The Dragnet Effect: How TV Has Obscured Police Brutality

In the most influential police procedural ever, even Joe Friday, America’s archetypal “good cop,” was blind to the problem.

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Nearly 50 years ago, the NBC show Dragnet, the most influential police procedural ever, broadcast an episode that called for its hero, Sergeant Joe Friday, to debate fictionalized 1960s critics of American-law enforcement. The plot was “designed to educate viewers about policemen in general and the LAPD in particular,” Michael J. Hayde and Harry Morgan write in their history of the show. It aired on September 19, 1968, about three years after the Watts Riots, during a decade when anti-police attitudes were pervading mass culture as never before.

Watching the episode today affords insight into how a current debate was framed in a bygone era. But there is a larger reason that this cultural artifact rewards scrutiny now.

Dragnet was a lie.

The idealized image of the Los Angeles Police Department that the series portrayed, of a thoroughly modern agency dispassionately dispensing justice, is sharply at odds with the historical reality of an imperfect force beset by racism, brutality, and decades of scandals. Dragnet’s writers didn’t know that at the time. But the LAPD brass that they worked with formally and informally knew, as they advised and shaped a show that billed its stories as true “with names changed to protect the innocent,” that it elided what many policemen routinely did on the job.

Dragnet would never have a plot device as suited to grappling with the LAPD’s shortcomings as that 1968 debate. But it substituted polarized views for a true reckoning, helping to set a dysfunctional pattern for similar debates right up to our own time. Then as now, defenders of law enforcement made a compelling argument for its general importance and for the sometimes forgotten humanity of individual cops. But in doing so, they refuted the premises only of their most radical critics while ignoring much more urgent evidence of grave dysfunction and abuses.

In that sense, Dragnet exemplifies a myopic pro-police posture that has, for decades, stymied reforms needed if law enforcement is to live up to its professed ideals.

The Debate Episode

The setup was simple. At the request of LAPD public affairs, Sgt. Friday and Officer Joe Gannon agreed to appear on a program called Speak Your Mind. The host “is not exactly what you’d call a friend,” they were told. “Maybe you could change his mind a little.” The two police officers would turn out to have answers to every criticism.

Host Chuck Bly kicked off the show, which had a studio audience, by saying,  “Tonight we're going to get to the nitty gritty about your friendly fuzz, your local police.”

He introduced the officers and the two men they’d be debating:

  • Professor Tom Higgins, historian, social critic, and political activist.
  • Jessie Chaplain, editor and publisher of LA's favorite underground newspaper.

The producers of Dragnet worked closely with the LAPD to present police officers in a good light. Per usual, the episode showed viewers the world from the perspective of exceptionally eloquent, honorable cops who were nonetheless portrayed as typical. Pitted against caricatures of police critics that AP called “very avant garde types with beards,” Sgt. Friday and Officer Gannon were often persuasive.

The Character of Police Officers

The first exchange began with Mr. Chaplain, the alternative newspaper editor, who said, “As the topic tonight is, ‘The Fuzz: Who needs them?’ let me begin by saying, not me… As far as I’m concerned you might as well ask who needed the Gestapo.”

He argued that it is “the establishment” in every fascist state that needs police, not the people. “The establishment needs the goon squads with the mace and the clubs and the guns and the tear gas to preserve the evils of the status quo,” he continued. “You ask me who needs them and I say it’s not the black people, it’s not the Mexican Americans and it’s not the students. They’re just trying to make a new and better world.”

Sgt. Friday was unruffled.

“Mr. Chaplain, I’m not sure who or what this establishment is that you keep talking about,” he said. “If you’re talking about the people who hire us and pay our salaries, well you’re talking about yourself and Professor Higgins there and Mr. Bly. You’re talking about the taxpayers ... Do you really think that when we get a call about a robbery or a killing the first thing that we do is check out the victim’s bank balance?”

Police and Protesters

Enter Professor Higgins, who  pursued a different line of criticism.

“I’m less concerned with the police as a so-called law enforcement agency than as a social arbiter,” he said. “If they’d stick to playing cops and robbers it would be okay. If someone swipes my car, sure, I want it back. And it’s your job to find it for me.”

But if demonstrating against a president or a war contractor, “I don’t want some goon who I as a taxpayer am supporting to break my head or shoot me!” he insisted. “I’ve yet to meet a cop who wasn’t a reactionary. Whose attitude wasn’t I’ve got mine, buster, and I couldn’t care less if you starved. Now they like their guns and badges and they like the power that it gives them. It’s people they don’t like.”

Sgt. Friday remained unruffled.

“Frankly, I wish we could stick to cops and robbers. It’s hard work but at least the only enemies you make are the criminals, not the very people you’re paid to protect,” he observed.  “We’re not supposed to be social arbiters. We’re policemen. If the president of the United States visits Los Angeles it’s our job to protect him because he is the president. Now if you want a parade all you need is a permit from the police commission. We’ll be there, but not only to protect his life–to protect you from people who might violently disagree with your point of view. Now, as a citizen, you have the right to demonstrate. But you have no right to break the law and interfere with the rights of others in so doing. And that includes the president.”

Mr. Chaplain was having none of that argument. “Break whose law? The establishment’s,” he said. “Property rights are all they’re concerned about, not human rights. And the president: if we don’t demonstrate, how do you suggest we reach him?” Sgt. Friday countered that “like most of us, you might try the ballot box.”  He added that “the same book of laws that gives you the right to demonstrate ... gives others protection of life and property if your demonstrations get out of hand.”

Good Cop, Bad Cop

By this point, Mr. Bly, the host, was impressed. “We’d all agree that you’re exceptions to the general run of policemen,” he told the detectives. “What about the boys in the black and white patrol cars? Are they concerned with anything but busting heads? They’re hardly made of the same stuff as you and Officer Gannon, right?”

“Wrong. They’re made of exactly the same stuff,” Sgt. Friday said. “Everybody on the job from the chief on down starts the same way in those black and whites. And everybody takes civil service exams for promotion.”

Gun Control

After a commercial break the debate changed formats, with members of the studio audience posing questions to the panel. A middle aged man named Harry Wilson complained about gun laws. “It’s my constitutional right as an American citizen to own a pistol,” he said. “If I’ve got the cash to pay for it, it’s nobody’s business if I buy one.”

The two officers asked the man why he wanted a gun, how he’d hide it from his children, and why he didn’t just dial 911. And they suggested that in a nuclear age his gun was highly unlikely to make the difference in defending America from foreign attack.

Here Mr. Bly interjected, “In other words, you men are in favor of gun registration.”

“No sir, we didn’t say that,” Sgt. Friday said. “It’s not our position as civil servants to state any preference. Gun registration and control, like all other laws... is a matter for the people to decide. And we work for the people. Whatever they decide we’ll enforce.”

The War on Drugs

A younger audience member asked “why smoking pot is illegal but drinking booze ain’t.”

Mr. Chaplain answered first.

“It’s because society is corrupt and because things are run strictly for the profit of the establishment and enforced by the hypocrites in uniform,” he says, “that’s why.”

Sgt. Friday disagreed.

“Society puts restrictions on drinking: get drunk and you get arrested,” he said. “Even bartenders don’t want you to go away drunk. There’s too much chance you won’t live to come back. Besides, nobody likes to be around a drunk, not even another drunk.” Then he strayed farther into fantasy. With marijuana, he said, “the whole purpose is to get so high that you don’t know who or what you are. There’s no such thing as a quickie or one to be sociable. And in pot-smoking circles if you’re not flying you’re a square. And flying means you don’t know where you are or what you’re doing. Son, no matter how you slice that, that’s dangerous.”

“What about LSD?” the young man asked. “The police are against that too. Even Aldous Huxley dug acid.”

“Aldous Huxley experimented with LSD under a doctor’s supervision,” Sgt. Friday said. “And the total amount of LSD he took in all of his experiments amounted to less than most kids take for a single trip.” What came next has got to be the very best line in the episode and maybe the series. “Now I’ve heard an awful lot of propaganda about how the right kind of sugar cube can expand your mind,” he said. “Son, if you want to expand your mind pay a visit to your public library. Try the library, boy. You’ll discover the place is full of magical cubes. They call them books.”

When Laws Conflict With Conscience

“Before you were talking about respecting all the laws,” another questioner said. “What about the bad laws? Thoreau said that one man could be a majority if he was in the right. Doesn’t a man of conscience have the obligation to disobey outmoded laws?”

Mr. Chaplain replied that “he has the obligation and the duty to his country.”

Said Professor Higgins, “If he doesn’t every good man from Jesus Christ on has been all wet.”

Sgt. Friday was having none of it.

“If you break the law you must stand trial. Then it’s up to your peers to judge your crime,” he said, affording proper respect to jury nullification. “It’s their twelve consciences against yours. If you don’t like a law,” he continued, “you can try to persuade your Congressman to help change it. Or you can join together and demonstrate that your conscience isn’t the only one opposed to the law. In a democracy, the minority has the right to convince the majority that laws should be changed. But that does not give the minority the right to ignore the laws that exist.”

Officer Gannon concured.

“A killer’s conscience tells him it’s okay to murder,” he said. “What happens to your majority of one then?”

Sgt. Friday added, “without laws and the people to enforce them you’ve got anarchy... the law of the jungle. Now an awful lot of people have bled and died for an idea called democracy, and idea that people are better than animals and that a civilized nation is better than a jungle. A lot of people are still fighting and dying for that belief. A lot of them wear badges because they believe in those American ideals.”

Cops Beating Up Blacks

The only black questioner was a crude caricature named Mambo Mabanda. “I’m the president of the Black Widow Party and I’m here to tell you honkies where you can put all that bull about democracy,” he said. “Y’all are a bunch of Nazis only you don’t dress as sharp. Not near as sharp, man. You boys drive through Watts and all you want to do is catch one of us alone so you can work it over or blow our heads off. You tell us about that, Mr. Charley, and tell us good, ‘cuz I been there man, I been there.”

Here Sgt. Friday channels the white moderate that so disappointed Martin Luther King. “I’m not here to say that race relations have always been perfect on either side,” he said. “But things are improving. The chief of police is seeing to that and that’s our number one priority.” He didn’t mention what, exactly, the chief was doing.

As for police brutality, he continued, “that’s another story. We try to prevent it in the first place by not hiring brutal men. Only one of twenty-five who applies for a job in the department ever makes it. We have three man panels composed of one sergeant and two civilians who pass on every man who wants to go to the academy. One black ball and that man is out.” He acknowledged that the system is not perfect. “Occasionally a bad apple slips through or a good apple turns bad,” he granted.

“Well, my friend, you don’t want him on the job and the department doesn’t either. One trigger happy cop making headlines is all it takes to give all police officers a black eye.”

Personally, he said, “I’ve been on the job 12 years. In that time I’ve drawn my gun eight times and I’ve fired it twice. And that’s about average. There are a great many officers who’ve never fired their revolver.” And there was a shooting board for those that did. “If any police officer fires his gun, even if he misses, he has to make a report to that board. If he doesn’t have a good reason… he’s in big trouble.”

Officer Shoots Kid

Here’s how Dragnet addressed the issue:

Mr Mabanda: What about that 15-year-old boy who was shot down last week by one of you brave boys in blue. Tell us about him, will you do that, man?

Officer Gannon: That 15-year-old was sniping at passersby from a rooftop. He wounded six people, one of them seriously, before the officer got there. The officer was a better shot.

Sgt. Friday: You can be shot just as dead by a 15-year-old as by his grandfather.

A subsequent exchange addressed cop killers and community policing:

Mr Mabanda: Oh yeah? Answer me this. Let one of you blue cats catch it and you all get excited. You really drop everything to go after a cop killer, don’t you?

Sgt. Friday: You bet we do, but not just because he killed a friend of ours. Now you figure it. If a man shoots down an armed officer, do you think he’d hesitate to shoot down an unarmed citizen?

Mr Mabanda: Okay, answer me this. Why is it that you guys is always in patrol cars sitting on cycles? Why don’t you boys walk a beat like the fuzz back east? you don’t mind protecting us, you just don’t want to have to mingle with us, is that the idea?

Officer Gannon: This is a city on wheels so we have a police department on wheels. We have to cover 54 square miles and we’ve got only 5,700 men to cover them. 5,700. New York has 28,000 policemen. Chicago has 12,000.

Then a Latino man came to the microphone. He said that he applied for a job with the LAPD and was denied. He demanded to know why the LAPD was prejudiced against Mexicans.

“I can assure you that it wasn’t because you’re a Mexican American,” Sgt. Friday assures him. “Just offhand, I’d guess you were rejected because of the height requirements.”

The man acknowledged that he wasn’t nearly 5 foot 8, but said he could take care of himself and knew judo. “What’s height got to do with it?” he asked. Sgt. Friday answered that in the police department’s experience, “a taller man is less likely to have to take care of himself, as you put it. Studies have proven that the injury rate is much higher for shorter policemen.” So no racial discrimination in LAPD hiring circa 1968, just confused minorities who didn’t realize that they were too short to be cops.

Final Statements

Professor Higgins began by complimenting his adversaries. “I think the officers have made some good points,” he said. “They’ve defended the system about as well as they could.”

He added, “but the system is actually indefensible. The system promises equal justice for all. But for the poor, the black people, the Mexican American, that promise is a lie. Oh, for the rich, the police are a protective agency. For the poor they’re professional harassers. I don’t like the system and I don’t like the sort of people who wear guns and badges and enforce that system’s rules like so many machines.”

Sgt. Friday followed with his closing speech.

“We’re not machines,” he said. “If we were maybe we’d never make mistakes. We’d never overreact, never make errors... Unfortunately we’re human beings, not computers. Now, the book tells us to use the force necessary to apprehend the suspect. How much force is necessary? No computer can make that decision when you’re chasing an armed suspect down a dark alley. A man has to make that decision and he has to make it fast. Sometimes he doesn’t use enough and he gets himself killed.”

Mr. Bly interjected, “A man with a gun has no business making mistakes.”

“We try not to,” Sgt. Friday said. “But we all make mistakes. Now maybe its only a matter of putting the carbon paper in backwards in the typewriter or burning the toast or missing a business appointment. You make that sort of a mistake and you say, nobody’s perfect. I’m only human. But a police officer’s mistakes are a matter of life and death and his decisions are made in a split second. Give him some credit for having the guts to make those decisions. His job and his life are riding on each one of them.”

Dragnet In the Context of  History

The message of Dragnet was never articulated more directly and fully than by Sgt. Joe Friday in that single episode. The script, written by Burt Prelutsky, naturally made the show’s lead look better than his interlocutors. Like Professor Higgins, I too think that the officers made some good points. I can even see how someone watching the episode or reading its arguments today would come away trusting police more than their critics. I invite all those who felt persuaded by Sgt. Friday’s arguments to hold onto that feeling for one moment more. Now consider that you’ve been led astray.

Sgt. Friday said all the right things about being a cop and portrayed an LAPD that shared his values. The problem is that the police department he described was fantasy.

Hindsight makes it clear that William H. Parker, who helped make several iterations of Dragnet happen in his role as the LAPD’s chief from 1950 to 1965, ran a police department that was racist, brutal to minorities, and a failure at many aspects of policing, even as it made significant, laudable strides in reducing corruption. For decades afterward, the LAPD would often be mired in excessive force allegations, racial controversies, and some mind-blowing misconduct scandals. Many crucial reforms and improvements weren’t made until after the turn of the century.

That isn’t merely the judgment of anti-cop radicals.

​As NYPD Chief William Bratton, formerly chief of police in Los Angeles, told a documentarian about the Dragnet era, “It came at a great cost, the professionalization of the department. And the cost was its relationship with its minority communities, particularly the African American community. The tension, the distrust, the actual hatred, was of such significance that two of the most significant civil disturbances in the history of the nation occurred in this city and both were sparked in some sense by the distrust and the dislike and indeed the hatred of the police.”

The riots were a waste and a tragedy.

But the hatred was well-founded and inevitable. In Dragnet’s telling, the LAPD’s number one priority was race relations. But Chief Parker said of black Angelenos, “They came in and flooded a community that wasn't prepared to meet them, despite the fact that we got all this relief money. We didn't ask these people to come here." Leo Branton Jr., a civil-rights attorney in that era, declared that "a complaint of police brutality by almost any negro citizen goes almost completely unheeded."

Former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, born in 1953, once said of his teenage years, “there were many times when I was intimidated and afraid of the police. As a teen late at night you were as afraid of a police officer or sheriff's deputy as you were of a gang member.”

Prelutsky, the screenwriter, didn’t know any of that when he wrote the episode. As a boy, he had moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, and remembers how surprised his father was that in their new hometown, it wasn’t standard operating procedure to fold up a five-dollar bill with one’s driver’s license when pulled over for a traffic stop. “I always thought that cops were pretty clean in L.A.,” he told me Thursday in a phone interview. In fact, he’d been stopped himself many times while a student at UCLA passing through Beverly Hills late at night, and he never blamed the cops. “I don't think a black person in America was ever stopped as many times as I was. I was so young looking for my age. And in those days nobody was going through Beverly Hills that late at night,” he recalled. “They didn't hit or harass me, they stopped me and asked for ID, where are you coming, where are you going. And I always though that if I were a cop in Beverly Hills I'd be stopping me. I looked suspicious! They asked a question, I gave an answer, and I'd be on my way.” Most white people at the time had similarly untroubled relations with the police.

As for Angelenos who had a different experience? “I didn't hear those kind of stories about LA cops,” he said. And once he started writing for the show most of what he did hear about police naturally filtered through the officers who worked on the show.

Dragnet’s creator, Jack Webb, always had police officers advising on scripts. “My relationship with cops was just to sit around and drink and listen to their stories,” Prelutsky said, adding that he was never as close to them as his boss. “Jack would often be stopped driving drunk, and when they found out it was him, one patrolmen would get behind the wheel of his Cadillac and the other would follow behind in the patrol car back to his house,” he recalled. “I, on the other hand, was once driving to Universal and got pulled over for driving too slowly. I mentioned to the police officer that I was on my way to Dragnet where I was I writer, but I got a ticket anyway.”

The LAPD’s problems did not end in the 1960s.

Throughout the 1970s racial profiling was rampant. And before that decade was over, a William H. Parker protege, Daryl Gates, was running the LAPD. This is a man who tried to explain the number of black people dying when put in chokeholds by LAPD cops by saying their "veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people." Many of the stories from his tenure are jaw-dropping.

Here’s one:

On Aug.  1, 1988, scores of Los Angeles police officers descended on two apartment buildings on the corner of 39th Street and Dalton Avenue in southwest Los Angeles.  It was an all-out search for drugs and a massive show of force designed to deliver a strong message to the gangs.

The police smashed furniture, punched holes in walls, destroyed family photos, ripped down cabinet doors, slashed sofas, shattered mirrors, hammered toilets to porcelain shards, doused clothing with bleach and emptied refrigerators.  Some officers left their own graffiti: "LAPD Rules." "Rollin' 30s Die." Dozens of residents from the apartments and surrounding neighborhood were rounded up.  Many were humiliated or beaten, but none was charged with a crime.  The raid netted fewer than six ounces of marijuana and less than an ounce of cocaine.  The property damage was so great that the Red Cross offered assistance to 10 adults and 12 minors who were left homeless.   

Now what was it that Sgt. Friday said? “Occasionally a bad apple slips through or a good apple turns bad.” In the 1990s, during the Rampart Scandal, 70 of those bad apples all somehow wound up associated with the same unit. What are the odds?

Over the last 50 years, no LAPD sergeant with his eyes open could possibly have held the LAPD in the high esteem of a Sgt. Friday, at least if he had Friday’s professed values; improving race relations was seldom the LAPD’s number one priority, “bad apples” were always numerous among its rank-and-file, “mistakes” were as often driven by official policy as unavoidable human fallibility, political spying happened again and again, and police brutality was both common and frequently unpunished by department brass and prosecutors. This history is a disgrace, and those who knowingly obscured large parts of it from the public acted disgracefully.

To many modern viewers, raised with a painful awareness of the racism and brutality of policing 50 years ago, what’s ultimately striking about that Dragnet episode is how hard it tried to make Friday and his partner into the voices of reason, knocking down a caricatured liberal and leftist in the debate; and how despite the stacked deck, it's Friday and his partner who look as much like caricatures today. They’re blind to the LAPD’s problems and deaf to those trying to articulate them.

Today, there are still some defenders of law enforcement who go so far in refusing to acknowledge its problems that they may as well be engaged in propaganda.

Others earnestly see a different reality than I do.

“I still tend to side with police in these controversies because all I see are thugs getting beat up, and why would I have any sympathy for black thugs or white thugs?” Prelutsky said. “I don't think Jack Webb or I would say there's no such thing as a bad cop. But I keep reading that we're supposed to believe all the cops hate black people, that they're all thugs and racists. How is it that they're so discerning as to never beat up a black lawyer or a black accountant? If you’re a racist you hate everybody with that skin color, not just the thugs. Even the teenagers at the pool party were thuggish. They were encouraging each other, don't take this shit from the cops.” He acknowledged that the case of Walter Scott, the South Carolina man shot while running from a police officer, appeared to be a murder. I then pressed him on the subject, asking about other YouTube clips of police officers deploying excessive force. “I guess I haven't seen those,” he explained. “And I keep waiting to see people coming out on behalf of the cops, the ones risking their lives. If they would do that, I think that everybody would start to accept that there are good cops and bad cops, good blacks and bad blacks.”

In the age of YouTube, the number of people who haven’t seen multiple police officers engaged in excessive force is vastly lower than ever before, and the trend will not reverse.

But insofar as rose-tinted views of policing persist in American culture, it seems to me that both they and the fringe, “fuck the police” style of opposition to law enforcement are two sides of the same coin. Both attitudes are expressed as if the character of the profession can be put in one category, whether “hero” or “brute;” in fact, police officers are fallible individuals like everyone else and need to be treated as such, which is to say, with the expectation that some but not all will abuse their power.

Sgt. Friday is our archetype of a good cop for a reason. Who can doubt his integrity? If I dialed 911, I’d hope a police officer just like him would show up at my door.

But good cops like Sgt. Friday who fail to see, acknowledge, and fight the abuses around them—whether brutality or friendly TV producers getting special treatment when driving drunk—are inadequate to their jobs as they rise through the ranks and render police departments unable to quash all manner of dysfunction. If law enforcement is to regain the degree of respect and popular esteem that men like Friday once had, its good cops must learn from rather than repeat his failures.