Last week the city of Ferguson erupted in violence and looting following the decision of a grand jury not to indict a white police officer for the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown. Coincidentally, my wife and I were watching a DVD collection of Dragnet, the pioneering police procedural TV show of the long ago fifties and sixties.
It could be argued that Dragnet was the best Police drama ever seen on TV. Without much violence and gore, it attained a level of realism rarely seen on TV since. Its credits always began with a notice that all the episodes were based on cases from the actual files of the Los Angeles Police Department, the LAPD.
Jack Webb, the show’s creator and star, played the role of Sergeant Joe Friday with a matter-of-factness that became his trademark. His constantly reiterated expression to talkative witnesses, “just the facts, Ma’am” became almost iconic. His down to earth partners, the portly Ben Alexander, and the laconic Harry Morgan, gave equally quiet and realistic portrayals of ordinary policemen who were just doing their jobs.
However, the most realistic part of the show was the succession of ordinary, even banal, criminals whose exploits provided the plot for each episode. There was nothing glamorous, sexy, or mysterious about these killers, robbers, muggers, and con men. Most of them were real bottom-dwellers from the dregs of society. Let me give three examples.
One episode concerned a teenage couple who murdered an old man with a hammer in order to steal a few lousy dollars. They were eventually tracked down to a tawdry motel, and showed no contrition or remorse when apprehended. These were not angst- ridden youngsters but just plain sociopaths.
Another episode dealt with the murder of a divorced secretary by a boy friend who strangled her and then broke her neck for good measure. Typically, we never see the dead woman or the actual murder. There is no pretty young woman being followed down a dark alley accompanied by ominous music. There is no semi-nude body covered with blood. We only hear of her death when Friday gets the call. Then, Friday and his partner just go about the tedious and dull business of interviewing witnesses until they manage to track down the middle-aged boy friend who after confessing only wonders how he might beat the rap.
Finally, in another episode Friday and his partner are working the Bunko division, an assignment that deals mainly with con men and their scams. In this case a group of men had devised a scheme to victimize the families of servicemen who had died overseas. Evil can’t get more banal than that group.
Dragnet stands in stark contrast to practical every other Police drama. “Columbo” reruns are still popular today but the show made no pretense of reality. The murderer is always a millionaire businessman or entertainer whose super intelligence and savior faire are no match for Peter Falk’s wily Detective Columbo. Modern Police dramas follow the same formula. I stopped watching Law and Order years ago when it became obvious that the killer was not the young Black or Hispanic man that everyone suspected, but the millionaire white business owner.
Even the sophisticated British crime dramas that are seen regularly on PBS always depict the crimes of the rich and famous. Given all the murders, you would think that England is probably the most dangerous country in the world today. You wonder how anyone could still be alive in some of those quaint English villages. Of course, the criminals are never Black or Asian immigrants. When they appear, they are always the victims of prejudice. How dare anyone think that a young Moslem man might be a terrorist?
Such fantasies might be laughable, but I suspect that the constant barrage of propaganda depicted in most Police dramas has a very serious effect. Truth may be stranger than fiction but fiction has more power to influence. Since the days of Dragnet two whole generations have grown up and been educated by what they have seen on TV. They are now themselves the educators in most college classrooms. They really believe that all authority figures are suspect.
Their imaginary criminal class includes CEOs; Wall Streeters; businessmen (especially men); politicians from Red or conservative states; military men (the higher the rank the worse); Policemen, although rarely Policewomen; and, of course, Catholic clergy, especially Monsignors and Bishops.
I believe that this fantasy in the minds of the American educated class explains the protests that broke out all over the country after the Ferguson grand jury did not find enough evidence to bring a white police officer to trial, an officer that had been presumed guilty of murder from day one.
Brought up in a fantasy world created by the entertainment industry, the American elite really believes that all cops are “pigs.” They find it hard to believe that young Black men might be gangsters and sociopaths. Despite the video showing Michael Brown robbing a convenience store and bullying the store manager, they prefer to visualize him in his high school graduation robes. They focus on the rare shooting of a black man by a white policeman, and fail to notice the incredibly high rate of black on black killings on the streets of cities like Chicago,
After ABC news anchor George Stephanopoulos interviewed the Ferguson police office. When Yahoo news reported on the interview, it could hardly hide its disappointment at the failure to pin the officer to the wall and subject him to a virtual trial and conviction. The Yahoo story elicited more than a thousand comments. A sampling indicated that most ordinary people reacted favorably to the interview and the policeman’s comment that he was only doing his job.
The best comment on this whole affair came from a Milwaukee Police Chief who had had enough and urged the protestors to get real. It starts slow but watch to the end. Click on this link to view or view the video below.