Blue lives: Pop culture’s minority cops


Blue lives: Pop culture’s minority cops

Published on October 28, 2016

“When I went through this academy, every cadet was the right weight, the right height, the right color, and they all had johnsons,” Chief Hurst (George R. Robinson), the villain of “Police Academy,” fumed as a new mayor forced him to admit a more diverse class of recruits. “Do you know she is attempting to dismantle one of this nation’s great institutions of law and order?”

“Police Academy,” which came out in 1984, showed the utter, madcap destruction of Chief Hurst’s dreams to return to the days of an all-male, all-white force. The recruits he disparaged so bitterly turned out to be excellent officers. Meanwhile, Chief Hurst’s agita proved misplaced. The black, female and slacker cadets he despised didn’t change the department — they bought into it.

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 II: How pop culture’s cops turned on their communities

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

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

“Police Academy” may be a goofy, raunchy comedy, but it embodied a theme that runs through decades of pop culture. As Tom Wolfe put it in “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “All the cops turned Irish, the Jewish cops ... the Italian cops, the Latin cops, and the black cops.” What Wolfe meant is that being an officer erases racial and ethnic differences and confers a kind of honorary full citizenship on people who have often been excluded — as long as a cop is willing to subscribe to a particular kind of “Irish machismo.” In exchange for toughness and loyalty, any cop can be a white man.

For all that mass culture loves telling stories about women or people of color who have made homes for themselves in all-male, all-white departments, or depicting supposedly mismatched partnerships between cops of different races or genders, culture tends to depict only half of the bargain. Movies show us the camaraderie and job satisfaction black or female cops get from buying into institutions that previously barred them. But they don’t tend to inquire deeply into the limits of the citizenship that come with being a police officer or the compromises minority officers must make for that citizenship. The result is a narrative that dramatically simplifies the complex relationships between police departments and the women, people of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people with whom the police have had historically fractious relationships.

Above: Steve Guttenberg, Bubba Smith and George Gaynes in the 1984 movie “Police Academy.” The goofy comedy conceals sharp satire aimed at people like former Los Angeles Police Department chief William Parker, who had narrow views of what kind of person could be an effective cop. (Warner Brothers/Courtesy of Everett Collection)

Before American police forces became machines that cranked out honorary Irishmen, they had to become Irish first, which they did starting in the 1850s. Once the door was open, Irish Americans quickly came to dominate police departments both real and fictional.

In 1958, “Naked City” paired green detective Jimmy Halloran (James Franciscus) with veteran Lt. Dan Muldoon (John McIntire). After the Bronx burned, the 1981 movie “Fort Apache, the Bronx” followed Murphy, an Irish cop played with a glow in his cheeks by Paul Newman, as he delivered babies, chatted with elderly residents and wrestled with whether to report a fellow officer who threw a teenager off a roof during a riot. As the new century arrived, David Simon gave us Jimmy McNulty, the florid, passionate, tortured detective of “The Wire.”


The first Irish immigrant wins an appointment to the Boston police department, which quickly becomes dominated by Irish Americans.

It would take two attempts for black officers to carve their own footholds in American police departments. The first, during Reconstruction, was cut short by the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which permitted segregation in public accommodations and gave many cities the tool they needed to force out African American cops. When departments began hiring black officers again later in the 20th century, those recruits were often segregated, partnered together instead of with whites or excluded from radio cars.

Just as real police departments were slow to give black officers the authority to police white citizens, in its early years, Hollywood could be skittish about even imagining such scenarios. At a time when black Americans didn’t enjoy the full protection of law, the idea that they could enforce it was a risky fantasy.

In 1959, when Aaron Spelling tried to write an episode of “Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre” in which Sammy Davis Jr. plays a sheriff’s deputy who kills a white man to save his white boss, an advertiser vetoed the idea. “It was acceptable to make the whites bigots, but it wasn’t okay to have a black deputy kill a white man to protect his friend’s life,” Spelling recalled in his memoir, “A Prime-Time Life.”

Above: Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in Norman Jewison’s classic movie “In the Heat of the Night.” In the 1967 film, Poitier, who plays Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs, is forced to stick around Sparta, Miss., and help solve a murder with Steiger’s Gillespie, a racist Southern police chief who initially doubted Tibbs’s credentials. (Everett Collection)

Several years later, when Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) got caught up in a murder investigation in Sparta, Miss., in Norman Jewison’s 1967 movie “In the Heat of the Night,” much of the drama came from the Southern white characters’ shock that a black man could even be a police officer.

In a tense confrontation early in the film, Sparta police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger), embarrassed that his officers had detained the first unfamiliar black man they found, insisted on calling Tibbs’s captain to verify Tibbs’s identity. Tibbs had hoped to leave town quickly. Instead, he stayed in Sparta as his captain requested and set the precedent that generations of fictional black cops would follow, swallowing his anger over repeated racial insults (though he did memorably slap a white planter who slapped him) and proving his excellence by solving the case with modern policing techniques.

In “Police Academy,” black recruit Moses Hightower (Bubba Smith) was expelled for saving Laverne Hooks (Marion Ramsey), a soft-spoken African American woman, from racist harassment. Hightower became the hero by the end of the movie, feigning anti-police sentiment to distract a rioter who wanted to shoot cops, then disarming the man with Hooks’s help. She found the authoritative tone that eluded her in training — not by speaking up against her own ill-treatment but in doing police work.


The Supreme Court issues its ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson permitting segregation in public accommodations. The ruling is used to forced black police officers who had been appointed by Radical Republican officials during Reconstruction out of their departments. It takes decades for desegregation to begin again, and to fully take hold.

When fictional black cops acted as ambassadors to their communities, they sometimes reassured African Americans about the goodness of police, rather than taking black citizens’ concerns back to their superiors. “My mama says policemen shoot black people. Is that true?” a child asked Roger Murtaugh, the experienced black officer played by Danny Glover in 1987’s “Lethal Weapon.” Murtaugh tried to distract the boy with ice cream but left the larger question unanswered.

Another trope involved black officers making light of incidents in which white people — sometimes other cops — mistake them for criminals.

Eddie Murphy’s star turn in the 1984 comedy “Beverly Hills Cop” began with his colleagues in the Detroit police department mistaking his character, Axel Foley, for a cigarette thief. The partners in Michael Bay’s “Bad Boys,” played by Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, entered a lavish house jokingly reassuring the white people they assumed would be inside by announcing, “Don’t be alarmed. We’re Negroes!” These incidents tended to be uncomfortable but not catastrophic. These establishing incidents acknowledged white bias and proved the characters’ dedication, rather than serving as major plot points that offered opportunities to confront systemic racism.

One feature of Hollywood storytelling about black police officers is that, especially in the early going, they were exceptions not merely in their excellence or their resilience: Often, the black cop at the center of the story was the only one in the show or movie. The singular nature of these characters often forced fictional white cops, like Gillespie in “In the Heat of the Night,” or Detective Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold), the Los Angeles officer Axel Foley partnered with in “Beverly Hills Cop,” to confront their prejudices.

Black cops’ loyalty to departments and the craft of policing was generally taken for granted: Choosing blueness over blackness made a show of cross-racial solidarity and let departments benefit from black cops’ talents. What wasn’t to like? It wasn’t until movies and television shows started telling stories that included multiple black cops that pop culture began to explore African American officers’ experiences with greater complexity.

Above: On the left, Yaphet Kotto as Lt. Al Giardello with then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke during the 1997 filming of an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” in which Schmoke plays himself. On the right, Clark Johnson as Detective Meldrick Lewis and Andre Braugher as Detective Frank Pembleton in the show, which was one of the first to feature multiple black cops. (John Mummert/Associated Press; Eric Lieboeitz/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

One of the earliest and best examples of this shift in storytelling was “Homicide: Life on the Street,” Tom Fontana’s adaptation of David Simon’s 1991 book about the Baltimore Police Department. Because “Homicide” had multiple black characters, including Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), Col. George Barnfather (Clayton LeBouef) and Detectives Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), the show didn’t need to put pressure on any one character to represent African Americans as a whole. “Homicide” could stage scenes with black actors that weren’t about race at all, as well as plots in which those characters had raw confrontations about race, loyalty and policing.

A powerful example came in the show’s second season, in a two-episode arc where Giardello put pressure on Pembleton to prove that someone other than a white police officer shot a drug dealer.

“I had to make up my mind that night what side I was on. Now it’s your turn, Frank,” Giardello told Pembleton, recalling the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the riots that followed. For once, “Homicide” allowed the audience to question whether it was the best thing for Pembleton — or his department — for him to choose blueness over blackness. Extracting a false confession from an innocent man might have postponed the department’s acknowledgment that one of its cops had killed a fleeing man, but the price to pay for that delayed reckoning would have been fearsome.


Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night” captures white Southern suspicion of black police officers — especially in a scene where Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) slaps a white planter who slapped him first.

For anyone who has wondered how three African American police officers could end up among the six cops charged in the death of Freddie Gray, a black Baltimore man who sustained a spinal cord injury during a so-called “rough ride” in a police van, “Homicide” provides some perspective on the limits of racial solidarity in preventing police abuses. In this arc, Giardello’s concern was with securing a confession, not with protecting the rights of another black man. In the Gray case, a shared racial identity wasn’t a magic talisman that could ensure Gray’s safety while in police custody. Pembleton found a way to prove that being a good cop didn’t require him to send another black man to jail on a trumped-up charge. But he was also fortunate to have a lieutenant who was ultimately wise enough not to make Pembleton choose between his identities as a cop and as an African American man.

Giardello was part of a wave of black cops in leadership positions who began appearing in television squadrooms in the 1990s. “NYPD Blue” introduced Lt. Arthur Fancy (James McDaniel) in 1993, and Lt. Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) arrived on “Law & Order” the same year. Van Buren in particular became an avatar of black police loyalty; she sued the NYPD for discrimination in a 1990s plot arc, but a defining characteristic was her loyalty to the officers who served under her and to the law.

Fictional black cops got bumped upstairs so frequently that the black captain, angry or otherwise, became an established trope. “I’m black! And I worked my a-- off to be the captain. And sometimes I get angry,” Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube) lamented in Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 2012 remake of “21 Jump Street,” trying to assert his humanity within the confines of the stereotype.

Promoting African American characters to positions of authority was an acknowledgment from pop culture that black people could be competent, loyal cops. But it also served to take African American characters off the streets — and out of positions of intriguing moral and dramatic ambiguity.


“Cagney & Lacey” premieres, giving audiences two female cops’ perspectives on the sexism in their own police department.

“One reason so many television dramas portray black characters in positions of authority,” David Milch wrote in “True Blue,” his memoir of his work on “NYPD Blue,” “might be that these shows want to have the credentials of liberalism without having to portray in scope or depth minority characters … whose fuller treatment they felt the audience might resist.”

A less bland, but more unnerving, alternative to the black lieutenant trope is that of the brutal black cop, who proves that blackness doesn’t preclude blueness through a willingness to come down hard on suspects, particularly other African Americans.

In Aaron Spelling’s series “S.W.A.T.,” which premiered in 1975, Sgt. David “Deacon” Kay (Rod Perry), the black cop in a multiethnic squad, jokingly declared: “I’m in charge of hitting on blacks. If that’s not equal opportunity, I don’t know what is.” In 1988, N.W.A. railed against such overcompensating black cops in “[F---] tha Police,” which warned that it was even worse to be stopped by an interracial partnership than by two white cops: “But don’t let it be a black and a white one / ’Cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top / Black police showing out for the white cop.”

Gender could intensify the phenomenon. During the first season of “The Shield,” which aired in 2002, Danni Sofer (Catherine Dent), the lone female patrol officer in her precinct, rallied partner Julien Lowe (Michael Jace), who was both black and a closeted gay man, to go knock heads after a police officer was murdered, telling him that “we gotta make sure these a------- know who’s in charge.” That same year, early in the run of “The Wire,” Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), who is black, gay and female, proved her bona fides by rushing in to help beat a young drug dealer who knocked down an older white officer.

Above: Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless as Mary Beth Lacey and Christine Cagney, respectively, the partners featured in “Cagney & Lacey.” The show depicted the frustrations and perseverance of women trying to find their places in male-dominated police departments. (CBS/Everett Collection)

If fictional black officers had to prove that they were loyal, female cops had to prove that they were tough enough to be police. As P.A.J. Waddington put it in an academic analysis of police culture, “When women officers complain about sex discrimination, it usually refers to being prevented from doing ‘real police work,’ that is all those things that male officers value and try to keep for themselves.”

“Police Story,” NBC’s anthology series about LAPD officers, captured those tensions. In one episode, LaSorda (Hugh O’Brian), a veteran patrolman, was disgusted to be partnered with Culhane (Sue Ane Langdon), a rookie female officer who brings the clutter of her purse and complications of her child care into his radio car. But after Culhane’s gentle style of interrogation elicited a valuable description of a suspect from a rape victim, and after she proved she could hold her own as the wheelman in a car chase, LaSorda admitted that though he would prefer a man beside him in a firefight, he respected what Culhane brought to the job.

“Cagney & Lacey,” the first female buddy cop show, was even more direct about the harassment and demeaning assignments that female officers experienced.


“Homicide: Life on the Street” becomes one of the first television shows to depict multiple fully realized black cops.

Their colleagues complained about the arrival of black and female cops, demanding to know “why guys with families are getting laid off and broads are getting promoted.” In the series pilot, when the partners hope for an assignment more demanding than “returning lost kids and searching women prisoners,” they are sent undercover on a drug investigation — as prostitutes. “When you’re doing a man’s job, you don’t want anyone to think you’ve lost your femininity,” joked Cagney, then played by Meg Foster.

Pretending to be hookers might not have been what Cagney and Lacey (Tyne Daly) imagined when they signed up to be cops, but they were willing to stick it out to get assignments they viewed as real police work. Like fictional black cops mistaken for criminals, they proved their loyalty by bearing up under insult.

Police shows sometimes bent over backward to explain how hyper-feminine women fit into hyper-masculine squadrooms. In “NYPD Blue,” Lt. Fancy (James McDaniel) worried that curvaceous civilian liaison Donna Abandando (Gail O’Grady) would cause tumult among his squad.

Or directors and showrunners could acknowledge that women who wanted good assignments and to be free from harassment would have to fit in rather than stand out, and risk unsexing their characters. Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), the lone female member of the squad when “Homicide” debuted, was a groundbreaking character, but audiences didn’t know how to respond to a tough, unglamorous female cop in 1993; she was ultimately replaced.

But before Howard transferred off the homicide squad, she provided a unique insight into what it might be like for a woman to work among male cops and criminals, and yet stand apart from them.

“I’m surrounding by men solving crimes by men against men,” Howard told a department therapist. Out to dinner with her boyfriend, she added, “He’ll tell a joke, and I’m supposed to laugh, and I do. But I’m thinking that an hour ago I see two guys who knifed each other in a sports bar over a bet, over the Super Bowl, and … I think, is that you? Could you knife someone in cold blood over the Super Bowl?”

“The Wire” resolved the one-of-the-guys dilemma by making its most prominent female cop, Kima Greggs, sexually off-limits. She had come out of the closet, she explained to her future partner Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), because “cops are dogs.” Acknowledging that she was gay was one way to stop being pestered by fellow officers.

Greggs’s sexual orientation provoked a different kind of resentment in the show’s early going. “All I see is some stuck-up dyke b---- who hasn’t been in [the Criminal Investigations Division] half the time you or me, and she’s always telling us what to do,” grumbled Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi), in the first season. But in the same way that “The Wire” bolstered her credentials by showing that she was quick to fight, she would prove that she was just as blue and just as vulnerable to cops’ pathologies as any white man: In later seasons, she would become an absent parent and emulate McNulty’s womanizing. And like other black and female officers, she joined in the Irish wakes that honored dead detectives, where they all sang along to the Pogues: “I’m a free-born man of the USA.”

Above: Capt. Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher, right) with Detective Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Holt is a television rarity, a black, gay cop, and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” uses his experiences to explore the evolution of the New York Police Department. (Eddy Chen/FOX)

“The Wire” may have used Greggs’s sexual orientation to eliminate a point of tension on the series. But it also suggested that gay men, particularly those who wanted to rise into the executive ranks, might feel compelled to stay closeted when the series revealed that the abrasive Deputy Commissioner William Rawls (John Doman) was gay by showing him fleetingly in a gay bar. In “Southland,” Officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz), who was divorced from a woman, generally kept his sexual orientation quiet at work, though toward the end of the series, he took a homophobic partner to a gay bar to shame him out of making anti-gay remarks.

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which premiered the year “Southland” concluded its run and is now in its fourth season, became the first show to explore how attitudes toward gay officers have changed in a single department over time.

Series co-creator Dan Goor originally imagined that Capt. Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher, securing his place in the fictional police hall of fame) would be a character whose career was constrained by homophobia. But Jon Murad, a technical adviser for the show, pointed Goor to the example of Charles Cochrane, the first New York City police officer to come out as openly gay. Murad convinced Goor that an officer like Holt might have been embraced as proof of the department’s progress, but in the process, might have been turned into a mascot and denied the opportunity to do real police work.


“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” premieres, introducing audiences to Capt. Raymond Holt, an openly gay black officer, whose experiences offer a window into NYPD history.

And while Holt wasn’t originally written as black, the result was a character whose experience as a police officer is defined not only by his gayness but also by his race — in one flashback, Holt reported for duty, only for a white detective to ask whether he was turning himself in — and by his class, since he is married to a Columbia University professor who resents the police force.

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” may be a comedy, but with a cast even more diverse than the one in “Homicide” and scenarios that require it to engage with race, class, gender and the status of police in the community, it’s as quietly radical in its optimism as “The Wire” was in its pessimism. If doing police work turned black and female cops on “The Wire” into honorary white men at a sometimes dismal cost, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is the rare police show to argue that police departments can’t make their officers all the same — and in fact that it’s better for departments to expand their styles and missions than to force cops of all races, genders and sexual orientations into the same narrow mold.

Above: Zulu — the stage name of actor Gilbert Lani Kauhi — as Kono Kalakaua in “Hawaii Five-O.” Kauhi eventually quit the show, but though he believed that Kono was a stereotype, the character also sometimes provided a sharp counterpoint to Jack Lord’s Steve McGarrett. (CBS via Getty Images)

As with our debates about policing and public policy, pop culture’s treatment of policing and race tends to focus most on the experiences of African American officers. But the depictions of Latino and Asian American cops summoned different issues, evoking questions both about dual loyalties and, particularly for Asian American cops, the possibility of assimilation.

Joseph Wambaugh, who observed the racial dynamics of policing during his time in the LAPD, wrote in his novel “The New Centurions” about newly minted cops, including one who had hoped to assimilate. Instead, that officer found that police work brought him back in touch with his Mexican heritage. In “Police Story,” Officer Joe Gaitan’s (Pedro Armendariz Jr.) captain assumed that he used to run with a street gang; on patrol, a Chicano man accused Gaitan of selling out. That exchange echoed almost 40 years later in David Ayer’s film “End of Watch,” when a Latina officer (America Ferrera) found herself in a tense confrontation with a Latina gang leader who suggested that the cop was in the wrong profession.

Asian officers, by contrast, sometimes functioned as cultural translators for white colleagues. In the original “Hawaii Five-O,” Kono, a Hawaiian policeman played by Gilbert Lani Kauhi under the stage name Zulu, provided regular reminders to Detective Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) that McGarrett’s perspective wasn’t the only, or even the most important, one. In an early scene, when McGarrett was puzzled by the inability to find witnesses to identify a white person, Kono told him, in a nifty reversal of white racism, “You’d be surprised how much tourists in aloha outfits look alike to hotel staff.”

In other stories, Asian American cops presented successful arguments for assimilation. Both Detective Sgt. Nick Yemana (Jack Soo) of “Barney Miller” and Sgt. Harry Truman Ioki (Dustin Nguyen) of the original TV version of “21 Jump Street” were Japanese American. Ioki introduced himself by explaining that “I learned English by watching ‘Dragnet’ in reruns”; he’s another successful product of the long shadow that Jack Webb’s Joe Friday cast over pop-culture history. And in “Southland,” Officer Jessica Tang (Lucy Liu) proves as adept at covering up a bad shooting as any old-school Irish cop evading prosecution.

Despite the variations in these stories, pop culture’s message is essentially consistent: No matter your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, if you prove yourself loyal enough, your police department can turn you into an honorary white man — which is to say, a full citizen.

But what does that citizenship get you, and at what cost? To return to Tom Wolfe, all the cops become Irish, but the citizenship they win on the jobs is for themselves and themselves alone. And during a dark night at a Sparta, Miss., train station, or after a long interrogation of an innocent man in Baltimore, or on a street corner in a New York red-light district, fictional cops have to confront what the prize for their sacrifice is truly worth.