One of the things I do, sometimes almost every day, is watch television shows about or based on law enforcement. In my lifetime, that list of shows is quite diverse, and it includes not only television shows but movies as well. I’ve always found it interesting that, depending on which show I’ve been watching most, my perception of “the best” kind of law enforcement changes. What I’ve come to realize is that what changing in my mind is more about presentation and some day-to-day operational protocols, but never about what I’ve always deemed most important: The commitment, devotion, honor and duty demonstrated by the main characters. What do I mean? Let’s take a look at a few of the shows and the commonalities versus the differences and maybe I can articulate more clearly what I said above.
The Andy Griffith Show is the earliest television show I can remember watching that had anything to do with law enforcement. Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife were certainly an interesting pair, and having the show set in a town so small that they only needed two lawmen… it was quite idealistic. On the one hand you had Sheriff Taylor who displayed the ultimate in patience and compassion, sometimes to a fault. On the other hand you had Barney Fife who knew it all, was up on all the newest latest greatest and just couldn’t wait to be the cutting-edge law enforcement professional. He also tried to be a true hardnose, enforcing the letter of the law with no sense of compassion or understanding. If you combined the two, you’d likely get a pretty good cop. At the end of the day, the show demonstrated that helping people mattered as much, if not more than, enforcing the letter of the law. The lesson learned was that laws can only dictate legal and illegal, not right and wrong.
Hill Street Blues is a show I particularly enjoyed. Although it was never said in the show, I always felt like it was set in New York or Chicago. Most descriptions of the show simply say it was set in “an unnamed large city.” The cast depicted a variety of personalities from the purely professional, compassionate and dedicated officer to the sometimes off-the-wall, cold and dedicated officer. The one detective, often working undercover, I remember from that show was presented as a bit off his rocker. Maybe the show’s producers felt that undercover cops had to be a bit crazy simply to do the job? One of the best lessons I learned from that show was that I never wanted to be a police commander married to a lawyer. That never seemed to go well.
S.W.A.T., the television show of the mid-1970s, was another great show (as I remember it). It didn’t hurt that Jim Street was played by Robert Urich who also starred in the series Spenser: For Hire, another favorite. S.W.A.T., that 1970s show, presented the concept of a special team who acted together, using sometimes untested tactics, to resolve seemingly insurmountable problems. In hindsight, one of the most interesting facts about the show is that it was about a totally new concept. As little as ten years earlier, in 1965, there were no SWAT teams in the country.
Walker, Texas Ranger (the original, not that totally crappy remake of more recent years) was far from realistic but also portrayed officers as near superhuman. What else would you expect from Chuck Norris? Walker was always 100% committed to the law but he tempered it with compassion. He was as often motivated by law enforcement as he was by justice and being fair. The various characters on the show, from the retired ranger, CD, to the contemporary technically savvy partner, Trivette, and not to leave out Walker’s eventual wife, assistant district attorney Alex Cahill, revealed sides of law enforcement usually left out of mainstream shows. But the show, like The Andy Griffith Show, was built on the strength of rural life, rural values, and the importance of balancing commitment to enforcement with appreciation for justice.
S.W.A.T. the movie brought a 1970s concept into contemporary times in 2003. There were some minor recreations of characters, and the movie had to take into account the fact that SWAT teams had evolved over the previous quarter century. Still, there was clear demonstration that following the rules matters… but not 100% of the time. The movie plot took into consideration the fact that sometimes officers get promoted based on their ability to avoid being held responsible when something goes sideways; but that sometimes meant someone else being blamed.
Longmire was an interesting series about Sheriff Walt Longmire in a rural and truly remote part of Wyoming. It’s another small agency, the Sheriff and three deputies, and the show seemed to regularly demonstrate the moral challenges law enforcement officers can face. The show clearly demonstrated how not all law enforcement officers are professional 100% of the time and how the stresses of the job can create situations not easily classified as right or wrong. It showed how circumstances aren’t always as they seem and how the power of the badge can be abused if motivations are not honorable.
We can keep listing shows… Blue Bloods, S.W.A.T. (the newest television variant), N.C.I.S. (all the variations), and more. But what we’ll see is that every show uses different circumstances to demonstrate the same thing, time after time: law enforcement has to be balanced with compassion, a focus on justice, and accomplished within the law. Whether the variant of law enforcement is big city based, rural remote area based, or about a specialty unit, what makes all the main characters of all those shows so appealing is how they approach challenges, investigate crimes, solve problems and do it all with the ability to “do the right thing.” Of course, reality isn’t always like that, but we law enforcement professionals should always try to attain that goal. Don’t you think?
So, the question is, as the title of this blog says, what version of law enforcement are you? Which of that plethora of characters do you most admire? Which do you imagine yourself being like and remembered as? No matter your answer, if you are at least enforcing the law, within the law, maybe bending a few rules, but pursuing justice with a sense of compassion… at least you’d be the star of your own show.