It’s no secret that one of my favorite TV genres is ‘70s cop shows. I don’t know why. You can say it’s because my father was a police officer for twenty-five years, but I think that has little to do with it considering very little of what I’ve seen on the screen reflected what he dealt with policing my small town in the middle of a cornfield.
But that could be why even though I love these shows, I never really thought about them accurately reflecting reality. Maybe because my dad would point out the inaccuracies in these shows. Maybe because as soon as I got my license, my dad drilled it into me that if I got pulled over not to allow the cop to search my car without a warrant. Maybe because my dad has always told me never talk to cops without a lawyer.
I’m sure that’s why I get all swoony when I see someone exercise their rights on these shows. That is like reality in that it doesn’t happen often. Most people don’t know them, let alone use them.
The point of these shows is entertainment, of course. Even Adam-12, which had episodes shown in police academies to illustrate certain situations because it was so accurate to uniformed officer life, had more hostage situations and shoot outs than even a cop in the busiest metropolitan area would encounter.
Action, drama, a witty one-liner or seven, and the good guys (usually) win. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for it.
And it’s all, of course, fiction.
I think of it as the depiction of ideal policing and justice. It’s what we want it to be, what it’s supposed to be, what the people in power try to convince us that it is (when it’s absolutely not). The police are there to protect and serve, the justice system is fair, the good guys get the bad guys, and the bad guys get punished. It’s all make believe and I prefer to see it on the small screen. Sort of like my affinity for slasher movies. I prefer my violence to happen fictionally.
I blame Jack Webb for some of that. He was a devout believer in law enforcement and the justice system. The Los Angeles police department was wildly corrupt back in the long, long ago (save your jokes) and underwent a huge reform (I said save your jokes), which made an impression on Webb. While Dragnet and Adam-12 depicted a lot of the work detectives and uniformed officers do accurately, it was still idealized. A sanitized depiction of the job, the life, and justice. This is the way things work when everything works as it’s supposed to.
The police involved shootings on most of these cop shows is where this idealization is most evident. Adam-12 probably had the best technical depiction, though Hawaii Five-O had a thorough one as well with “And They Painted Daisies on His Coffin”. Even Joe Friday himself had to have his shooting of a burglary suspect investigated. And while they all present the idea that lethal force is harshly scrutinized and thoroughly investigated, these episodes are also constructed to insure the audience’s maximum sympathy to our protagonist cops. Of course, every shooting is always justified.
It’s been said that cops (including my father) felt that Barney Miller is probably the most accurate and realistic when it comes to the depiction of law enforcement. Maybe because it was a comedy it had no trouble depicting some of the mundane realities of police work: the paperwork, the bureaucracy, the budgets, the lack of manpower, the limitations and inadequacy of the law and the justice system. The 12th precinct wasn’t dealing with non-stop homicides like most cop shows. They were dealing with what cops actually deal with the most: petty shit. The show might be a little too honest to be pure copaganda, but it still does its part, if only in a ‘not all cops” kind of way.
The ideal depiction of police and justice continues today.
According to this article, police procedurals today distort the view of how policing and the justice system actually work. These shows don’t accurately reflect the imbalances in the justice system, the abuse of power by the police, the inherent racism, white supremacy, and wealth-bias that’s integral to the system.
And if you watch enough reruns of cop shows, particularly from the ‘70s, you can see how that groundwork was laid. It’s easy to forgive and/or overlook our protagonists playing fast and loose with the law and people’s rights because they’re the good guys.
After all, they’ll tell you that themselves.