DRAGNETS, DIRTY HARRYS AND DYING HARD: 100 years of the police in pop culture
How police censorship shaped Hollywood
David Simon was in trouble. Just weeks before he was supposed to begin filming the second season of “The Wire,” Simon still couldn’t get the permits he needed to shoot on the streets of the very city that was his setting.
It was time to call Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.
The showrunner and the politician had a complicated history. When O’Malley ran for mayor in 1999, he targeted drug dealing at the intersection of West Fayette and Monroe streets, the neighborhood that was the subject of “The Corner,” Simon’s 1997 book about the city’s drug trade. But in Simon’s telling, once O’Malley was in office and fighting the drug war, Simon’s bleak critique of that effort made for an awkward political prop. When HBO held the premiere for the adaptation of “The Corner” at Baltimore’s Senator Theatre, O’Malley skipped the event. He said he already knew the story.
About this series: Police influence played a powerful role in shaping early Hollywood. The entertainment industry has since spent decades advancing ideas about policing that play out in some of our most agonized public debates.
So as Simon began work on “The Wire,” he made an extraordinary offer. To get time with O’Malley, he bought a lunch with the mayor at a charity event and took O’Malley and the mayor’s chief of staff to Sotto Sopra, a plush Italian restaurant tucked into one of the city’s iconic rowhouses. Simon explained just how dark “The Wire” would be. And he told O’Malley that if the mayor preferred, he would set his critique of the drug war in another city.
“I don’t have to do it in Baltimore. I can do it in Philly, I can do it in Cleveland, I can do it anywhere,” Simon recalled telling the ambitious young mayor. “I don’t have to film this here if you feel like Baltimore’s really taking it on the chin.”
At the time, Simon said O’Malley assured him that it was fine, that Baltimore loved the TV business. He even had his picture taken with Simon.
(A spokeswoman for O’Malley said he would be unavailable to discuss the lunch or the offer Simon described. Steve Kearney, who worked in the O’Malley administration at the time, said, “We have no recollection of that offer.”)
But now, when Simon called O’Malley to try to speed the permit process, the mayor tore into him for almost an hour as Simon paced in an A&P parking lot.
“We want to be out of the ‘Wire’ business,” Simon recalled the mayor saying. “You’re not giving us credit. We’re doing great things in this town. We’re getting the crime down … I’m the mayor of the future. You’re doing a show that’s only hurting us.”
In the end, the mayor — and Baltimore’s similarly disgruntled City Council — backed down. If “The Wire” moved, the city would lose twice over. The show would still be about Baltimore, but another city would get the jobs and tens millions of dollars of spending “The Wire” created. The moment for Baltimore to avoid becoming the poster city for the failure of the war on drugs had passed over lunch at Sotto Sopra.
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Simon’s victory was a product of the tenacity that helped him gain the trust of suspicious homicide detectives. But it also illustrated the entertainment industry’s growth into a national business, with states and municipalities competing to lure productions out of Hollywood. When Simon faced off with O’Malley and won, he provided a forceful lesson about how the balance of power among city governments, police departments and the entertainment industry has shifted in the past century.
That dynamic has had particularly important implications for popular culture’s depiction of police work. From “Dragnet” to “Dirty Harry” to “Die Hard,” Hollywood’s police stories have reinforced myths about cops and the work of policing — ideas that resonate painfully today as police-involved shootings and questions about race and community relations wrack U.S. cities and play a starring role in the presidential election.
The police story is one of the elemental dramas of American popular culture, the place we face down whatever crimes frighten us most in a given era and grapple with what we want from the cops who are supposed to stop those crimes. “Dragnet’s” Joe Friday bolstered public faith in law and order in the ’50s. “Dirty Harry” Callahan stoked terror and rage about the violent crime wave that began in the ’60s. And John McClane of “Die Hard” awed audiences when he singlehandedly saved a whole office tower from ruthless criminals in the 1980s.
If these were only fantasies, they would still be powerful. But the ideas that popular culture embeds in the public consciousness about policing remain after the story is over. This five-part series examines the evolving relationship between police officers and the communities they are supposed to serve; the way Hollywood shapes our expectations for shootings by police; the entertainment industry’s embrace of a more violent style of policing during the drug war; and the changing composition of police forces in an increasingly diverse society.
Because it is not possible to understand the stories Hollywood tells about the police without looking back at the industry’s own vexed relationship with the law, this series begins by exploring how police pressure, government regulation and censorship helped mold pop culture’s stories about the police.
This is not a straightforward story about how police departments are bad and Hollywood is good, or vice versa. Nor is it a simple morality tale about how creative freedom made it possible for a liberal industry to critique a conservative profession. Artists such as Simon have used their independence to challenge public perceptions about policing. But driven by the need for drama and excitement, Hollywood used genres such as action movies and reality shows to glamorize the very ideas about policing that have generated such division in the United States today.
Above: New York Mayor George McClellan Jr. pins medals on policemen in 1908, the same year McClellan ordered the city’s movie theaters to close. (George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
A century ago, the prospect of city governments and police departments deferring to artists was unimaginable. From Hollywood’s earliest days, these institutions took for granted that regulating movies was an essential crime-fighting function.
In 1908, New York Mayor George McClellan Jr. used police power to close every movie theater in the city. To prove they could manage themselves, theater owners and movie distributors founded what eventually became known as the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, which examined movies for objectionable content and suggested cuts that directors should make before films reached the public.
The United States Supreme Court rules that movies are not protected by the First Amendment.
The board, and the movie business as a whole, had a daunting task convincing the public and police that it was up to the task of self-governance. In 1910, the International Association of Chiefs of Police adopted a resolution condemning the movie business because, as the organization’s president put it, “the police are sometimes made to appear ridiculous.”
Five years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that a 1913 state censorship statute did not infringe on either free speech or interstate commerce. Movies weren’t independent arguments worthy of First Amendment protection, Associate Justice Joseph McKenna wrote in the court’s decision, but rather “mere representations of events, of ideas and sentiments ... vivid, useful, and entertaining, no doubt, but ... capable of evil.” It would take 37 years for the Supreme Court to reverse itself.
Meanwhile, as Hollywood grew larger, cooperation with police and other law enforcement agencies became more important for reasons beyond censorship.
Hollywood needed the cooperation of the Los Angeles Police Department to preserve its stars’ reputations. The rape and manslaughter trials of silent-film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in the early 1920s and federal tax investigations of actors including Tom Mix tarnished the industry. Later, LAPD historian Joe Domanick wrote, cooperation between the movie business and police ensured discretion for “carousing wild men like Errol Flynn and homosexual stars.”
The increasing complexity of Hollywood productions created strong logistical imperatives for the movie business to play nice with police. Like Simon decades later, movie studios needed permits to shoot on city streets, and police officers to enforce those permits, roping off thoroughfares and working off-duty as security.
And in the late 1940s, an actor named Jack Webb would find an even more effective way for the LAPD and the entertainment industry to pursue their mutual self-interest.
Above: Jack Webb, at left in both photos, appears as squeaky-clean Los Angeles police Sgt. Joe Friday in the radio and television versions of the classic cop drama “Dragnet.” On the left, Webb examines a gun with Barton Yarborough, who played Friday’s sidekick in the “Dragnet” radio show. On the right, Webb looks through a binder with his television partner Harry Morgan. (NBC/File photos)
Jack Webb got the idea for “Dragnet” when he met Marty Wynn, an LAPD detective who was working as technical adviser for a movie in which Webb played a forensics investigator. In pursuit of the access that would let him market “Dragnet” as an authentic look at police work, Webb forged an extraordinary partnership with LAPD chief William Parker and department publicity wizard Stanley Sheldon — accepting stringent censorship from the police department in exchange for story ideas, logistical help and a patina of truth. That bargain would help create America’s first enduring cop drama and a model for police storytelling for decades to come.
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“Dragnet” began as a radio show in 1949. When it moved to TV in 1951, Webb became even more dependent on the LAPD. “On television you could see things, see if the police work, the station house, the squad car, seemed right,” Domanick explained. “Authenticity was a major component of what Webb, as a producer and in his persona as detective Joe Friday, was trying to sell.”
Webb agreed that scripts would be formally approved by the LAPD’s Public Information Division before filming began. The comments weren’t advisory: If the department objected to something, such as the depiction of a woman dying from an illegal abortion, the entire episode might be scrapped.
In exchange, Webb obtained not only story ideas, but also invaluable financial help from the department.
Detective Sgt. Joseph Wambaugh: More from Wambaugh on LAPD history and telling true cop stories.
“The LAPD gave him carte blanche,” recalled Joseph Wambaugh, who rose to the rank of detective sergeant in the LAPD before leaving to write police novels full time. “They could shoot wherever they wanted. They could have cops for extras, and police vehicles and equipment,” perks that helped lower the budget for “Dragnet.”
For all its pretensions to accuracy — each episode began with the sonorous promise, “Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true” — the version of the LAPD that Webb presented was the one Parker wanted the world to see.
The show depicted black and Latino police officers, although, as pop culture scholar Roger Sabin noted tartly in his critical survey “Cop Shows,” “the LAPD’s racial segregation policies were not mentioned.” Wambaugh remembered that “any shooting that was done on the shows was squeaky clean,” with the officer in strong control of his emotions, rather than firing out of fear, or worse, revenge.
And Joe Friday, the cop played by Webb, became an icon of law enforcement who respected the Constitution, hated drugs and solved crimes by using modern, scientific investigative techniques and focusing squarely on “just the facts, ma’am.”
The show quickly became a model: “Highway Patrol,” which debuted in 1955, was the response to the California Highway Patrol’s commissioner, Bernard Caldwell, who demanded that his own public relations division “get us a show like ‘Dragnet.’ ”
Above: J. Edgar Hoover meeting Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the star of “The F.B.I.” The show was Hoover’s heavily supervised attempt to burnish his bureau’s reputation. (Everett Collection)
Hollywood pursued law enforcement agencies, too. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover turned down several potential TV shows before signing on with ABC to create “The F.B.I.” Hoover maintained full script approval and vetted actors’ politics before they were cast.
As with “Dragnet,” “The F.B.I.” served Hoover’s interests as much for what it didn’t show as what it did. The series ran from 1965 to 1974, a period when Hoover was, among other things, surveilling and harassing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Agents on “The F.B.I.” never engaged in such skullduggery.
Shows such as “Dragnet” and “The F.B.I.” were, by design, misleading about the harshest realities of the law enforcement agencies they portrayed. Webb’s claims to authenticity also made “Dragnet” itself vulnerable. What would happen when actual police officers started telling their own versions of what it was like to police Los Angeles?
Above: Joseph Wambaugh on night watch at the Hollenbeck Station detectives squad room in Los Angeles, around 1971. (Courtesy of Joseph Wambaugh)
‘Dragnet” had concluded its revival, which ran from 1967 to 1970, and Webb’s next cop show, “Adam-12,” named for an LAPD radio call sign, was in its third season, when then-Detective Sgt. Joseph Wambaugh did just that with the publication of his first novel, “The New Centurions.”
A former Marine and steel-mill worker, Wambaugh joined the Los Angeles Police Department when he discovered that he could make more money as a cop than as an English teacher. After he made sergeant, he was posted to the Public Information Division. Though Wambaugh found the posting dull and transferred as soon as possible, he began asking his friend Stephen Downing about Downing’s experiences writing for “Dragnet” and “Adam-12” and contemplated trying to sell a script of his own.
Joseph Wambaugh published “The New Centurions,” a ground-breaking novel about police work.
Wambaugh’s literary aspirations — he earned a master’s degree in English — drew him toward novels instead. The result was “The New Centurions,” which followed three LAPD officers from the police academy through the 1965 Watts riots. It’s a raw, intimate look at the psychological costs of policing. Because Wambaugh knew the book could never survive the LAPD’s approval process, he didn’t even bother to submit it.
If Wambaugh thought “The New Centurions” would arrive on shelves quietly, he was mistaken. The Book-of-the-Month Club picked “The New Centurions” as its main selection for January 1971, guaranteeing a wide audience and drawing attention to the novelty of hearing about police work from an actual cop, even through the lens of fiction.
The attention was wonderful for Wambaugh’s sales, but it put him in a precarious position. Police chief Ed Davis, himself a technical adviser for “Dragnet” and “Adam-12,” was displeased.
“He made one statement to the LA Times, ‘Well, I hope Sgt. Wambaugh makes a lot of money with this book, because he’ll need it. He won’t have a job,’ ” Wambaugh recalled. “And that’s when the press just swarmed in on my behalf and waved the First Amendment.”
For a moment, it seemed that Webb himself might come to Wambaugh’s defense. Wambaugh recalled receiving a call from one of Webb’s employees asking for a copy of the manuscript. Wambaugh eagerly dropped off page proofs — and waited. Two weeks later, the same employee called Wambaugh to let him know he could pick the manuscript up. When he did, Wambaugh found that his book had acquired a new and unexpected heft. Webb had stuck a paper clip next to everything he found objectionable.
“I just scraped off all the paper clips, threw them in the trash, and gave up on Mr. Webb,” Wambaugh said. “He knew that what I was presenting to the American public was something that would undermine his sanitized portrayal, and it did.”
‘The New Centurions” didn’t entirely kill heroic portraits of the police. But Wambaugh was one of the most prominent examples of a major shift in Hollywood: Pop culture began taking its inspiration not from the heads of law enforcement agencies, but from individual cops — men who believed policing was important work but also recognized the toll that it took on individual officers.
“The Mod Squad,” Aaron Spelling’s series about a special unit of young officers who try to solve cases that might remain impenetrable to older, squarer, detectives, grew out of a conversation Spelling had with his friend, Buddy Ruskin, a former member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. When the show premiered in 1968, Spelling positioned “The Mod Squad” as an explicit counter to the revival of the conservative “Dragnet” a year earlier. “They thought everybody under 25 was a creep, we thought everybody under 25 was misunderstood,” Spelling wrote in his memoir.
Above: At left, actors Jimmy Smits and Dennis Franz, stars of the ABC television show “NYPD Blue,” a series heavily influenced by consultant Bill Clark. (Bob D’Amico/ABC via Reuters)
At right, Andre Braugher, Andy Samberg and Stephanie Beatriz in a scene from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Braugher’s character, openly gay Capt. Raymond Holt, was the product of conversation between series co-creator Dan Goor and consultant Jon Murad. (John P. Fleenor/FOX)
In the early 1990s, when Steven Bochco and David Milch were creating the show that would become “NYPD Blue,” Milch recruited Bill Clark, a New York Police Department detective, to help with logistical challenges and act as an adviser to the series. The show drew inspiration from Clark’s cases and from the way he described the toughness, even numbness, cops have to acquire to investigate serious violent crimes.
Another cop would go much further in facilitating a wide-ranging critique not merely of his former department but also of the national strategies that guided American policing.
“The Wire” premieres, bringing new standards of authenticity to police storytelling.
Ed Burns’s relationship with David Simon preceded Simon’s emergence as one of the defining showrunners of his time. They met when Simon was a Baltimore Sun reporter and Burns was a detective with a tendency, annoying to his supervisors, to get himself detailed to complicated investigations involving wiretaps. Burns and Simon collaborated on Simon’s second book, “The Corner.” Burns’s work on drug cases and his post-police job as a teacher would become inspirations for substantial sections of “The Wire,” which premiered in 2002. If previous cop shows leaned on authenticity to reassure audiences about the strength and integrity of police departments, Burns helped guide “Wire” fans on a tour of crumbling institutions.
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” used advice from technical adviser Jon Murad to make a more optimistic point. Murad’s advice shaped the show’s depiction of Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher), a black, gay NYPD officer who first experiences discrimination, then is turned into a mascot of departmental tolerance, and finally gets his first command when the show begins. The show doesn’t make a “Dragnet”-like argument that the NYPD has always been perfect, but “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” does argue that police departments are capable of reform.
From Webb to Wambaugh to “The Wire,” authenticity has been a selling point for generation after generation of police shows. And beyond the promise of getting up close and personal with a profession that’s alternately venerated and denigrated, these efforts at accuracy and authenticity tend to be the tools storytellers use to persuade audiences to take their big ideas about policing more seriously.
Webb used accurate details to convince viewers that his portrait of the LAPD as hyper-professional, emotionally controlled and highly effective was also true. For Wambaugh, his novels were a way to tell the public about what he believed to be the real and largely ignored dangers of policing, including divorce, suicide and substance abuse. Bochco writes of a proud moment on the 1980s-era “Hill Street Blues,” when a woman wrote to tell him that an episode in which two cops were shot helped her police officer husband to open up about his own shooting and join Alcoholics Anonymous.
Simon hoped that if he earned viewers’ trust on “The Wire,” he could argue against a mission police had been given rather than against the police themselves.
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Of course, as artists like Simon and Wambaugh were bringing their own brands of verisimilitude to cop fiction, a new genre of television emerged, offering its own spin on the reality of policing.
Reality television offered beleaguered police departments a way to reassert their dominance. Instead of telling Jack Webb what the LAPD wanted to see on screen, police departments could simply show camera operators only what they wanted audiences to witness.
The formula for “Cops,” a reality show now in its third decade, is simple: Producers ride along with police officers and film as they respond to complaints and then pursue, arrest and process suspects. The show is often astonishingly boring: Watching officers conduct traffic stops or small-time drug arrests to break the monotony of patrol is a testament to the gap between fictional policing and the mundane truth of the actual work.
The devious genius of “Cops” is that while the show is staged by police departments, the people the police arrest sign off on their own depictions as lying, luckless incompetents who climb drunk out of car windows, try to eat large quantities of marijuana and even get stopped biking under the influence. The police get the opportunity to present themselves as dedicated and sympathetic, conducting patient questioning and offering help with drug treatment. And their targets acquiesce in the show’s depiction of their own worst moments: Creator John Langley has said that once the show took off, as many as 90 percent of those arrested on camera signed releases so that their unblurred faces could appear on screen.
It’s only recently that technology has given ordinary citizens the power to tell stories about themselves and their interactions with cops — perspectives that police departments would prefer stay invisible and that Hollywood has largely ignored.
Earlier this year, Diamond Reynolds used Facebook Live to broadcast her interactions with police officers after her boyfriend, cafeteria supervisor Philando Castile, was shot. The live stream captured Reynolds’s 4-year-old daughter comforting her mother in a heartbreaking moment of childish composure. And in September, after a Charlotte police officer shot and killed Keith Scott, his wife, Rakeyia Scott, released her own video that showed her begging the police not to shoot her husband and insisting that he was unarmed.
These videos aren’t exciting or entertaining in the way Hollywood’s polished police stories so often have been. They are shattering.
Above: Diamond Reynolds, second from left, reacts to a speaker outside the Governor’s Mansion on July 7 in St. Paul, Minn. Reynolds live-streamed the aftermath of an encounter in which her boyfriend Philando Castile was shot by a police officer on July 6. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
The rise of cellphone video throws into sharp relief a question that has always dogged police fiction: Who’s telling the truth about what the police do?
Is it a reality show like “Cops,” which, for all its manufactured quality, does capture the pathetic nature of certain classes of crime, the relentless dullness of police work and the craving some officers have for action? Is it “Dragnet,” with its mythic, and mythical, version of policing? Is it “The Wire,” informed by Simon’s years of reporting and Burns’s years of policing and teaching? Is it Joseph Wambaugh, who for a brief period in the ’70s captivated Americans not with police procedurals about how, as he puts it, “the cop acts on the job,” but with searing portraits of how “the job works on the cop”?
All these storytellers have contributed their own pieces to our understanding of one of America’s most complex professions. And given the times in which they told their stories, the power of the police in that moment and their levels of personal courage, they told the stories they were capable of telling and that they had the freedom to tell.
“Jack Webb wanted to make his shows grittier and more true to life, psychologically, showing all the damage that police work does to cops,” Wambaugh remembered. “The premature cynicism, the constant psychological bombardment from the worst of people and from ordinary people at their worst. All of that, he wanted to do some of that. But he couldn’t if he wanted the cooperation that he always got from the LAPD.”
Webb didn’t have the fortitude, or the personal appetite for risk, to walk away from the LAPD. More than half a century later, Simon’s willingness to leave Baltimore ensured that he would be able to shoot the story that he wanted on the streets where he meant for that story to take place.
When Simon testified before the Baltimore City Council about a resolution intended to counteract the negative image of Baltimore depicted in “The Wire,” he made a larger point that might have seemed laughable or even dangerous, back when Hollywood was young, and mayors and police departments treated pop culture as a potential source of crime.
“My testimony was like ... ‘I live here. And I pay taxes here, and I’m a storyteller ... This is about what I think matters,’ ” Simon recalled. “ ‘If you don’t like the show, stand up and say as an individual, you can even stand up as a politician, and say I don’t like the show. But ... don't spend civic time and put the civic imprimatur on what is a good or bad story. That’s not your f------ business.’ ”
But even as Hollywood shook off formal censorship, ties between cops and artists remained. If we can’t understand Hollywood without examining the way the police shaped the entertainment industry, we can’t understand the state of policing in America without exploring Hollywood’s seductive visions of what it means to be a cop.