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'Washington Post' Reporter Explores How Pop Culture Influences Views Of Police


If you talk to cops about people's reaction to videos of police shootings, they say people just don't understand how policing really works. And the reason, they say, is that most of what people know about policing comes from movies, books and TV.

ALYSSA ROSENBERG: "Dragnet," "The Untouchables," "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Mod Squad," "Hawaii Five-0..."

MCEVERS: Washington Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg took a deep dive into fictional depictions of police work. She read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies and TV.

ROSENBERG: ..."S.W.A.T.," "CSI," "The Shield," "The Wire," "Reno 911!," "Deadwood," "Southland" and finishing up with "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."

MCEVERS: And after all that, she's written a series of articles tracing how police have been portrayed in popular culture. It's called "Dragnets, Dirty Harrys And Dying Hard." Rosenberg starts with how creators of the 1950s TV show "Dragnet" made a deal with the LAPD. In exchange for access to police to make the show authentic, the LAPD got control over scripts, and that made them look good on TV.

ROSENBERG: The arc of police storytelling is one that kind of travels from censorship to greater freedom of speech. But even as that happened, you might have expected that Hollywood would get more thoughtful or sort of more progressive about police shootings. Instead, the early sort of moral agony that accompanies an officer-involved shooting really sort of leaches away. So you have Joe Friday, representative of the LAPD, so shaken after a shooting that he can't even fill out his paperwork, wondering if there could have been another way.

MCEVERS: Let's listen to that.


JACK WEBB: (As Sergeant Joe Friday) First time I ever killed a man.

DOROTHY ABBOTT: (As Ann Baker) Mmhmm.

WEBB: (As Sergeant Joe Friday) Not a good thing, Ann. I kind of wonder if maybe there wasn't some other way.

ABBOTT: (As Ann Baker) Was there?

WEBB: (As Sergeant Joe Friday) No, we called it.

MCEVERS: So it's this officer showing obvious remorse for shooting someone, even though he's saying, you know, there was no other way.

ROSENBERG: And then you start to get a series of stories where the spouses or even parents of people who have been killed by the police end up sort of reassuring the cops...


ROSENBERG: ...That they did the right thing. There was this "Starsky & Hutch" story where Starsky shoots a 16-year-old. And the way it's shot is really ambiguous. You can't tell if he was raising his hands to surrender or pulling a gun. But the boy's mother ends up telling Starsky that sort of a mother knows what her son was - at least this mother knows - and she sort of absolves him.


ROSENBERG: And so we start to get this series of stories where the cops feel bad, but then the people related to the dead person explain that the dead person was no good, maybe they're better off, maybe the person the cop killed abused somebody, maybe he was on his way to a life of crime. And then, eventually, even that goes away. You have this series of cops who take sort of obvious pleasure in shooting people and getting them off the streets. "Dirty Harry" is kind of the embodiment of that.

MCEVERS: Exactly. Let's - I want to listen to that. It's Harry Callahan played by Clint Eastwood. He's taken the law into his own hands when the local authorities tell him not to. Let's listen to that.


JOHN VERNON: (As The Mayor) Callahan.

CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Harry Callahan) Sir.

VERNON: (As The Mayor) I don't want any more trouble like you had last year in the Fillmore District. Understand? That's my policy.

EASTWOOD: (As Harry Callahan) Yeah, well, when an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the [expletive] - that's my policy.

MCEVERS: All right, so shooting is my policy, and that's that. Where did it go from there?

ROSENBERG: You know, after that, shooting stops even being something to debate. Especially in the action cop movies of the '80s and sort of early to mid-'90s, shooting just becomes sort of a routine part of the job. And in fact, one sort of emergent trope in action movies is that people who decline to shoot to kill are proved to be foolish in that conviction.

MCEVERS: So how about now? I mean, we know that TV shows and movies are more sympathetic to victims now. How do you think about how police are portrayed now in pop culture?

ROSENBERG: When I was reporting the series, I talked to a number of cops who have either sort of created their own cop stories, someone like Jon Murad, who's the technical adviser to "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." Murad looks at shootings in pop culture and, you know, sees them as sort of overrepresented, which is not to say that the consequences can't be very serious. But if you look at a police department like New York's, the number of times that officers discharged their weapons has fallen dramatically since the department started tracking those discharges. Part of what happens when you over-represent shootings is...


ROSENBERG: ...Not simply that you give the impression that there are a lot of them, but that you give the impression that this is routine and that officers act with great calm and coolness because they're doing this all the time.

MCEVERS: That's Washington Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg talking about her series "Dragnet, Dirty Harrys And Dying Hard." Thank you very much.

ROSENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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