How pop culture’s cops turned on their communities

DRAGNETS, DIRTY HARRYS AND DYING HARD: PART II

How pop culture’s cops turned on their communities

Published on October 25, 2016

Americans’ first glimpse of Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor in 1960 didn’t feature him fighting crime. Instead, Sheriff Andy, who also served as justice of the peace, seemed overcome with joy as he performed the happiest community service of all: marrying off two of his constituents.

Pop culture cops have traveled a long way from Andy Taylor’s bucolic Mayberry to Harry Callahan’s brutal San Francisco in the 1970s and even the fictional Zootopia that Disney introduced to families this year. Sheriff Andy hosted jam sessions with the folks in his lockup, kept his gun case empty and solved cases by knowing details like his elderly neighbors’ medical conditions. Callahan was furious that San Francisco’s mayor was more concerned with the rights of violent criminals than the people they preyed on in “Dirty Harry.” In a gentler way, “Zootopia” suggested that if they weren’t careful, cops could poison their own cities with suspicion and fear.

Above: Don Knotts, left, as Deputy Barney Fife and Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor in a scene from “The Andy Griffith Show,” in which the two policed the idealized town of Mayberry. (CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images)

The fantasy of Mayberry wasn’t only about Sheriff Andy’s gentle approach. Mayberry was racially homogenous and so crime-free that his deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts), was left grumbling that if anti-jaywalking ordinances went unenforced, “Mayberry’s going to turn into a regular sin town!” But even given the greater complexities of policing in a big city, starting in the 1960s such idealized relationships between cops and their communities vanished from pop culture just as they corroded in the real world. For all the talk of community policing, fictional police officers seemed to be fighting a two-front war, one against crime and the other against civilians portrayed as obstacles at best, criminal accomplices at worst. From his first moment on screen, Sheriff Andy was already a nostalgic throwback.

About the 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.

PART I: How police censorship shaped Hollywood

PART III: In pop culture, there are no bad police shootings

PART IV: The drug war’s most enthusiastic recruit: Hollywood

PART V: Blue lives: Pop culture’s minority cops

Public policy points to many potential causes of these fissures: racism; residency rules that let officers live outside the cities they served; compressed schedules that meant officers spent even fewer days in those cities; the rise of radio cars that took officers off foot patrols and of centralized 911 call systems that directed residents away from local precincts; and shifts in emphasis from community service to crime prevention and crime-fighting. And whatever the roots of this poisonous tree might be, we’re seeing the fruits every day, from North Miami to Tulsa and Baltimore to Charlotte.

Pop culture has been warning about this alienation for decades. As Andy Taylor became even more anachronistic, a fantasy of policing as it never really was, he was replaced by successive generations of cops who gradually came to occupy a separate, hermetically sealed sphere. Pop culture may not have predicted our current moment, but it captured the disconnectedness and animosity that define our discussions about how policing should work.

Above: James Franciscus, right, as Detective Jimmy Halloran in a scene from “Naked City,” a television show adapted from the movie of the same name. “Naked City” explored the causes of crime and showed cops performing social services as well as catching criminals. (Everett Collection)

One of the strangest parts of revisiting old police stories, particularly at a moment when police killings and agonized protests lead the news, is how nice fictional cops once were. If not everyone was as relentlessly cheery as Andy Taylor, he was far from the only lawman to embrace the social service elements of his job.

Joe Friday (Jack Webb), the model policeman of “Dragnet,” worked in Los Angeles, a bigger, more dangerous city than Mayberry. But whether he was helping a woman who had abandoned her child during her soldier husband’s long deployment or solving a robbery at a local Latino Catholic church right before Christmas, social services were part of Friday’s portfolio. “Dragnet,” which arrived on television in 1951, recognized that both a murder and a creche missing its baby Jesus could tear at the fabric of a neighborhood.

That idea was even more pronounced in “Naked City,” which premiered in 1958.

The series probed the underlying societal causes of crime: “Arturo Gutierrez is not a bad boy. He’s a poor boy,” narrator Bert Leonard explained at the beginning of one episode. “A hungry boy. Perhaps even an impatient boy. But he’s a divided boy, like this morning’s breakfast. A quart of milk, divided seven ways.” And the series showed that its officers understood those causes and were dedicated to rehabilitation. When Lt. Dan Muldoon (John McIntire) and Detective Jimmy Halloran (James Franciscus) apprehended Arturo (Pat DeSimone) for robbery later in the episode, Muldoon recognized the boy as something other than a career criminal and promised to tell the prosecutor that Arturo had helped a girl escape from his confederates.

In another episode, Halloran and Muldoon tracked down a criminal who was extorting and robbing a “sidewalk fisherman,” a man who collected coins from grates in the hopes of sending his little boy to college. It might have been easy to paint a character who made his living in this marginal way as a bum or a nuisance. Instead, “Naked City” granted the man his dignity and made Halloran and Muldoon his champions. In another episode, when Halloran was asked to define the difference between cops and Marines, he explained: “I think we’ve got to have feelings.”

Even as the community functions of policing were sidelined by the crime wave that began in the 1960s, these human gestures persisted as a way for pop culture to signal that a police officer wasn’t supposed to merely solve crime after the fact. He was supposed to help make crime unnecessary and help crime victims recover from their experiences.

In addition to his prodigious brainpower and ability to crack the case by offhandedly asking “just one more thing,” Columbo (Peter Falk) was the kind of detective apt to whip up an omelet for a distraught woman. In a 1973 episode of the anthology series “Police Story,” Detective Tony Calabrese (Tony Lo Bianco) offered to act as a job reference for Stan (Marjoe Gortner), his informer. And in an episode of “Hill Street Blues,” Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) made a note to warn local heroin addicts that a bad batch of drugs had hit the streets. The addicts were citizens in need of a service first and criminals second.

Above: Paul Newman as Murphy, a dedicated cop trying to do his job in a decaying precinct, in the 1981 movie “Fort Apache, The Bronx.” (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

However comforting stories like those might have been, they collided with a grim shift in urban life. The rise in violent crime that began in the 1960s had the dual effect of alienating citizens from one another and from the police. As Barry Latzer noted in his book “The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America,” the number of crimes between people who were otherwise strangers to each other rose. Meanwhile, the clearance rate — a case is considered cleared when a suspect is arrested or identified — for crimes began to fall. Nationwide, Latzer put that rate around 40 percent in the 1950s and 1960s, declining to about 30 percent in the 1970s.

The increase in what seemed like police ineffectiveness against a rising tide of crime suggested something sinister: that if violent crime couldn’t be solved, it would have to be tolerated. And pop culture provided potent expressions of the fear and fury that were the response to that acquiescence.

In the 1981 movie “Fort Apache: The Bronx,” a detective acknowledged that he had no new leads in the shooting of two young officers. “Any place else a guy see a cop gets killed, he runs to the phone,” he said ruefully. “Up here, captain, cops are like husbands. They’re always the last to know.” Murphy, the decent patrol officer played by Paul Newman, urged his captain not to respond with mass arrests, for fear of exacerbating the problem: “The jails will be full, the neighborhood will be empty, and you won’t be one step closer to solving those killings.”

And an especially cynical episode of “Cagney & Lacey” showed members of a neighborhood watch group pressuring their precinct when a group member was shot by a cop. It turned out that the man had been carrying a gun, and the shooting was, if not legitimate, at least understandable. But the neighborhood watch group hid the gun to strengthen its case against the officer.

Some fictional police officers even dreamed of escaping cities that increasingly seemed ungovernable. “I want to take my wife and babies and get the hell out of here, where I don’t have to worry about the violence, dope and race riots, my children getting raped coming home from school,” Lt. Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano) told Capt. Furillo in an episode of "Hill Street Blues." “Mostly I want to take ’em somewhere where I can tell the good guys from the bad guys. Because we don’t have this luxury anymore, not in this department.”

The rise in the violent crime rate was accompanied by a series of Supreme Court cases expanding the rights of suspects and defendants — most famously Miranda v. Arizona in 1966, which required police to inform suspects that they have certain rights.

Eventually, as David Simon put it in his 1991 book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” Miranda and companion cases became “a routine part of the process — simply a piece of station house furniture” rather than an obstacle to crime-solving. Yet at the time, the decisions provoked a sharp backlash from cops.

Though pop culture rarely depicted police officers complaining specifically about these decisions, movies and television quickly embraced the idea that civilian authorities and the courts were making it harder for police officers to solve crimes. Over time, this trope evolved into a generalized contempt for any oversight or internal investigation, a theme that emerges even in otherwise progressive works.

Above: Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry” Callahan in “Dirty Harry,” which captured a sense of anger at America’s violent crime wave. (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

In “Dirty Harry,” released in 1971, the idea of oversight came in for almost as much criticism as the serial killer (Andrew Robinson) pursued by Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood). The city’s mayor (John Vernon), Callahan suggested, would let rapists go free. In an extraordinarily ugly sequence, the killer, who dubbed himself Scorpio, hired a black man to attack him and then claimed that his injuries were the result of police brutality. The message is clear: Worrying about suspects’ rights is a game for thumb-sucking liberals.

Two decades later, “NYPD Blue” offered a more elegiac version of this argument, when Detective John Kelly (David Caruso) explained to a younger detective the circumstances under which he was willing to beat suspects.

“I never raise my hand to a guy if I think he’s guilty, or I’m trying to find out if he’s guilty. But if I’m sure he’s guilty and the case is going to walk unless I raise my hand, I do what I have to do,” Kelly said. “I believe in the Constitution, and I hold on to it as long as I can. But in the case of a murderer like this, where the guy is going to walk, I leave my gun and my jewelry outside along with the Constitution.”

This anger was most poisonous in stories about cops who had the power to investigate other cops. “They sit there, making you explain everything. They’ve never been on the streets in their lives,” complained Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), the cracked heart of “NYPD Blue,” in 1993. In 2002’s “Insomnia,” Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) accused the man investigating him of “sucking the marrow out of real cops when you never had the balls to be one yourself.”

When investigators aren’t being condemned, they sometimes prove themselves corrupt or self-interested. In Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), the ward of an Irish crime boss who had gone undercover in the police department, gained control of the search for a mole — in other words, for himself. Even “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which brought a reformist spin to cop comedy, fell prey to this trope in a plot where a departmental rival of Capt. Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher) used phony charges to set up an investigation into his conduct to try to discredit him.

‘Pig’: Why a potent anti-cop insult still stings

Play Video

If fictional cops’ resentment of oversight stemmed from the idea that civilians couldn’t possibly understand what crime-fighting required, those tensions were exacerbated first by the rise of the counterculture and then by class politics that eroded the respect to which cops had become accustomed.

Policing was never an upper-crust occupation. Cops “would never go to Harvard, be received in the White House, or marry J.P. Morgan’s granddaughter,” wrote Thomas Reppetto in the first volume of his history of American policing. But the 1960s saw cop stories grappling with the idea that the police were losing even the modest degree of status associated with the job.

Aaron Spelling’s show “The Mod Squad,” which premiered in 1968, treated police outreach to young dropouts from society as a critical mission, both for a whole generation and for police departments themselves.

“I know what they were before I busted them. And what they can go back to being if this doesn’t work out,” Capt. Adam Greer (Tige Andrews) said passionately in the series’ first episode, defending his controversial new unit and the people he’d recruited for it. “Times change, and a cop had better change with them. They can get into places we can’t.”

In “Serpico,” released five years later, Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) represented a similar kind of cop, defending his facial hair and hippie clothes to his captain as tools he could use to blend in, not evidence of sloppiness. But Serpico wasn’t exactly a rebel: He wanted to rid his department of corruption. His fellow officers conflated Serpico’s style and his campaign for integrity, treating Serpico’s attempts to clean up the department as a sort of traitorous liberalism.

Other stories reflected a perceived decline in the value of police officers. In an episode of “Kojak,” the titular detective offered himself as a hostage, only for another captive to tell him despairingly, "Who cares about a cop?” That sense of crumbling worth persisted. In 1987, “21 Jump Street” Officer Tom Hanson (Johnny Depp) flashed back to a schoolyard fight where a bully taunted him: “My old man’s a fascist, and all cops are pigs.” During a shootout in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 movie “Point Break,” a drug-dealing surfer curses FBI agents as “pigs.” The word might have lost its political context, but not its power to insult.

The radicalism of the ’60s would ultimately curdle into a kind of yuppie contempt, where wealthier, more educated characters showed a marked tendency to underestimate and undervalue cops.

An early example emerged in the 1968 movie “The Detective.” Frank Sinatra played Joe Leland, a police officer stuck between two classes. He’s more sophisticated than the cops he works with, but not educated enough for his wife’s ritzy friends to take his opinions seriously.

Such snideness was much more pointed in the 1988 action classic “Die Hard.” At the start of the movie, New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) flew cross-country to attend his wife Holly’s (Bonnie Bedelia) office Christmas party. From the beginning, he was uncomfortable with everything from the company’s fancy trappings to Holly’s swift ascent up the corporate ladder.

The movie’s class tensions found their fullest expression not in McClane’s attempts to defeat Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the sophisticated robber who took over Nakatomi Plaza in part by pretending to be a political terrorist, but in one of Holly’s co-workers, Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner).

A snob who dismissed McClane as “Holly’s policeman,” Ellis fooled himself into thinking he could negotiate with Gruber, declaring “I negotiate million-dollar deals for breakfast. I'm sure I can handle this Eurotrash.” He presented himself to Gruber as a class equal, bragging “I say to myself, these guys are professional, they're motivated ... Maybe you're pissed off at the camel jockeys, maybe it's the Hebes, Northern Ireland. It's none of my business. I figure you're here to negotiate, am I right?” He was wrong and got murdered for his trouble. It took McClane’s working-class ingenuity and toughness to defeat Gruber on the terms he’d actually chosen: not political or corporate, but criminal.

McClane reunited with his career-woman wife at the end of “Die Hard,” but in “The Wire,” the results of mixed-class relationships ended less happily.

In the show’s third season, Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), a womanizing detective, began seeing a big-shot political operative, Theresa D’Agostino (Brandy Burre), after his divorce. The intelligence, education and class that made McNulty see D’Agostino as more than his usual one-night stands were ultimately what make the relationship fail. He didn’t fit into her fancy private-school fundraisers or political events, and she saw his work as beneath her. “She [f------] looks through me, Kima,” McNulty lamented to his partner, Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), shortly before ending the relationship.

Above: Disney’s animated movie “Zootopia” follows Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) as the first bunny to become an officer in the Zootopia; Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox living on the edge of the law in the mammal metropolis; and Mr. Big (Maurice LaMarche), a little crime boss with a large profile. The film, which explored the role of implicit bias in policing, was a huge worldwide hit, bringing in more than a billion dollars at the box office. (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Everett Collection)

In recent years, a number of stories have tried to reconcile cops and civilians, even simply in passing.

The 2006 heist movie “Inside Man” presents New York in all the diversity that has been a hallmark of director Spike Lee’s work. And Lee, rather than simply putting different people on screen, made the prickly relationships between the police and members of religious minorities a critical plot point.

In one sequence, Denzel Washington’s Keith Frazier interrogated Vikram Walia (Waris Ahluwalia), a hostage who was released from a bank only for officers to strip off his turban, not understanding that he was Sikh and wore his hair long for religious reasons.

“First you beat me, and now you want my help,” Walia told Frazier, appalled. But rather than remain on a war footing, Frazier tried to deescalate the situation: “I apologize on behalf of the NYPD,” he told Walia. “That was not us.” It’s a fleeting moment, but an important one, an acknowledgment that a sense of solidarity is crucial to solving crime.

The police officers of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” tried to improve the department’s relationship with the community in a 2015 episode. The characters knew that some citizens disliked them.

“When I told my garbage man I was a cop, he said, ‘Gross,’” lamented Detective Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero). “He had someone else’s Band-Aid stuck to him.”

Disney even got in on the act with “Zootopia,” an animated, family-oriented exploration of implicit bias in policing.

In the film, Ginnifer Goodwin voices Judy Hopps, a rabbit who is eager to become the first bunny officer in the police department of the Zootopia metropolis, where all sorts of mammals live together in harmony. But when she broke barriers, she brought her own prejudices along with her. And in the course of investigating a number of cases where predator animals appear to have “gone savage,” Judy sowed mistrust in the community she only wanted to serve.

This being a Disney movie, Judy was able to not only get predators and prey animals to trust each other again by solving the case, but also to continue her work integrating the police department. She helped Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox who helped with her investigation, win entrance to the police department.

If these recent police stories are not nearly as raw as the pain and anger on display in our contemporary conversations about policing, they’re also not as limited as the prescriptions for a happy community that Sheriff Taylor relied on in “The Andy Griffith Show.” Where Mayberry was monochromatic and rural, the cities in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Zootopia” are wildly diverse and sprawlingly big. The risk of crime is real rather than theoretical. And the harm police officers can cause is real, even if their intentions are good.

These stories aren’t a salve. But in asking important questions and allowing fictional cops to be both sympathetic and wrong in their dealings with the public, they also aspire to be something more than a whitewash. After decades of treating cops like victims, whether of the Supreme Court, wimpy liberals or elitist snobs, cops like Judy Hopps are taking responsibility for their own actions. “I came here to make the world a better place, but I think I broke it,” she said sadly.

Judy recognized what Sheriff Andy knew all along: If you want a community to feel like a neighborhood, you have to treat the residents with trust and respect rather than try to arrest your way to civility. The only way for police officers to make their way back to Mayberry is to stop fighting a war and to start acting like citizens.

Credits