Alyssa Rosenberg writes: Movies, television and novels have trained audiences to excuse almost any police shooting, including the deaths of children — until now, when the emergence and near-ubiquity of real-life videos have made the gap between fiction and reality undeniable.
Whether a shooting is legal is determined in part by an officer’s fear. But when the Los Angeles Police Department cleared scripts for television series such as “Dragnet” or “Adam-12,” “any shooting that was done on the shows was squeaky clean,” explained former detective sergeant Joseph Wambaugh, who worked briefly in the LAPD’s public information office, where the scripts were reviewed. “Any officer would have to be in total control.”
If this standard had nothing to do with how officers actually reacted after shooting someone, it was intended to bolster the audience’s confidence in police officers.
In fact, officers on early cop shows such as “Dragnet” and “Naked City” were often presented as so decent that they questioned their own decisions to shoot and had to be convinced that they’d done the right thing. Often, the person doing the convincing was a parent or relative of the dead person.
The first time Joe Friday (Jack Webb), the archetypal stoic police officer, killed a person in the “Dragnet” episode “The Big Thief,” he was so distressed that his partner had to help him fill out his incident report. “I kind of wonder if there was another way,” Friday declared glumly, unconvinced that he was right to shoot even though the other man had a gun. Friday was ultimately reassured by the law itself, when the shooting was ruled a justifiable homicide.
Friday’s question hangs in the air, but it both casts and dispels doubt in a single sentence. If someone who cares as much as Joe Friday does couldn’t find a better solution when confronted with a dangerous criminal, then maybe one doesn’t exist. Friday’s concerns are themselves the proof that he would never do the wrong thing. [Continue reading…]