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Act Four Live Special Edition: Dragnets, Dirty Harrys and Dying Hard (Oct. 28)

Oct 28, 2016

The Act Four series "Dragnets, Dirty Harrys and Dying Hard: 100 years of the police in pop culture" looked at the stories Hollywood has told about cops for generations. How have our feelings about cop stories changed over time?

Hi everyone! Thanks, first of all, for reading "Dragnets, Dirty Harrys and Dying Hard," my big series on policing. (You can find every piece of the series here, if you're looking to catch up.) And thank you for sending in so many thoughtful questions. Let's get to them.

Did you notice any patterns in the way that crime changed over time? There are some recurrent tropes: Jean Valjean, Johnny Strabler, Don Corleone, Hans Gruber, Avon Barksdale. Do criminals reflect the anxieties of the age? Or is the demand for story so inexorable that we get all types mixed together?

This is a terrific question, and while the subject of my series was the way the police changed rather than how crime changed, I definitely noticed some major shifts. In the movies I looked at from the early 1920s and 1930s, you see a lot of stories where the crime--or alleged crime in question--is some form of anarchist terrorism or labor unrest. By the 1950s, juvenile delinquency becomes a much more significant factor. As the crime wave began in the 1960s, you start to see criminals who are acting for gain, and who are more violent, whether it's the robber-turned-hostage-taker we meet in the first episode of "Police Story," or the Symbionese Liberation Army-like cult from the pilot of "S.W.A.T." And there are definitely fears of the counterculture and civil unrest that show up in everything from "Dirty Harry" to "The New Centurions." In the eighties, drug dealers or their equivalents--sophisticated criminals from other countries willing to use extreme violence--became the villains of choice. And as crime starts to decline in the 1990s and 00s, there was a definite term to sex crimes and serial killers as the villains of choice; those are crimes that stoke high levels of fear and anxiety even if they're relatively rare, and justified continued police stories even as crime continued to decline overall.

Your BLM bias is showing. Typical leftist liberal WP reporter piece. And I have issues with LE but this is a great hatchet job.

Since you don't specify which story you're discussing, it's difficult for me to address your concerns. But for some basic facts: I write a column for the opinions section, and while I do a great deal of reporting, I am professionally a columnist and critic, not a newsroom reporter.

Second, in examining police-involved shootings, I was particularly interested in the perspective of Joseph Wambaugh, who was an LAPD detective sergeant; our interviews were a real education for me in the gap between the way police-involved shootings are portrayed on-screen and the emotions of officers when those shootings actually take place. If readers take away one thing from the piece of this series on shootings, I hope it would be that Hollywood trains us to side with police officers in shootings, but also that it sets expectations for police so high that it's astonishingly difficult for officers to meet them. I think everyone from activists to officers themselves would be better off with more measured portrayals.

As much as I enjoyed the series, I found myself wanting more. How do the themes you raised connect to the public's desire for more and more police shows? Why do we want to see good guys taking down bad guys -- or, less often, nominally good guys who are really bad guys? You wrote about the ways that police rarely suffer much trauma about using lethal force, but what about the other kinds of guilt that police may encounter from other situations (arresting the wrong person, breaking into the wrong building, humiliating a suspect in front of children, having a humorously insensitive remark overheard by a "civilian")? And what about the reverse -- dealing with the tensions of trying to protect people who think that the protectors are all pigs, or the complicated fact that civilian critics or supporters might be wrong about some things and right about others? If films can joke about the misguided public who think police work is all "shootings and explosions," why don't we hear fictional police who point out the other ways that the media get policing wrong? I guess I'm really saying, I'd like to see you expand this further.

If it's all right with you, I'll save this comment and show it to the agents I'm talking to about turning this into a book! There is so much I would have liked to explore at greater length in this series: I have big files of ideas about the psychological complexities of the job, about the trope where the only people who can understand cops are the criminals they pursue, about scenes where civilians turn on the cops who helps them (something we explore a bit in the video on the history of "pig" as an anti-police epithet) and so much more. We picked these five big frameworks because we felt like they addressed some of the most pressing issues in policing today. but there's absolutely more I would love to write.

Alyssa, I so appreciated your feature on NPR - but PLEASE quit grinding on your vocal cords. It HURTS to listen to what you're doing to yourself. Hoping to hear from you for years to come, Carol Hawkins

Hi Carole, I have a cold and my voice was already strained from doing tons of other interviews this week. The nice folks at NPR gave me lots of water and kleenex. But whatever you heard, it wasn't by design!

Why don't you focus on how many cops are killed by civilians? Inlighten yourselph, talk to a cop. Rather than be popular, be responsible. Cheers

I actually interviewed a number of police officers for this series, and my findings were deeply influenced by their thoughtful observations. Like them, and like everybody, I feel a great deal of grief over the recent deaths of police officers, even as I acknowledge that the rates of police deaths have fallen overall. If I got to expand this project, I have a whole file of notes on stories where the police are targeted, and I think that would a rich area for further expansion.

Have you ever gone on ride along in HI CRIME area? What is that old adage about walking a mile in someone"s Shoes?

I haven't gone on ride-alongs, but I've walked with beat cops in high-crime areas.

Have you ever watched the film "Die Hard"? How does the Die Hard film noted in the article and that you claim to have difficulty watching have t do with the topic of "police killing civilians / innocents? My memory of the Die Hard film is that a ransom demanding gang of terrorists takes control of a high-rise office building during a corporate party and holds a large number of innocent civilians hostage in exchange for a ransom payment. The film hero, an off-duty police officer, is trapped in the building and manages to defeat the gang with the help of uniformed police. Which one of us has the wrong memory of the film Die Hard? I believe there were several Die Hard films in the series. Which one are you referring to? Did you really watch this film as part of your research? Or are you making a social comment that is not backed up by honest research of the topic? RPB

Both of us are correct about "Die Hard." John McClane (Bruce Willis) is the off-cuty officer trapped in Nakatomi Plaza when Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) take an office party hostage as part of a robbery. Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), an LAPD radio cop who helps McClane from the ground, is the character who is struggling with having shot a child. You can watch the exchange between the two men here, if you'd like to refresh your memory.

Perhaps you'll get into this in your Dirty Harry discussion, but a huge element in how popular culture addresses policing is through Westerns, in which sheriffs are these benevolent heroes protecting small towns in a dangerous frontier. Much of the discussion about 'policing' tends to focus on big Eastern cities, but the rhetoric often tends toward the rural, the frontier, the small Western town. Any thoughts on that blur?

I think this is such a great observation, and one thing I'd do in a longer version of this project is to bring in series like "Deadwood," which is about the creation and establishment of the law, and "Justified," about a U.S. Marshal. I tried to keep the list really slimmed down, since if I included all Westerns and all depictions of Marshals, I never would have gotten through the material. But it's absolutely true that our ideas about the frontier have shifted from the American West to our major cities, and our ideas about law enforcement have often transplanted from one environment to the next. Of course, rural America also gave us one of our most powerful counterpoints to this sort of thinking in "The Andy Griffith Show."

What was your biggest surprise that you thought was so different from what your initial (implicit bias) belief was about police work? What did you think of the paperwork needed to complete the job requirement for a specific incident? What was your reaction to how citizens acted toward police?

Something that really surprised me was the extent to which the cops I interviewed for this project hated action-oriented depictions of police work, both because they felt that it was not representative of the actual work, and becuase they felt like it set unrealistic expectations for how individual cops can perform under astonishing pressure. I think my assumption going in to those interviews was that officers would embrace a more aggressive depiction of the work, but I was definitely wrong there. In terms of paperwork, it was interesting to talk to Dan Goor, who created "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," about incorporating that into the series. And in terms of how civilians react to the cops in pop culture, that's actually something I'd like to dig into more in a longer iteration of this project, since it's complex and plays into class politics a lot. I got to address that some in part 2, but it merits much longer examination.

I've never actually seen Dirty Harry all the way through, but I know it's reputation and that the Scorpio killer in the film is inspired by the real Zodiac killer in the Bay area. The thing is, the inability to catch the Zodiac killer had nothing to do with the Miranda decision that the film infamously has as a hindrance of justice. Other than happening at the same time, why do you think these two events got combined in this movie. Also can you think of any other movies or tv that combine two unrelated contemporary events in ways that are as potentially dangerous as Dirty Harry's?

I think that "Dirty Harry" captures a real backlash among some cops to the Warren Court's decisions about suspects rights, and so even if it's misleading to suggest that those concerns hindered the capture of a serial killer, the movie does capture something that actually happened. I think the implication that torture is useful for extracting valuable, reliable information from suspects is an equally pernicious trope.

I loved the series, but are some reacting negatively? Are you getting anything like "Why are you so anti-cop?" (FWIW: I personally didn't think it was)

I am, some. Although I've gotten a great many more emails from current and former cops who are sharing their own experiences with some of the issues the series touches on. It's been really gratifying to hear from them.

Alyssa, I enjoyed your series. I have to admit that I never thought of Police Academy as a social satire aimed at William Parker. I don't plan on watching it again but that was an interesting fact. Thanks for writing the series and covering the different cop shows I've seen over the years.

I watched it right after reading Joe Domanick's fantastic history of the LAPD, so it just clicked for me. A fun outtake: we tried to get former President Bill Clinton to talk to me about "Police Academy" for the series, but he was, understandably, a little busy.

The evolution of Mike Logan's character alone gives a window into how people's thoughts of what they wanted in a cop changed over 5 years. Still, fantastically in-depth series. Thanks.

There is a lot I would do with the "Law & Order" franchise in a longer iteration of this series. "The Mod Squad" is in there becuase it's a bit of an outlier, honestly; it was an experiment in certain kinds of police storytelling that haven't really been repeated. It's also just fascinating to me that Spelling did "The Mod Squad" and then seven years later, "S.W.A.T.," which is about as war-on-crime as it's possible to get.

Two 25-year olds, Brandon Jones and Chelsea Porter, were shot and killed, in Elkton, Maryland, on Tuesday, by police. Police said that they had gone to the motel where the couple were staying to serve a warrant. Ten policemen shot Jones, and then Porter when she came out to the motel balcony after Porter was killed. Police claim that Jones and Porter pointed weapons at them. Two BB pistols were found by their bodies. Questions: if preserving life is the paramount value, why did the police not wait out Jones and Porter until they surrendered? How long would they have holed up in the motel without food and water? And, why did ten policemen shoot a solitary individual? All media reports that I have seen quote the authorities. This is stenography. No questions apparently were raised by the reporters about the necessity of the shootings, nor apparently were friends or families of Jones or Porter contacted to draw a humanized portrait of these two youngsters, their lives and aspirations.

I do think that in general, the national media has done a much better job of questioning police narratives and providing context on the lives of the people who are killed by the police when covering police-involved shootings in recent years. Hopefully, this sort of balance will become a national standard, even for local papers.

How much did the 1930s cinematic adulation of Hoover, the FBI, and the "G-men" enable the anti-union attacks of the '30s through '50s, the '"red scare", and the COINTELPRO on Civil Rights and Viet Nam protests? What did the Mob have on Hoover that he steadfastly denied the existence of the Mafia? Why was he allowed to remain in office after the disaster at Appalachia?

1) I have no special insights, or even really insights, into Hoover's relationship to the Mob. If I did, I would have written about them.

2) Part of what's interesting about "The F.B.I.," at least, is that it's somewhat square; I would want to think more about how influential it actually was, and whether it had an influence outsize to Hoover's power within government.

I wasn't surprised by your observation that being a good police officer makes a person of color an honorary white person, but I was a little surprised by the specificity of the Irish identity. It isn't hard to speculate that the Irish core of the police identity came about because the Irish were themselves making the transition to whiteness (though at the time it was called Americanization) at the time that the urban police force was maturing. Are there any other features you've observed of "good police" that are characteristically Irish (as opposed to, say, Italian)?

Honestly, some of that is just a riff on the Tom Wolfe line. But it is interesting, statistically, how quickly Irish cops took over police departments in cities like Boston and New York once they got their feet in the door. And while I don't know that I think there are necessarily things about how policing is done that are specifically Irish-American, there definitely are cultural markers that remain Irish, from the use of bagpipes at police funerals, to a culture of loyalty. The scenes in "The Wire" of highly Irish-American detectives' wakes are a great example of this.

Did you see this while researching? One movie that really goes against the cops-are-good-guys grain.

Yes, which makes an interesting outlier. I might write an addendum to the series at some point about those exceptions, including to a certain extent "American Gangster."

Get spell check.

I am too nice to say that to people who write in on those terms, but I will let you say it for me.

Is that the same thing as vocal fry?

::Shrugs:: If any of the people who complain about my voice actually explained in any specific way what they meant, or why I ought to be worried about it for reasons of, say, my health, I might know! In any case, that All Things Considered interview is here, should any of you want to diagnose me. Or, you know, show interest in what I have to say. :)

You know, you could do a story on Aaron Spelling and police all by itself. In addition to the shows you mentioned, he produced Burke's Law, The Rookies, and TJ Hooker, along with a handful of one-and-done series like Chopper One (a personal favorite). To say nothing of all those glamorous private eyes...

Yes! I read his memoir, " A Prime-Time Life," for this project, and it was really interesting. On a side note, my father loves to tell a story about a time his dad came home from a business trip convinced he'd discovered a brilliant new satirical show about three hyper-glamorous women who worked as private eyes. He was crushed to find out that "Charlie's Angels" was dead serious about itself, rather than satire.

I asked if you were getting negative feedback about five minutes ago... judging by the second comment, looks like the answer is YES.

I don't agree with commentators who see this series as anti-police, or who construe any criticism of *depictions* of the police--most of which police officers are in no way responsible for--as critical of the police themselves. But it strikes me as relatively characteristic of the political moment we're in. I can't be too bothered by it, though I always suspect that folks who lodge those sorts of complaints are reacting to headlines or summaries, rather than the argument.

I don't remember seeing her name while reading the series... did you try to speak with her? I really liked her, esp. the way she handled the media.

I was focusing on interviewing cops who worked in the entertainment industry or who did advisory work. But if I got a chance to expand the series, she and Norm Stamper, the former Seattle police chief, are on my list of people to try to talk to!

police consultants and those that didn't? There must have been some of the early and/or low budget shows that didn't have consultants on set. And has there ever been a show with (former) criminals as consultants explaining how things are actually done?

That would be an interesting taxonomy to do at some point; I don't want to speak definitively becuase I haven't watched every episode of every show and broken it down. On the question of consultants, I don't know to what extent he was a formal consultant, but former heroin trafficker Melvin Williams was the inspiration for significant sections of "The Wire" and acted on the show.

That's part of what I liked about Barney Miller. You saw the detectives doing paperwork for half the show.

Yes, and the squadroom is really the center of the story.

Westerns are usually about the coming of civilization to lawless areas, and some police shows deliberately or accidentally echo this with the idea that the police represent the re-imposition of civilization to an uncivilized urban location. It's certainly a minority, but a distinctive one. If you do that Western thing, you can draw some parallels.


Thank you all for coming out to talk today! I'll be doing a Facebook Live broadcast next Tuesday with my colleague Wesley Lowery, talking about this series and his new book, and taking your questions. The series may be over, but the conversation continues.

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Alyssa Rosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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