In the world of cop shows, there are two kinds of very special episodes: a cop gets shot or a cop shoots somebody.
This post is about the latter.
Here’s how the episode usually goes: One of our cop heroes shoots somebody. There is then an investigation into the shooting in which there’s an underlying implication that this investigation isn’t fair because our good guys always have good shoots. There’s some drama. Then our shooter is once again declared a cop hero.
Obviously, there are variations and not every episode follows this format, but that’s basically it for many of the episodes I’ve seen.
The police involved shooting episodes of Dragnet and Adam-12 are probably the most technical I’ve ever seen due to Jack Webb’s dedication to the manual. While we do have that little bit of angst that comes from our hero being questioned, there’s still an objectivity about it. This is how the process is supposed to work. Jack Webb very much so believed that police officers were meant to be held to a higher standard which is why these episodes stand out. This treatment of our good guys isn’t exceptional -it’s routine.
Despite Jack Webb’s good intentions, this sort of intense scrutiny is an idealization of what we’d like to believe happens during these investigations, but we know doesn’t.
I pointed this out when I was covering the Hawaii Five-O first season episode “And They Painted Daisies on His Coffin” on Book ‘em, Danno that the investigation into Danny shooting the supposedly unarmed young man and him subsequently getting arrested for murder was idealized. It’s only in the most extreme circumstances that a police officer is arrested for this kind of shooting today. You can’t tell me that it happened more often when there wasn’t the prevalence of video.
A first season episode of Starsky and Hutch called “Pariah” dealt a little with the public fallout of a police involved shooting. Starsky ends up shooting an armed robber who turns out to be only sixteen. The kid’s mom is devastated and Starsky feels incredibly guilty over the death. The public isn’t exactly thrilled with the circumstances, particularly one guy with an agenda who says if Starsky is cleared, he’ll start killing cops. Starsky is cleared of any wrongdoing because of course and the killing spree begins and will continue until Starsky resigns. So this is an example of taking our very special episode and upping the ante by adding in public scorn and then throwing in a vendetta for good measure.
The police involved shooting episodes are always very special episodes because they’re the only episodes in which the violence our heroes inflict on the criminals is ever questioned. In any other episode, they’re offing the bad guys without even the slightest mention of the paperwork. Every other shooting is completely justified, no question.
One exception to this rule (at least that I know of because I haven’t seen every cop show–yet) is Barney Miller. Possibly because it’s a comedy that primarily deals with the mundane and oddball aspects of police work, the show had a unique take on the police involved shooting.
For one, perps weren’t getting shot every week. The members of the 12th precinct got shot at more than they shot and even those instances ended up funny and mild. So, they didn’t need a very special episode about a police involved shooting to separate it from all of the other police involved shootings that were never questioned.
Because in the entire run of the show, there were only three episodes in which a member of the 12th shot someone. In the first season “Hero”, Chano infiltrates a hostage situation in a bank and ends up killing the two would-be robbers. It’s quickly apparent that Chano isn’t handling it well at all despite the incident being considered a good shoot. By the end of the episode, he breaks down into sobs in his apartment.
Dietrich has a similar reaction to his shooting in the seventh season episode “Resignation”. After shooting a suspect in the backside, Dietrich decides that this part of the job goes against his morals and attempts to submit his resignation. Though Barney susses out the real root of Dietrich’s angst, which goes a little sideways from just his morals, it still illustrates the negative effect of a shooting on the firing officer.
In the eighth season episode “Inquiry”, Wojo faces an investigation after shooting a suspect, winging him in the arm. In this episode, there’s doubt that Wojo was justified in the shooting, particularly with his history of being rough with suspects. We’re also introduced to the then-current requirements for the investigation: Wojo is suspended, put on desk duty, has his sidearm confiscated, and advised of his rights before he’s questioned. What’s startling is that during the questioning, a clearly frustrated Wojo admits that he was trying to kill the suspect. Which is what the police are trained to do. Center mass. Shoot to kill.
Everything turns out in Wojo’s favor, of course, but he’s still rattled and to be honest, so are we. Our Wojo can be rough, but a killer? It’s hard to believe. It’s harder to acknowledge that our good guys were trained that way.
Which is probably why the police involved shooting episodes of Barney Miller are so much more impactful than the very special episodes from other cop shows. They aren’t shooting it out every episode. There’s barely any shooting during an entire season.
Which is more true to life than you might think.
But this is fiction.
And in fiction, tension comes from putting our heroes under the gun.
So to speak.