspirational show and it’s not always easy to be aspirational. What we’re constantly looking out for is to try and avoid offering the easy answers and to instead look at this as an opportunity to try to expand the conversation, and maybe bring points of view to our audience that they maybe never considered.
For me, and I talk to our writers all the time about this, it’s not something that is a fad or a passing hot topic. It’s something that’s on my mind all the time. The problems right now that have been exposed are not unprecedented, they were just undocumented. This didn’t begin and end with George Floyd. This is something that’s been present for decades, centuries, in this country, and it’s something that I’ve always had on my heart, every day. It’s just that now, more people are joining in on the conversation and there’s an opportunity to continue that in an intelligent way.
The risk with social media, a lot of times, is that there can be a tendency to make snap judgments based on images or headlines and to run with that. It’s easy fodder a lot of times. I find meaningful conversations tend to take more nuance, more time and more research to really look into to avoid even the format of our show, which is painting everything as good guys vs. bad guys. The reality is that a lot of people are capable of both, and the question is, ‘How can we maximize the good?’ How can everyone be at least as aware of what the issues are and where they come from and why they arise as opposed to looking for quick and emotionally gratifying solutions?
You’ve previously said that you wanted your iteration of “S.W.A.T.” to take Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter and showcase a discussion around that. As one of the only cop shows featuring a Black officer [actor Shemar Moore] as the lead, what did you hope to accomplish?
My idea for “S.W.A.T.” started off with a character. I grew up in a neighborhood that had a very complicated relationship with police officers ― literally love-hate relationship. You know, I always tell the story of the neighborhood I grew up in is a neighborhood where my next-door neighbor ― a 12-year-old Black kid ― was shot in the head by a police officer, under very suspicious circumstances, and killed. On the other hand, there was a police officer who also lived in our neighborhood who taught people how to ride bikes.
And so, for the African American police officer, I always felt as though it’s a tough dilemma when you have allegiance to who you are, who you grew up with, your family, where you come from, and also allegiance to at least trying to bridge the gap between improving the system for the people you love and the people you love.
In a way, you’re going to receive criticism both ways. For me, that was always a more compelling dilemma than any case or any serial killer or any bad guy ― that the fight is the real-world reality of how you deal with that. And so, with that character, I realized that the most effective way to get it onto the air would probably be to pair it up with the preestablished title.
“S.W.A.T.” seemed to kind of be the perfect prism to tell the story through, mainly because the first SWAT team was created in Los Angeles and the LAPD has probably the most notorious history with the Black and brown community. I felt like if you’re gonna put a cop on SWAT at the heart of the police-community debate, Los Angeles was a great place to tell that story. Then, recognizing the format and the audience we have, the designers had to bring something that’s going to have entertaining aspects to it, action and suspense, but also try to delve into certain hot-button topics that most shows have stayed away from.
The hope has always been to try to have an entertaining hour of television that can also pose questions ― not provide answers, but pose questions ― that will help some people whose only exposure to Black people might be on our show during that week. From the beginning, before the latest wave of public police brutality was exposed, it was something that I always knew was already in the ether, something that I wanted to address and it only becomes more timely, unfortunately, with what’s been going on, especially, in the last couple years and in the last few weeks.
Procedurals are kind of perceived as a space to talk about justice, to talk about how law is interpreted and enforced. And the sociological aspects, the impacts on communities, are often left behind or rarely explored.
In the first few minutes of the pilot episode of “S.W.A.T.,” we see a white cop accidentally shoot and injure a Black teen. It leads to a debate over the cop’s position and, accident or not, Shemar Moore’s character Hondo says “there’s too much bad history there for a lot of these folks.” When your team was crafting that episode, it must have spoken very differently to you than it did to some of your colleagues in the writers’ room.
From the beginning, what I explained to my collaborators, Shawn Ryan ― who created “The Shield,” one of the best cop shows of all time ― and our director for the pilot, Justin Lin, is this is a personal story for me. I don’t see it as simply entertainment. When talking about the issues we’re tackling, I make no bones about it ― there’s no TV show that’s going to even start to begin to change systemic racism, but if our viewers are able to take away a perspective, be exposed to a question that they hadn’t pondered before, you’re hoping you can nudge the conversation even just a centimeter.
I realize how much of an impact media has worldwide. I travel a lot and I see that American pop culture, I think, is the most effective export that we have. So I realized that a lot of the stuff that we make here may be seen by people across the world. And it takes a lot to shift government narrative and policy, and those are larger conversations, but within that conversation, I do think we play a role regarding the images that we put out.
On any given day, anyone watching our pilot and seeing, for instance, Hondo referencing that people in his community have a history with LAPD ― a history that hasn’t been the most positive ― the hope is that someone who maybe never thought about that or chose to ignore it will look to try to expose themselves to what exactly has that history been. And then, within that exploration, within that research, look to see for themselves the truth of what’s actually gone down in these communities.
There is never one incident that leads up to unrest; it’s always a history and then a history before that. And all of that is built one on top of another. Even the police-community conflict is something that, looking back historically, you can trace back to the origins of the police in this country. Who were the first police officers? Who were they created to suppress? And why was suppression the approach? These are all interesting questions and things that, in order to have a more nuanced conversation, are required to be asked.
“S.W.A.T.” does, like most series in the genre, favor the cops or, at least, paints them in a good light. As “Law & Order: SVU” showrunner Warren Leight said, “collectively,” cops are too positively represented on screen. Do you agree?
Historically correct. Traditionally, in the world of police procedurals, many shows tend to paint good guys vs. bad guys, and the good guys tend to be a square-jawed army of straight white men. That has been the history of it, and the history has also reflected its share of people of color either being criminalized or being portrayed as one-dimensional characters ― even, at best, with their sidekicks or friends or colleagues or bosses.
Certainly, I think there’s been more of an awareness lately of that, and the hope is that we can expand on the types of police procedurals that we see. There’s the anti-hero version of it on cable, but even in that realm, for the most part, you’re talking about the same type of character as far as background is concerned, and you don’t often hear from people of color, whether they are victims, colleagues or bosses. You want to hear more of their point of view, the concentrated point of view. And I think there’s room for that.
It’s tricky when you get into positive vs. negative portrayals because there’s also kind of a mindset that can go the opposite way where we also don’t want to portray police officers in a completely negative light. I don’t think that that’s accurate either, just like with anything else. There’s just more of a gray area to explore: What are the pros and cons of being a police officer? What are the pros and cons of interactions with Black and minority communities, with people of color? Now with peak TV and the desire to increase content, I think there’s room to tell different types of stories, even in the realm of police procedural.
In your eyes, do you think there are enough diverse storytellers in the business right now who can truly portray the Black experience and police brutality?
Uh, no. Hell no. Hollywood has never been the most diverse place, especially when it comes to the creators and the producers. In particular, the world of the police procedural has been a pretty aggressively conservative white male space. I think there’s a lot of room to expand how those stories are told, whose perspective they’re told from and the way we approach those stories.
Procedurals are kind of perceived as a space to talk about justice, to talk about how law is interpreted and enforced. And the sociological aspects, the impacts on communities, are often left behind or rarely explored. In order to tap into that type of storytelling, then you need points of views that understand those communities. And not just white people who have spent time in those communities, but people who actually come from those communities.
That’s something that’s sorely lacking. I would say, in a laughable way, but I don’t think it’s a funny matter. Certainly, I think Hollywood storytelling, in general — and in particular, storytelling about police and procedurals — would benefit from that. There are great stories to be had if we’re willing to look at expanding the breadth of who the storytellers are.
You mentioned a bit of your experience growing up, and as a writer on shows like “Friday Night Lights,” as well as “Numb3rs,” “CSI: NY,” “Southland” and “S.W.A.T.” Is that what made you want to delve into the cop genre ― to be that voice that was lacking?
That’s a good question. [Pause] As a Black writer, I never really think of myself writing in comparison to white writers. I don’t think of myself as a voice to have to bring truth to a white establishment or the mainstream, I just look at myself, as I want to tell the best stories I possibly can and to try to always tell stories that hadn’t been told before. And I looked at it as an advantage in a way ― what I could bring to the world of, say, “Friday Night Lights” or FBI investigations with “Numb3rs” or forensic investigations with “CSI: NY,” will always be different from anything that came before me, purely because of my own background, my own individual views of the world in creating shows.
Again, I look at a space where there have not been many people that fit my description, and part of that is definitely frustrating, but part of that is an opportunity to try to hopefully make enough of an impact so that it’s no longer the case. Even within my own description of African-American male drama writer, there are a billion different possibilities to tell stories.
The hope is to just expand the way stories are told, expand the types of characters that we would see, expand the different ways to get into different genres. It always stems from trying to tell the most original, fresh stories, and wherever there’s an opportunity to do that, you bring your own life experience to it. But you’re always hoping that you’re doing it in a way that hasn’t been done before, and you continue to try to do it as long as possible and as long as opportunities are there.
This has been an interesting time, considering productions are shut down in light of the coronavirus outbreak. Are you finding yourself kind of sitting with stories that maybe you had couched a while ago, or, since you’re reading and ingesting more on social media, new ideas are sparking up? Is this a time where creativity is flowing or at a halt because of everything that’s going on?
I feel like there’s opportunities to tell certain stories that maybe a few years ago might have somehow seen out of time. You know, I was talking about an idea that I had regarding the ’92 uprisings with Rodney King that a few years ago might have been seen as, again, outdated — but now, as everyone sees, is actually more relevant than ever.
I think, in many ways, creativity just shifts, it never leaves. But there are times where you want to be a black box recorder and you want to really soak in the moment. Creators, when you get into your brainstorming sessions, you can kind of start to pigeonhole the projects that you’re working on. This is a time where I think you want to open up your mind and be cognizant of what’s going on around you. This is history working in real time.
So I’m trying to do both ― I’m trying to keep my eye on projects that I’ve always wanted to do, generate ideas, but also I’m definitely being affected and I’m confused by everything that’s going on and I want to be mindful, as it’s happening, of how we’re responding. In a way, I think a lot of ideas are being born right now ― as we live, all of this.
You mentioned hope a lot. And I think everyone hopes this is not another “hot topic,” this is not something that just disappears with the latest wave of news. How do you think these conversations on race and police brutality can continue and how can real change happen?
I think shining a light on how much progress we still have to make is a good conversation-starter. Moving from here, there are definitely bureaucratic and judicial changes and reforms that would be necessary in order to help the real-world situation.
On the Hollywood side of things, having more awareness of who’s telling our stories, why and how. The hope is that that leads to not just diversity of thought, which is a very popular phrase right now, but diversity of life experience, diversity of ethnicity, a diversity of real-world experience, and more of an empathy for people that are not like you that may not always come from your same background.
In order to have a real meaningful conversation, you’re going to have to surround yourself with people who don’t all come at things from a monolithic or whitewashed point of view. Hollywood has been very slow with that, but the hope is that times like this can at least nudge the industry forward in a meaningful way. Even if that means incremental, then so be it, but it needs to move forward.
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