The Cop Who Did This Was Ha-a-a-ary Callahan!

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For years now, psychologists, talk-show hosts, and cultural custodians have been debating the connection between violent media and real-life violence. But such discourse invariably focuses on civilian (and usually teenage) violence. Marilyn Manson caused the Columbine massacre. The Sopranos proved that HBO really isn't just TV—it's distance-learning for novice psychopaths. The same goes for Grand Theft Auto III.

But it's not just teenage droogs who get their fix of ultra-violence from electronic media. And no TV series has ever been built around the amoral exploits of a 15-year-old killer. In the cathode universe, week in and week out, season after season, it's cops who are an undertaker's best friend.

Of course, it wasn't always this way. Even in the face of the surliest, late-'60s bacon-baiting, Dragnet's stalwart Joe Friday maintained the demeanor of a robot teaching high school civics. A few years later, he passed the baton to Adam 12's Pete Malloy. Like Carson Daly following Dick Clark, Malloy was The Guy to Friday's Man, hipper, fully motile, but still a genuinely civil servant sworn to uphold the law with fairness, restraint, and faultless manners. Then there was Columbo, sloppier than a sociology professor (no crisp martial duds for him) and packing less heat than a wet match. A hard-boiled gumshoe in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, he got his collars without even flashing a gun, much less firing one. And how about Greenwich Village's finest, the multi-ethnic men and woman of the 12th Precinct? Under Barney Miller's watch, toilet plungers were simply props for jokes about Fish's gastrointestinal distress; if someone had wandered into their squad room brandishing a semi-automatic beeper, Miller and his officers would have responded with nothing more lethal than 41 rim-shots.

If violent entertainment makes violent teenagers, does that mean Dirty Harry is to blame for rogue cops? Greg Beato, in the first essay that's made me laugh in a long time, investigates.

NEXT: Warning: Cheap Shot Ahead

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  1. Funny you should mention “Barney Miller.” I saw an episode of that show the other day (on TV Land?) after decades of its absence from my living room. (I lingered on the episode because I was trying to show my 11 year-old son how “Preahcer Book” from Firefly — Ron Glass — looked in his requisite “‘fro,” back in the 1970s.) Let me tell you, the boys in Miller’s precinct were packing pieces, and an (offscreen) gunfight figured prominently in the plot! Even so, I got the strange feeling that I was watching “Andy Griffith Goes to the Big City,” at least in terms of the civil, good-humored behavior of the cops in the admittedly violent and dangerous urban setting. As I imagine a transplanted Sheriff Taylor would have done in the same circumstances, the Barney Miller squad carried guns, but did everything they could to avoid having to use them. In the gunfight of this particular episode, the Serpico-like undercover cop who had been transplanted into Miller’s unit took a bullet and ended up in the hospital. Still, they all managed to laugh; such was the strange brew of 70’s “socially relevant” sitcoms.

  2. Lefty:

    The COPS song (I think it Peter Tosh recorded a version of it) reminds me of one by The Clash (“Guns of Brixton”:

    When they kick in your front door
    How are you gonna come?
    With your hands on your head
    or on the trigger of your gun?

    Seriously, I think all the shows like COPS and the Dirty Harry movies have conditioned a generation of people to sympathize with the rogue cop who “does what needs to be done” to get the guy he “knows” is guilty, without regard to a lot of legal niceties. Not to mention all those video games that involve search-and-destroy missions in someone’s house. Reminds me of “The Running Man” (the novella, not the shitty movie).

    I go ballistic every time I hear the introductory voiceover to “Law and Order,” about the two elements of the criminal justice system (cops and prosecutors) who protect us. Oh yeah? What about the juries that force the State to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, instead of just taking its word that someone is guilty; or the defense attorneys who challenge the evidence so that crooked cops and DA’s can’t just railroad someone on phony charges? And I’d feel a hell of a lot more protected if we could return to the principle of jury nullification.

  3. The Saturday night before the Indy 500 runs 10’s of thousands of people party in the street around the track. Shirtless, tattooed, cycle ridin, bug-eyed tramps mix raucously with lawyers, bankers, and their wives, sometimes in evening dresses. It’s a great show with a long, storied tradition.

    In the midst of this, groups of SWAT-looking cops, outfitted in bulky vests, hard hats, black gloves, sticks, sidearms and other black leather gear periodically wade through the crowd and haul off anybody too drunk to get out of the way.

    A chant follows them:

    Bad boys, bad boys
    Whatcha gonna do?
    Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?

    Cracks me up every time I think about it.

  4. The show should be renamed COPSS.

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