Andy Taylor to “Dirty Harry”
Pop culture has used U.S. society as a mirror in its portrayals of the police
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.