Police have had a major hand in filming cop shows since the days of “Dragnet,” and critics say it’s had an impact on how America views its law enforcement
“The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
Every episode of “Dragnet,” the godfather of TV police procedurals that ran in the 1950s, began with these words. They were a promise that what viewers were about to see was a faithful re-creation of how police detectives investigate crime and how police as a whole conduct themselves in their jobs to protect and serve. It is a tradition that has continued in modern times with shows like “Hill Street Blues,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Law & Order,” “SWAT” and hundreds of crime shows that have become part of the backbone of network primetime programming.
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But as millions around the world protest and demand accountability from police, a larger examination of the police procedural as a genre may be coming. Procedurals aren’t necessarily aimed at addressing systemic problems in law enforcement. While problems within a police department may be the basis for an episode, each show often ends with the case closed in a self-contained narrative.
“What we have seen evolve over the decades is an entire television genre that police see as basically a giant public relations arm,” Rashid Shabazz, spokesperson for civil rights group Color of Change, told TheWrap.
In January, Color of Change released a 78-page study titled “Normalizing Injustice,” which analyzed 26 crime TV series and over 1,900 characters within them. The study found that police procedurals have had a major impact on how the public views police even as they misrepresent many realities about the criminal justice system. Shabazz said that of the 353 episodes of crime TV analyzed in the study, there were almost no examples of a major character in law enforcement being held accountable for wrongdoing.
The History of “Dragnet”
That public perception can be traced back to “Dragnet,” which began with an encounter between show creator Jack Webb and LAPD officer Marty Wynn during the actor’s days in radio in the late 1940s. Wynn complained that a detective series that Webb had starred in was nothing like real police work, and that gave Webb the idea to work with him to remedy this. With Wynn providing actual LAPD case files and advice on how police investigate crimes, Webb created “Dragnet” in 1949 as an NBC radio show that moved to television two years later.
But that jump meant that Webb needed to do more than just write scripts with detailed police and legal jargon. He needed actual police cars and sets that looked like real police precincts to keep up the expectation among viewers that what they see on “Dragnet” is “real.”
Enter William H. Parker, the LAPD chief tasked with cleaning up corruption in the force when he was promoted from Internal Affairs around 1950. While Parker was reluctant about taking part in the development of a TV show, he couldn’t deny how “Dragnet” and its hero, Joe Friday, had burnished LAPD’s image in the minds of millions of radio listeners. To seal the deal, Webb made Parker the perfect offer.
“Essentially, Parker would serve as a senior producer for the show,” crime reporter John Buntin wrote in his book about Parker’s career, “L.A. Noir.” “The department would review every script. Total commitment to the highest ideals of police professionalism would be the program’s goal. Eventually, Parker relented and gave Webb permission to shoot the pilot in City Hall.”
During the original run of “Dragnet,” Webb and Parker would work closely on the show’s development, building a personal friendship as Webb’s admiration for the chief and his force grew. Eventually, “Dragnet” inspired Parker to keep using TV as a PR device for his force, even appearing as a guest on the panel show “What’s My Line” in 1955 after “Dragnet” got a feature film adaptation.
But in 1965, the entire nation got a view of the LAPD that was nothing like what they saw on “Dragnet.” The Watts riots dragged Parker into the spotlight, exposing the LAPD’s abusive treatment of black and Latino communities as Parker infamously compared the Black participants in the riots to “monkeys in a zoo.”
“It is estimated that by 1970, 45% of the metropolitan area of Los Angeles will be Negro,” Parker said in a TV interview during the riots. “If you want any protection for your home and family . . . you’re going to have to get in and support a strong police department. If you don’t, come 1970, God help you.” Parker never got to 1970. He died of a heart attack one year after the Watts riots. That same year, Webb decided to bring “Dragnet” back to TV, still with the LAPD’s support. The show had been canceled by NBC in 1959, but reruns were still airing in syndication through the 1960s, keeping the show’s appeal alive even during the Watts riots.
Mindful of what happened in Watts, Webb wrote episodes tackling racial issues; but always with Sgt. Friday and his fellow officers portrayed as good-faith guardians of the community. One episode, “The Big Problem,” sees Friday try to mediate between two fellow cops and a black couple who feels they were discriminated against at a traffic stop. The episode ends with Parker’s successor, LAPD Chief Thomas Redding, urging “mutual tolerance and understanding between citizens and police.”
Police Shows Evolved — Yet Stayed the Same
Few of the police procedurals that are on TV today have the same extent of oversight that the LAPD had over “Dragnet,” but the show’s influence can still be felt.
In an interview last February, Chris Long, creator of the short-lived Fox show “Deputy,” said he was inspired by Jim McDonnell, who served as L.A. County sheriff from 2014-2018 and came under fire after he continued cooperation between his department and the Trump Administration’s ICE deportation raids. “He was adamant about saying that he doesn’t feel like the police department was represented in a positive manner, and that all you saw in the news was the horrific things that police were doing, but you didn’t see all the good that they did,” Long said.
In part because of increased confidentiality, shows like “Law & Order” have shifted from Webb’s reliance on direct case file access to crime reports in the news, hence the oft-used phrase “ripped from the headlines.” But major police departments have appointed officers as coordinators to provide quick answers to producers of shows like Amazon Prime’s “Bosch” to check the accuracy of particular scenes.
Full-time consultants are made on an individual basis, often with former officers trying to turn their years of expertise into a career behind-the-scenes in the entertainment industry. The demand for “accuracy” that began with “Dragnet” still continues today, and writers rooms devote themselves to satisfying it.
Shabazz and Color of Change warn that this focus on authenticity has an impact on the portrayal of police, even on an unconscious level. “When writers rely too much on police as consultants, they are only showing one part of a broader reality,” Shabazz said. “As we spoke with writers, what we have heard is that police say that they can’t use this information on shows unless it is used in a particular way, and that often gives the advantage to shows that portray police officers and their profession as valorous even if their characters perform wrongful actions that go against code of conduct for actual police.”
Jody Armour, professor at the USC Gould School of Law, argued that TV cops’ violent actions have become normalized because of a recurring trope in procedurals: showing how tough the job is.
“Scripts for these shows will regularly be about the danger of the job and how often they are reacting to situations in the ‘fog of war’,” Armour told TheWrap. “Because they constantly portray policing as a job filled with rapid-fire decisions, that can lead people watching to absolve them from any overreactions or bad behavior they make.”
One show that didn’t try to make such excuses, and led to hostility rather than assistance from the LAPD, was “The Shield.” In a Twitter thread posted Thursday, executive producer Glen Mazzara recounted how the hit FX series was based on the LAPD’s Rampart CRASH division, a corrupt anti-gang crime unit accused of police brutality, narcotics sales and planting evidence, among other offenses. The show was even going to be called “Rampart”…until the LAPD gave the show the anti-“Dragnet” treatment and threatened legal action against the production.
Whenever you see cop shows use badges of real-life police departments, those shows paid a fee to have them appear on the show. Policies differ for each department, but all major departments have trademarked their names, uniforms and badges. Currently, the LAPD’s filming guidelines do not allow any depiction of their trademarked images. But how that is enforced, as Mazzara noted, can influence how cop shows are made.
“They threatened to sue FOX if we ever mentioned that our show was based on the LAPD,” Mazzara tweeted. “In fact, FOX was so terrified of upsetting LAPD when we started shooting, they made us have our characters wear their badges on the wrong side of the uniform. Take a look. US law enforcement wears their badges on the left side. ‘The Shield’ cops wear it on the right. We rationalized it as this being an ugly mirror version but the fact is, LAPD bullied us.” Spokespersons for the LAPD did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
By contrast, a show that has gotten consistent aid from police departments and private police consultants is “Law & Order.” Since premiering on NBC in 1990 at a time of high crime rates in America, the show and its multiple spinoffs took the pro-police treatment of shows like “Dragnet” and extended it to district attorneys, treating prosecutors as the heroes rather than defense attorneys like Perry Mason and Matlock. “The prevailing concern was all about protecting the innocent, defenseless public from the scourge of crime and terrorism, not about protecting the innocence of those wrongly accused,” the Color of Change report said.
Critics argue that the constant image of murderers and rapists getting arrested and grilled by prosecutors on “Law and Order” and its offshoots does not reflect the reality of the criminal justice system. Armour noted that 97% of criminal cases are resolved by guilty pleas, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers — and many police departments have large backlogs of rape kits and unresolved sexual offense investigations. That’s a sharp contrast to the swift, focused justice handed out by Detective Olivia Benson and her team on “Law & Order: SVU.”
“We already have a great deal of money going into policing, but it is used to hire officers for smaller crimes and not for the more labor-intensive work of policing needed for things like rape cases and homicides,” Armour said. “LAPD hires dozens of officers to police Skid Row. Why not use that money towards housing and services for the homeless and focus the police on more serious crimes instead of policing the poor?”
In terms of reforming TV cop dramas, Color of Change strongly suggested that crime shows take an approach that is already being pushed throughout Hollywood: more diverse writers rooms. “Law & Order: SVU,” for example, currently has two writers of color on its staff, but had none during the 2018 TV season that Color of Change analyzed for its report that had 12 credited writers.
“There needs to be more voices shaping these shows, and not just writers of different races who have different experiences with criminal justice,” Shabazz said. “Showrunners need to invite community and advocacy groups and people from other walks of life as consultants, and treat their advice as essential to the accuracy of their shows the way they do for police consultants.”
There have been films and TV shows that have portrayed police violence and corruption not as a problem pinned on a few bad apples but on the entire orchard. Films like Kathryn Bigelow’s 2017 drama “Detroit” and 2018’s “The Hate U Give” have tackled racist police violence in the past and present, and HBO’s “The Wire” remains acclaimed for showing how cops and criminals are both capable of humanity and inhumanity.
“If these shows aren’t constantly reevaluating and challenging perceptions of police, they tend to end up normalizing bad police practice instead of driving towards police accountability that’s more like what we need in the world,” Shabazz said. “One that makes sure that all are protected instead of saying that it’s okay for police to bend the rules in ways that lead to fatal consequence for black and brown people.”
For more, read Part 2 in our series on modern TV cop shows: After George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, TV Rethinks If Cops Should Always Be the Good Guys
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