Andy Tay­lor to “Dirty Harry”

Pop cul­ture has used U.S. so­ci­ety as a mir­ror in its por­tray­als of the po­lice

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Alyssa Rosen­berg

It may have taken protests and graphic videos of peo­ple be­ing killed by cops for some to get the mes­sage that polic­ing in Amer­ica is in cri­sis.

But pop cul­ture has been steadily warn­ing au­di­ences about this for years. You can watch block­busters about the im­pact of the drug war, TV shows about the rot of in­sti­tu­tional dys­func­tion and doc­u­men­taries about the im­proper use of force by cops. No won­der public con­fi­dence in the po­lice hit a 22year low last year, with only 52 per­cent of Amer­i­cans telling Gallup poll­sters that they have deep trust in po­lice. Those di­vi­sions are even more stark when bro­ken down by race: Be­tween 2014 and 2016, just 29 per­cent of African-Amer­i­cans ex­pressed con­fi­dence in the po­lice, com­pared with 58 per­cent of whites. Po­lice in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, as in the news, are not nec­es­sar­ily the good guys.

But it wasn’t al­ways this way for the po­lice or for pop cul­ture. In the 1960s, more than 70 per­cent of Amer­i­cans said they had a “great deal” of re­spect for their lo­cal po­lice, and less than 10 per­cent said they be­lieved po­lice bru­tal­ity was hap­pen­ing in their com­mu­ni­ties. Film and TV shows of the era re­flected this per­cep­tion, with por­tray­als of model cops who cared as much about so­cial ser­vices as crime-fight­ing. Hol­ly­wood de­picted a sim­pler time with sim­pler po­lice­men.

This con­ceit slowly van­ished from the screen after the coun­try sur­vived a ma­jor vi­o­lent crime wave be­gin­ning in the 1960s and learned more about the way po­lice work is prac­ticed. Au­di­ence ap­petites for morally am­bigu­ous an­ti­heroes grew, and Hol­ly­wood per­fectly tracked Amer­i­cans’ chang­ing ideas. Where the stu­dios have mostly failed: of­fer­ing com­pelling ideas about what cops ought to be, in­stead of grim di­ag­noses of what polic­ing has be­come.

Although they dif­fered in style and tone, many early cop shows built their he­roes on the same ba­sic model. Of­fi­cers such as “Drag­net’s” Joe Fri­day (played by se­ries cre­ator Jack Webb), “Naked City’s” Jimmy Hal­lo­ran (James Fran­cis­cus) and “The Andy Grif­fith Show’s” Andy Tay­lor re­spected the law and al­ways solved the crimes in ques­tion be­fore the end of the episode. Rather than fight­ing a war on crime that treated civil­ians like en­emy com­bat­ants, they were their com­mu­nity’s pro­tec­tors.

This vi­sion of polic­ing was a fan­tasy even then, and it couldn’t last. As vi­o­lent crime rose and clear­ance rates (the per­cent­age of in­ves­ti­ga­tions that re­sult in ar­rests) be­gan to fall in the 1960s, it be­came harder for Hol­ly­wood to tell cred­i­ble sto­ries about highly ef­fec­tive cops who al­ways emerged vic­to­ri­ous without seem­ing naive to the point of delu­sion. And as in­sid­ers such as Joseph Wam­baugh — an LAPD de­tec­tive sergeant who in 1971 pub­lished “The New Cen­tu­ri­ons,” a sear­ing novel about polic­ing in the years lead­ing up to the 1965 Watts ri­ots — be­gan to tell their sto­ries, shows such as the LAPD-ap­proved “Drag­net” and “Adam-12” came across as square and in­tel­lec­tu­ally com­pro­mised.

Artists who wanted to present cops as he­roes had to dial back their as­sess­ments of how much good in­di­vid­ual of­fi­cers could do in po­lice de­part­ments that were un­der­staffed and suf­fer­ing from a loss of sta­tus. Shows like the com­edy “Bar­ney Miller,” which pre­miered in 1974, and the drama “Hill Street Blues,” which ar­rived in 1981, pre­sented their main char­ac­ters as de­cent peo­ple strug­gling to solve what crimes they could, even if the ci­ties around them seemed in­creas­ingly un­govern­able.

More darkly, movies such as “Dirty Harry” and “The French Con­nec­tion” ar­gued that the old tra­di­tions of polic­ing, in­clud­ing a re­luc­tance to use firearms and re­spect for sus­pects’ rights, were ob­sta­cles in the war on crime. “Pop­eye” Doyle (Gene Hack­man), who fought a heroin car­tel in “The French Con­nec­tion,” and “Dirty” Harry Cal­la­han (Clint East­wood), who pur­sued a se­rial killer freed on a phony po­lice bru­tal­ity charge, weren’t pleas­ant peo­ple.

By the time Hol­ly­wood started telling sto­ries about heroic cops again in the 1980s, their drug-war en­e­mies jus­ti­fied the new level of spec­ta­cle and vi­o­lence, and po­lice didn’t grieve when they shot some­one. In movies like 1984’s “Bev­erly Hills Cop,” 1987’s “Lethal Weapon” and Michael Bay’s 1995 block­buster “Bad Boys,” fic­tional of­fi­cers Axel Fo­ley (Ed­die Mur­phy), Martin Riggs (Mel Gib­son) and Roger Mur­taugh(Danny Glover), and Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Mar­cus Bur­nett (Martin Lawrence) fought highly or­ga­nized drug car­tels that rel­ished car­nage. When these cops shot up sub­ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods, blew up trucks full of flammable chem­i­cals or con­fronted car­tel lead­ers on air­port tar­macs, they weren’t step­ping out of bounds. They were sim­ply pros­e­cut­ing a war as it needed to be fought.

The new tales mir­rored pol­icy changes in the 1980s and 1990s, as lo­cal chiefs rushed to form SWAT teams and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment shipped mil­i­tary sur­plus gear to de­part­ments around the coun­try. In both fic­tion and re­al­ity, ac­tion was ex­cit­ing and as­cen­dant.

At the turn of the cen­tury, ques­tions about the con­duct of the war on drugs and Los An­ge­les’s anti­gang ef­forts co­in­cided with a ma­jor shift in tele­vi­sion sto­ry­telling. An­ti­heroes such as Tony So­prano (James Gan­dolfini) — char­ac­ters who in­spired a trans­gres­sive thrill in the au­di­ences that rooted for them — were in, and clear-cut hero­ism was out. This gave showrun­ners a pow­er­ful new way to frame po­lice sto­ries. Rather than squeaky-clean of­fi­cers mop­ping up their ci­ties, an­ti­hero cops could be tools for showrun­ners to cri­tique bad polic­ing prac­tices. Even broad­cast pro­ce­du­rals, in­clud­ing “Law & Or­der: Spe­cial Vic­tims Unit” and “Law & Or­der: Crim­i­nal In­tent,” which pre­miered dur­ing this pe­riod, em­pha­sized the psy­cho­log­i­cal strain of po­lice work, tak­ing their de­tec­tives down dark, morally am­bigu­ous paths.

In 2002, Shawn Ryan’s “The Shield” pre­miered on FX, in­tro­duc­ing au­di­ences to Vic Mackey (Michael Chik­lis), the leader of a spe­cial Los An­ge­les po­lice squad mod­eled on a real anti-gang unit from the LAPD’s Ram­part divi­sion, which be­came em­broiled in a wide-rang­ing cor­rup­tion scan­dal.

While “The Shield” pre­sented Mackey as a can­cer that metas­ta­sized in the LAPD, “The Wire,” which pre­miered the same year, ar­gued that the drug war was a dis­ease that was de­form­ing po­lice de­part­ments, a vi­sion con­firmed by a grim 2016 re­port from the Jus­tice Depart­ment on the state of polic­ing in Bal­ti­more, where the HBO se­ries took place.

Now, a new gen­er­a­tion of TV shows and movies is at­tempt­ing to cre­ate some­thing ar­tis­ti­cally and po­lit­i­cally dif­fi­cult: cred­i­ble model cops who aren’t naive about po­lice fail­ures or the dif­fi­culty of chang­ing en­trenched poli­cies.

Both “Zootopia,” Dis­ney’s an­i­mated movie about a bunny who joins a po­lice depart­ment dom­i­nated by larger mam­mals, and “Brook­lyn Nine-Nine,” Fox’s com­edy about a New York de­tec­tive squad, draw their drama from sim­i­lar ten­sions. Part of good polic­ing in these sto­ries is let­ting go of old fears and old ideals. These new cops don’t have all the an­swers, and they know it. But their hon­esty in un­cer­tainty sug­gests a new pos­si­bil­ity: a model cop who points a true way for­ward.

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