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Tom Wright as Captain Winship in "Martial Law"

Yaphet Kotto as Lt. Al Giardello on "Homicide"

Epatha Merkeson as Anita Vanburen on "Law & Order"
James McDaniel as Arthur Fancy on "NYPD Blue"

Familiar role: Network cop show, black lieutenant

Web posted on: Friday, January 22, 1999 2:19:46 PM EST

From Correspondent Michael Okwu

NEW YORK (CNN) -- By most accounts, they're among the freshest programs TV offers -- shows like "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order," "The X-files," and "Homicide: Life on the Street."

Yet, cutting-edge cop dramas share one predictable characteristic.

"The guy in charge of the main characters is generally going to be a person of color," says Matt Roush of TV Guide.

A checklist

Just this season, "Martial Law" cast Tom Wright as Captain Winship, the man-in-charge. And "The X-Files"' Scully and Mulder will get a new boss -- black actor James Pickens, Jr.

Add them to the list of now-familiar fictional lieutenants, like the "Homicide" squad's Yaphet Kotto's character -- Al Giardello.

James McDaniel's Arthur Fancy keeps "NYPD Blue" in line, while Anita Vanburen -- Epatha Merkeson's character -- commands "Law & Order"'s cops.

"On 'Law & Order,' the one sending the detectives out is a black woman which also gives you something because a lot of women aren't usually seen in these roles as well," says Roush.

That makes the show's creators proud.

"She is really appreciated as being very emblematic," says Dick Wolf, executive producer and creator of "Law & Order," "that there are minority women in these positions of authority."

Accurate depiction?

But the National Black Police Association says that in this sense, TV is not an accurate reflection of real life.

"We have over 18,000 police departments in America and over 700,000 individuals in policing," says Ronald Hampton, executive director of the NBPA. "But still African-Americans make up less than 10 percent of that total number. And then when you look at leadership roles, they make up less than one, one and a half percent in leadership roles."

"This does seem to be a convenient way for TV producers to cast a series and to have a person of color in the credits, even though they don't really contribute to the main story most weeks," says Roush.

"NYPD Blue"'s producer has an answer to such criticisms.

"It seems to me that the the portrayal of a minority in a position of authority, but without the substance of authority in fact is an image of the black person ... in his or her relationship to society at present," says "NYPD Blue" co-creator David Milch.

Realistic or not, TV versions of top black cops serve some good.

"It helps in creating ourselves some heroes," says Hampton.

Even if we don't have much time to get to know them.

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