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The changing face of police work in public perception


January 11, 2007
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The changing face of police work in public perception

By Peter Hartlaub
Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle
 
For a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, every kid under the age of 12 wanted to work in law enforcement.


Actor Erik Estrada, center, who played the role of a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer in the television series "CHiPs" applauds with real CHP officers during a speech honoring the 75th anniversary of the CHP and the original "Highway Patrol" television series, in 2004. (AP Photo)

Anybody who watched Ponch and Jon on "CHiPs" knew that cops got to ride cool motorcycles, hang out in swinging condominium complexes and take children who had just caused a 14-car freeway pileup to the local skate park. And inevitably, every one of those little scamps had a hot mom. What exactly was the downside to joining the force?

These days, police officers on TV can be seen either: A) holding the door open for the crime scene investigators; or B) beating up perps who haven't been convicted yet. Sheriff Andy Taylor ("The Andy Griffith Show") has been replaced by homicidal Vic Mackey from "The Shield." Al Pacino's Frank Serpico has been replaced by Matt Damon's corrupt Colin Sullivan character in "The Departed."

Looking at the past few decades, has anyone gotten shafted by popular culture more than the cop?

Joe Friday from "Dragnet" and Steve McGarrett from "Hawaii 5-0" are dinosaurs. Even 1980s law enforcers once seen as rebels -- think Eddie Murphy from "Beverly Hills Cop" or Mel Gibson from "Lethal Weapon" -- are sticklers by 21st century standards. While older movies and TV shows might include one bad cop on a force filled with Boy Scouts, the police departments in recent years are structured the other way around. I forget -- were there any good guys in "L.A. Confidential"?

Straight arrows such as Pete and Jim from TV's "Adam 12" reinforced the notion that police officers were the people to go to when you're in trouble. Now, the reality show "Cops" reinforces the notion that when a squad car pulls up, you should strip down to your white tank top and run in the opposite direction as fast as you can.

These would be trivial points in almost any other profession. But the ability of real-life police departments to maintain order is based so much on image. And a large portion of the policeman's image is influenced by the entertainment industry.

When you keep reading the same story about Oakland being unable to fill close to 100 vacancies in the department, do you ever wonder if the problem is about more than bureaucracy? The San Francisco Supervisors on Tuesday won the latest battle against Mayor Gavin Newsom to add neighborhood foot patrols in the city, and the idea seems like a no-brainer -- if for no other reason than it will help residents put a human face on their police force, and make the police have more contact with civilians.

Growing up in Burlingame in the 1970s and '80s, I could recognize most of the city's police officers even when they were off-duty -- yes kids, there was a time when a Burlingame cop could actually afford to live in Burlingame -- and like Robert Duvall in "Colors," most of them had a nice rapport with the kids. (The Hillsborough cops were complete tools, but that's another story.)

When a police officer caught us drinking beer before a football game and made my teenage buddies pour it out, I felt the urge to be less reckless in the future -- in part because she cut us a break and didn't call our parents. This was the beginning of the Axel Foley era, when teens still believed police had something worth saying.

The first "Dirty Harry" movie in 1971 seems like an obvious starting point for the decline of police in pop culture -- Detective Callahan ended the first film by chucking his badge (before finding it again in "Magnum Force," "The Enforcer," "Sudden Impact" and "The Dead Pool.") But the writers of those films were so careful to make it look like each of his victims deserved it, that the movies made many of us fantasize even more about police work.

The real shift happened in the early 1980s, when cop-related action fluff started sharing time with grittier programming. "Hill Street Blues" was a wonderful and groundbreaking show, but it also portrayed the police officer's job as drudgery with plenty of real danger and a hint of hopelessness. "NYPD Blue" took things a step further, suggesting that behind-closed-doors suspect beatings and backroom deals were necessary to get the work done.

"Cops" was another turning point for police on television. While the purpose may have been to depict the police as hard working and human, the result amplified the "us versus them" mentality of law enforcers and civilians. (Erik Estrada's reality series "Armed and Famous" promises some more emotional stories, but so far doesn't look like part of the solution.)

Nothing illustrates the shift in thinking like the "Assault on Precinct 13" remake in 2005. While the 1976 version featured a few inhabitants in a police station assaulted by a street gang, the new version had Ethan Hawke and his group -- including several prisoners -- being attacked by wave after wave of bad cops. Apparently it's more politically correct to have a criminal shooting a cop than the other way around.

Not every Hollywood policeman is an evildoer. None of the "Law & Order" guys plant guns on a dude they just shot, or have sex with the prostitutes on their beat. But "Law & Order" comes on at 10 p.m. And the ripped-from-the-headlines content comes pretty close to PG-13.

If you're simply judging the quality of popular entertainment, these developments are irrelevant. The Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas video game had a gang member protagonist and corrupt cop bad guys -- and I loved every minute of it. HBO's "The Wire," with its flawed police officers living a Sisyphusian existence, is arguably one of the best pieces of entertainment in history.

But as parents, it's hard not to hope for this generation's Sheriff Taylor or Officer Pocherello to show up and teach our children that obeying the law, minding your elders and snitching on your murderous neighbors is an OK thing to do. At this point, even T.J. Hooker would be a welcome addition to the pop culture force.  
 

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