What Today’s Police Could Learn from Jack Webb
Recently, inspired by police being in the news, I used my Netflix subscription to watch some first-season episodes of Dragnet 1967 and 1968′s Adam 12, both of them created. produced and directed by Dragnet‘s Sgt Joe Friday, Jack Webb.
If you’re not old enough to remember, these two cop shows are classic episodic dramas. Dragnet, which started in 1949 as a radio drama and ran for nine years on black-and-white 1950′s TV before this late-60′s “in color” return, follows two LAPD detectives, Joe Friday and Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan, later Col. Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H).
A Dragnet spin-off co-created by Webb, Adam 12, follows two LAPD patrol officers, Officer Pete Malloy played by Martin Milner (who’d earlier starred as the hip drifter Tod Stiles on Sterling Silliphant’s Jack Kerouac-inspired Route 66) and Officer Jim Reed, played by Kent McCord, his first starring role.
Jack Webb was a cold-war liberal, which in the 1960′s meant that he was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking social conservative equally against communists, racists, and drug-using hippies. He believed in law-and-order, and was both pro-police and pro-military, though he never served as either (unlike Star Trek‘s very liberal creator, Gene Roddenberry, who served as both a World War II combat pilot and an LAPD officer).
To say that Jack Webb was “by the book” described both the philosophy he imparted to his loquacious police characters and his own production methods, which were Roger-Cormanesque in their efficiency, with a lot of standing sets, minimal takes, and a stock company of character actors often re-used.
As a libertarian I find the anti-drug (especially marijuana) propaganda in Dragnet 1967 ludicrous.
Jack Webb was a drug-warrior in the tradition of Harry J. Anslinger, who headed up the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962. But when Jack Webb said he was for law and order he meant it. His shows had zero tolerance of police corruption, grandstanding, criminality under color of law, or incompetence, and when he showed police doing their job “by the book” it meant not even bending the law. In the very first episode of Dragnet 1967, “The LSD Story,” Webb’s script (credited as John Randolph), broadcast 48 years ago this week, portrays the LAPD detectives unable to make an arrest for possession or use of the drug because it was not on a schedule of illegal substances. Sgt. Friday bemoans his inability to “save” underage kids from this menace — but, ultimately, he obeys the law which says it’s legal.
Adam 12‘s Officers Malloy and Reed won’t even make an arrest when the law says it’s a misdemeanor they haven’t personally witnessed but ask the female witness to make a citizen’s arrest.
Everyone gets read their Miranda rights.
That utopian view of police wasn’t true in 1967. It’s not true today.
But, from a perspective of half a century, Jack Webb’s squeaky-clean LAPD — which doesn’t tolerate shooting unarmed children, strip-searching the elderly, or torturing a neo-Nazi suspect even when his stolen dynamite is about to go off in an elementary school about to be integrated — is a model for how police should look at their jobs.
The framers of our form of government had had quite enough of officers occupying their cities, and today’s paramilitary police departments were never what they had in mind for crime control. They literally believed that the police power was in the hands of a vigilant population who took enforcing the law into their own hands. Most police powers until recently were still in the hands of the civilian population.
But if we’re going to have occupying armies roaming our streets, I’d much rather they be honest and professional officers not scared of their own shadows, rather than the psychotic uniformed and never-liable thugs we’ve recently seen in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Cleveland, Ohio.