LIKE a thin blue line stretching back across all our lives, American TV cop shows have shaped the way we view law and order. If you were a teenager in the 1980s, Hill Street Blues was the show of your times, only to be displaced 10 years later by NYPD Blue and the cops of New York’s 15th Precinct.

The genre was broken apart by David Simon’s The Wire often described as the greatest cop show ever made. Actor Michael K Williams, who played one of The Wire’s most iconic characters Omar Little, claims its success was grounded in a dark authenticity.

“It dived so honestly into what was wrong in our society, from the police department to our lawmakers to our school system and the media. It represented what was happening in our community.”

When the streaming services of Amazon and Netflix came of age, one of the first standout hits was Breaking Bad in which the Drugs Enforcement Agency and the Albuquerque Police Department tried to track down an elusive drug cooker, code-named Heisenberg, who was in fact a high school chemistry teacher dying with lung cancer.

Ironically, it was the Albuquerque Police Department, always portrayed as being 10 steps behind Heisenberg and his pure blue crystal methamphetamine, that has taken the first radical step in the days of Black Lives Matter.

READ MORE: ‘Defund the police’ push causes division, gives Trump campaign hope

According to press reports: “Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller (D) announced on Monday the formation of a new public safety department designed to relieve stress on the city’s police. Instead of the police or fire departments responding to 911 calls related to inebriation, homelessness, addiction and mental health, the new division will deploy unarmed personnel made up of social workers, housing and homelessness specialists, and violence prevention co-ordinators.” It is a visionary idea whose time has come.

The movement to “defund the police” is a far from simple concept and importantly has the support of many serving police officers, and at the core of the argument is one we know well in Scotland.

Gradually, and over many years, the police have been expected to be a frontline force within society, delivering on functions that are neither to do with criminality or even with keeping communities safe.

Speak to any police officer for more than 10 minutes and they will complain about two related issues: the bureaucracy of reporting and the volume of community work that they become involved in.

Leana S Wen, a former health commissioner in Baltimore, working the same grim streets portrayed in The Wire recently reflected on how funding worked in her city: “I used to bemoan the fact that the entire amount the city allocated to public health was less than what it spent on overtime for police officers, yet my budget was cut year after year. If the “defund the police” movement can change that dynamic, I’d be all for it — but I would change the terminology. I’d frame it as re-imagining public safety through public health partnerships.”

I share Wen’s concerns about terminology, the “defund the police” movement which grew organically out of the Black Lives Matter protests, is driven by an anger about police officers and the racist pathology behind the killings of young African Americans. But it creates a false binary that law and order and social cohesion are by their nature opposites, when they are in fact mutually dependent ideas.

Nor is the “defund” movement a simple set of ideas either. It already runs along a spectrum, from those in Minneapolis where George Floyd was shot, who want to disband and rebuild a police department, to Albuquerque, where a new initiative aims to disentangle armed law enforcement from substance abuse, mental health and homelessness issues. In New York City and Los Angeles there are already loud noises advocating a generational reallocation of spending and the reform of police practices.

What these quite different approaches share is reducing police budgets and reallocating those funds to neglected areas like mental health and youth outreach projects.

ONE of the key conflicts, visible here in Scotland is the extent to which the police become involved in mental health. Notwithstanding the work of the community police officers, there are those, many at the most senior levels, who believe that police should not have a frontline response role in mental health calls. Others argue that the diminution of investment in social work raises problems in areas such as domestic disputes, low-level drug abuse and alcoholism.

According to some estimates, American law enforcement spends 21% of its time responding to people with mental illnesses and police are frequently dispatched to deal with people experiencing homelessness. Comparable figures for Scotland are harder to find but anecdotal evidence suggests it is a substantial problem here too.

Scotland’s Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf recently said: “When it comes to mental health, it’s better for the individual concerned to have someone who can deal with their health issues, as opposed to a police officer. It’s better if we can intervene as early as we can from a health perspective to deal with mental health issues so a person doesn’t come into the criminal justice system.” We must tackle this, Yousaf concluded “because it’s not acceptable that it’s taking up so much police time and effort”.

In America there is a dynamic that we are thankfully not as readily exposed to here and that is gun law. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico claims that “defunding the police means reprioritising and reallocating resources to unarmed professionals”.

This very idea has ignited deep passions within the American gun lobby and Second Amendment fundamentalists who cannot accept any compromise on the right to bear arms.

It would be naïve to believe that the issues raised by the “defund the police” movement are free from ideology – law and order is one of the core values of traditional conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic. Appearing on FOX News, the homeland of the Republican Party right, Senator Rick Scott of Florida claimed that “the left has gone off the deep end”.

Scott explained his position on police reform and his plan to fund the police. “I won’t let the radical left use the crimes of a few bad actors to demonise good, hard-working police officers in Florida. Don’t defund the police. Fund the police.” He speaks like a character from Florida’s top cop show, Miami Vice.

This is a deeply complex debate likely to be harmed by rhetoric which is why the emotive slogan “defund the police” has already triggered a backlash, and not only from the Republican Party right. Many commentators argue that it implies stripping the police of resources and power when in fact its means taking an incredibly challenging look at our society and how to prepare it for the future.

I have set my stopwatch for the session of the Scottish Parliament when this complex debate comes to our democracy. Much as many MSPs across the political parties will relish engaging with the question of how we make Scotland lawful and compassionate, there will be those like Jackson Carlaw who will dress up like Dickson of Dock Green and simplify to the point of ridicule a deeply complex problem.

Meanwhile back at the coalface of storytelling, lockdown scripts are flooding into Netflix, many hoping to shape a cop show for the Black Lives Matter era. We do not know what the standout show will be called or even in which city it will be set, but I will be first in the queue to binge-watch, to see how far the “defund the police” movement has reached into the consciousness of the popular cop show.

I used to rejoice every week when Sergeant Esterhaus would gather the cops together on Hill Street Blues to brief them about crime in the area. His words of paternal advice became a catchphrase for the series and still resonate powerfully today: “Let’s be careful out there.”