Real Cop or TV Cop: Which Do You Want to Be?
Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith
People always ask me, “Why did you become a cop?” I’d love to have a great philosophical answer like, “I wanted to have the opportunity to give back to my community” or a really cool answer like “I wanted to drive fast cars, shoot big guns and put evil men behind bars” or even the standard oral board interview answer everyone gives, “I wanted to help people.” But the truth is, I’m a cop because I watched too much TV.
I grew up on a farm in the 60’s and 70’s (yes kids, we had television even way back then) and my brother and I were mesmerized by shows like “Dragnet,” “Adam 12” and “Hawaii Five-O.” As a young girl, I also loved shows like “Charlie’s Angels,” “Policewoman” with the beautiful Angie Dickenson and a short-lived show called “Get Christie Love,” where the main character was a well-respected black female police detective, an extremely radical concept at the time. I thought: If Detective Christie Love can be a great cop, so can I!
As I got older, went to college, and then got hired on as a Chicago-area cop, everyone kept telling me “its not like it is on TV you know!” Intellectually I knew this, but there was still a part of me that hoped real police work would be just like it is on television. And you know what, sometimes it is, and that can be good, or it can be very bad.
On the positive side, I learned from “Adam 12” that your field training officer is your life-line, your mentor, your role model, but not necessarily your friend and certainly not your peer. I learned from “Cagney and Lacey” that it’s really hard to be a working cop and a mom and a wife, but it’s possible. I learned from “Columbo” that it’s usually patience, humility and attention to small details that solve the big cases. I learned from “NYPD Blue” that sometimes the good guys die, and it’s not always in a heroic blaze of glory. I learned from “Dragnet” that a good cop is ethical, honest, and has to work hard to stay objective and professional.
However, on the flip side, TV cops can negatively influence both young police candidates and seasoned veterans. Cops shows are notorious for bad tactics. TV is where so many of us acquired the dangerous habits of putting suspects on cars or walls to search them. Lots of cops still think they have to say “Stop! Police! Drop the weapon!” before they engage in deadly force, because that’s what they do on TV. In the “Street Survival” seminar, we even used a clip from the “Miami Vice” television series to demonstrate that poor subject control can result in an officer’s death. Television can also affect our attitudes toward the job. “The Shield” glamorizes corruption and brutality. The “CSI” series convinces people (erroneously) that crime scene technicians do everything from SWAT-like tactical entries to intensive interrogations, in addition to handling evidence. “Law and Order” makes us think that major cases can be investigated, solved and prosecuted all in one hour. And “Miami Vice” made every narcotics cop in the 80’s continue to wear silk t-shirts and unobstructed jackets long after that fashion trend should have been dead and buried.
Two of the most realistic cop shows ever made were “Barney Miller” and “Hill Street Blues.” Barney Miller depicted a squad of New York City detectives who primarily waited to get called out by patrol while they wrote endless reports, dealt with the bureaucracy of a large police department, and alternately hung out together or got on each other’s last nerve. Some of their cases were exciting, most were not; in other words, real police work. “Hill Street Blues” featured a fictional Chicago police district full of unique characters including the caring, but crusty, shift sergeant who always ended roll call with “let’s be careful out there”, the male/female patrol duo who never quite learned how to communicate with each other but made a great team anyway, the quirky undercover cops whom everyone else tried to avoid but secretly wanted to emulate, and the wise and ambitious district commander trying to keep it all together and maintain distance and decorum while his personal life crumbled slowly around him. Again, pretty realistic stuff.
The popularity of police shows has not waned in the 29 years I’ve been a cop. In fact, in addition to theatrical cop shows like “Monk,” “Life on Mars,” and all 107 versions of “CSI”, there are countless reality shows featuring “real” street cops, highway patrol officers, female cops, rural deputy sheriffs, and even animal cops! Having been a part of a reality cop show, I can tell you that even a reality TV show isn’t a one hundred percent accurate view of “real” police work.
So, real cop or TV cop? I think we’re all a little of both. If you’re considering law enforcement as a profession, enjoy what you see on TV and take away the positive lessons that many of today’s shows can teach you, but also take the time to meet and get to know real cops, find out what we really do and how we feel about it, and if police work is the career for you. If you’re already a crimefighter, be entertained by what you watch on the tube but don’t let TV tactics de-train you or corrupt, frustrated fictional cops negatively affect your own attitude. And if you’re still going to shift parties or out on dates dressed like Detective Sonny Crocket from “Miami Vice,” stop it, right now, seriously. The rest of the profession (and your dates) will appreciate it. Stay safe!