A total of 373 law enforcers appeared in the programs we viewed. Law enforcers could be seen regularly on the three networks in both comedies and dramas. Slightly over half of all law enforcers (54 percent) appeared on NBC, 27 percent on ABC and the remaining 19 percent on CBS. An overwhelming majority, 81 percent, appeared on adventures or dramas such as Magnum, P.I. and Hill Street Blues while 19 percent were on comedies such as Barney Miller and Three's Company.
These guardians of justice were not solely confined to typical cops and robbers shows. Thirty-five percent appeared on series whose major characters were not police or private eyes. Law enforcers were spread about evenly among the three major types of characters. Thirty percent were series stars such as police captain Frank Furillo of Hill Street Blues, and private eye Thomas Magnum from the show of the same name. Minor continuing characters, such as the police chief on Lobo, constituted 41 percent of the sample. Finally, 29 percent made only a single appearance. Such characters included a district attorney on Nero Wolfe and a police sergeant on The Greatest American Hero.
Television's protectors of law and order comprised a varied collection of occupational groups as Table 14 shows. The single largest group (71 percent) was represented by various ranks of police, from the captain on Enos to the patrol officers of CHiPs. Lawyers such as public defender Joyce Davenport of Hill Street Blues made up 17 percent of the sample. Seven percent were private investigators such as the title character of Nero Wolfe. Four percent of all law enforcers were government agents such as FBI agent Bill Maxwell on The Greatest American Hero. The remaining 1 percent were included in a residual category represented by such professions as security guards.
Most private eyes (69 percent) were series stars while a majority of both lawyers and government agents made only a single appearance. When police appeared they were most likely to be minor series regulars (49 percent)' while 29 percent were stars and 22 percent made a single appearance.
Law enforcers on television were predominantly white males in the prime of life. Eighty-nine percent were male and nearly as many (85 percent) were white. The remaining15 percent were black. No other non-white groups were represented. Sixty-three percent were between the ages of 30 and 50, while the rest were about equally divided between those under 30 and those over 50.
Most law enforcers were one-dimensional characters whose roles revolved around getting their job done. Two out of three were shown engaging in purely occupational tasks. By contrast, only 6 percent were featured in a personal role and 27 percent combined elements of their work and personal lives. Some shows did present the private lives of law enforcers. For example, in an episode of Soap a police officer and his girlfriend argue about the seriousness of their relationship (3/16). But such cases are rare. Viewers are much more likely to see private detective Nero Wolfe solving a crime or police captain Barney Miller juggling the problems of fellow officers and New York City residents.
Stars, whose characterizations have the best chance to be well developed on TV, were more likely to involve themselves in varied activities than were other types of characters. They were about twice as likely to engage in personal activities or to combine occupational and personal tasks, as were minor regulars or single-appearance characters.
Private eyes, the group most likely to be starts, also had the greatest chance at a more well-rounded role. Thus, private eye Dan Tanna of Vegas stalks the murderer of a woman to whom he had a deep personal attachment (4/1).
In general, however, strictly law-related activities consumed most of these characters' time. Perhaps this is why the audience received very little information on their economic status. Eighty-nine percent of all law enforcers were of unknown economic status. Three percent were wealthy, 8 percent middle class and none were working class or poor.
The most crucial aspect of the law enforcer's role deals with the general nature of his function. Were law enforcers the dedicated protectors of justice or were they themselves lawbreakers? Did they possess the skills to execute their jobs properly or did crimes go unsolved due to their incompetence?
In general, law enforcers fared well although they were somewhat tainted by incompetence or even illegal behavior. Table 15 shows that 54 percent were portrayed positively, 28 percent negatively and 18 percent played neutral roles. Representative of the positively portrayed law enforcers was Sheriff Lobo from the show of the same name. In one segment, for instance, he works out a plan to capture bank robbers who had taken a group of customers hostage (4/7). By contrast, a sheriff of less noble motives, Titus Simple of Flamingo Road, is involved in blackmailing and bribery (4/2). Typical of the neutral law enforcers is an attorney on Nero Wolfe who briefly discusses a case with the series star (3/6).
Although this general picture of law enforcers held true for both comedies and dramas, there were differences on the three networks, indicated by Table 16. Those on ABC and NBC were positive a majority of the time (62 and 56 percent respectively), but on CBS negative law enforcers slightly outnumbered positive ones (39 to 37 percent). ABC painted a somewhat rosier picture than the other two networks, casting only 15 percent of its law enforcers as bad guys.
Many other characteristics were involved in the portrayal of a character's plot function. For example, as Table 17 shows, stars fared much better than other types of characters. An overwhelming majority of stars (80 percent) were positive compared to 50 percent for minor series regulars and a mere 32 percent for those making guest shots. These single-appearance characters fared worst of all 38 percent were shown as bad guys. Minor continuing characters were -lose behind with a 31 percent negative rating. In contrast, only 14 percent of stars were cast as bad guys.
Among the majority of stars making a brave showing are police officers Baker and Poncherello of CHiPs who try to protect a man from the threats of his deranged enemy (4/5). Minor regulars, who are usually portrayed positively as well, include a police detective on Hill Street Blues who goes undercover in an attempt to capture a drug dealer (3/21). Among single-appearance characters (who do not fare as well) is a gruff police detective on Different Strokes who arrests an innocent woman on theft charges (4/1).
Younger and nonwhite law enforcers also fared better than others. We see from Table 18 that 68 percent of those under 30 were portrayed positively compared to 53 percent for those aged 30 to 50 and 40 percent for those over 50. Those in the older age groups were almost three times as likely to be bad guys as were the young law enforcers. Thus, a police detective approaching retirement on Hill Street Blues helps cover up a politician's involvement in a young girl's murder (3/21).
Among nonwhite law enforcers, as Table 19 shows, 64 percent of portrayals were positive compared to 52 percent among whites. Even more striking, whites were more than twice as likely to be portrayed negatively (31 vs. 13 percent.)
Some types of law enforcers also made a better showing than others. The differences are shown in Table 20. The positive image of private eyes far outstripped all other groups. Ninety-three percent of these one-man guardians of justice were shown favorably, and not a single character was a bad guy. The remaining 7 percent played neutral roles. Otherwise they were a varied lot. Among their ranks was the portly Nero Wolfe, young and stylish Dan Tanna of Vegas and tough Thomas Magnum from Magnum, P.I.
Police were the next most favorably portrayed group. A slight majority of 53 percent played positive roles, 30 percent were negative and 17 percent neutral. Typical of positive images of police was Dan Tanna's friend, the dedicated Lieutenant Dave Nelson of Vegas. Negative police were more likely to resemble a vicious and corrupt captain on BJ and the Bear who accepts bribes and is involved in drug deals (4/14, 3/24).
Lawyers fared somewhat less well than policemen although a plurality was portrayed in a favorable light. Fortyfour percent received positive portrayals, 31 percent were shown as negative and the remaining 25 percent played neutral roles. They ranged from admirable characters like Joyce Davenport, the tireless public defender (and Captain Furillo's love interest) on Hill Street Blues, to shysters and worse. In fact, several ended up on the wrong side of the law, like a lawyer on Nero Wolfe who is responsible for a murder (4/17).
Government agents were the only major group with as many negative as positive portrayals: 40 percent on each side of the ledger. Even the good guys were rarely of the square-jawed heroic variety. More representative was Bill Maxwell of The Greatest American Hero, a competent but unpolished FBI agent. This group was just as likely to include such characters as an incompetent CIA agent who is too concerned with agency red tape to notice the clues to a kidnapping (The Greatest American Hero 4/8).
The portraits of these law enforcers become more revealing when we examine the particular types of positive and negative functions they performed. Law enforcers were more likely to be positive than negative, but when they did err their transgressions were fairly serious as Table 21 illustrates. Twenty-nine percent of the bad guys committed illegal acts and an equal number were professionally incompetent. Eighteen percent were foolish, an equal number were greedy and the remaining 6 percent were malevolent.
Moreover, as Table 22 reveals, different types of law enforcers were guilty of quite different patterns of negative behavior. Lawyers who erred were most likely to be greedy (40 percent) and least likely to be professionally incompetent (10 percent). In contrast, police usually committed a crime themselves (33 percent) or failed to perform their jobs competently (32 percent). Half the bad government agents were incompetent and a third were greedy. Among law enforcers who turned to crime is a police sergeant on Enos who deals in drugs (4/15). In a demonstration of occupational incompetence, an officer on Hill Street Blues exacerbates an argument between two men involved in a fender-bender by losing his own temper (4/4).
We see from Table 23 that positive law enforcers were a more uniform lot. Two-thirds of them (65 percent) demonstrated professional competence, 27 percent were friendly or helpful and 8 percent went beyond the call of duty.
The critical differences among the types of positive acts performed were reflected in the different types of characters and occupations. First, as Table 24 indicates, stars were most likely to be competent or heroic. Seventy-two percent of stars who were positively portrayed performed their jobs well, compared to 65 percent of minor series regulars and 51 percent of those making a guest appearance. Both minor characters and guests were more likely to be merely friendly than were stars. Fifteen percent of these stars performed some heroic deed compared to only 1 percent of minor regulars and 3 percent of single-appearance characters.
Overall, stars were responsible for 87 percent of heroic acts performed by law enforcers. Among these heroes was police captain Frank Furillo of Hill Street Blues who not only negotiates to save a group of hostages from sure death but uses his personal time and connections to have a misguided juvenile placed in a private rehabilitation center (4/21). In another example of heroism, police captain Barney Miller refuses to divulge the identity of an informant and goes to jail to preserve the credibility of his department (3/19).
Of lawyers who were positive, half were friendly and half were competent. Eighty-three percent of government agents were competent and 17 percent (only one case) heroic. Among police about two-thirds were competent, 27 percent friendly and 8 percent heroic. Private eyes were mostly competent (82 percent) with 11 percent friendly and 7 percent heroic.
Finally, Table 25 combines all the various positive and negative functions into a single comparison to provide an overview of how law enforcement is portrayed on primetime television. The most frequent portrayal was one of simple competence. Over one in three characters who enforce the law were shown doing their jobs adequately if not heroically. Only 4 percent, or one in 25, acted beyond the call of duty. For that is the flip side of television's emphasis on the competent cop (or other law enforcer). In fact, for every law enforcer who performed heroically, two performed incompetently and another two actually broke the law themselves. Incompetence and illegal activity each accounted for one characterization in 12 among law enforcement characters. To be sure, both categories were outweighed by competent characters as well as those who behaved in a friendly or otherwise sympathetic fashion. As we noted earlier, positive portrayals far outweighed negative ones. But equally noteworthy was the dearth of heroes among a group whose occupations make them prime candidates for any number of heroic scenarios.
Beyond simple plot function, we examined other aspects of the way law enforcers performed their duties. We were interested in characters who bend the rules to get the job done. The unorthodox defender of justice who rarely does things according to "the book" is a stock entertainment device. Such characters conform to the spirit but not the letter of the law and they often have to fight the system in order to make it work.
This tradition is at least as old as Sherlock Holmes and as contemporary as Baretta and Kojak. Thus, we analyzed current portrayals of law enforcers with this time-honored theme in mind. Specifically, in upholding both the law and principles of justice, do law enforcers themselves "bend the rules" in the greater pursuit of justice? If so, how far do they bend the rules and how does this affect their portrayal on television?
We found that a relatively small part of the sample, only 8 percent, bent the rules for any reason while remaining on the side of the angels. On the light side, such behavior included two Hill Street Blues police officers who appropriate for their barbecue a bullet-ridden side of beef that was to be used as evidence (4/21). On the same series, a dedicated police detective becomes overly enthusiastic during an interrogation and bites the ankle of an assailant. He is quickly lectured by his superior, Frank Furillo, on preserving criminals' rights and he promises not to repeat such behavior (3l28).
Among other unorthodox law enforcers, private eye Dan Tanna of Vegas searches a hotel room to find information on a murderer (4/1). FBI man Bill Maxwell of The Greatest American Hero is an accessory to "borrowing" FBI files concerning a case in which he is entwined (4/8).
In a more serious vein, sheriff Bufford Pusser from the short-lived series Walking Tall bursts into a building without a warrant and destroys the equipment for a drug making operation (3/31).
Those who did bend the rules were most likely to be stars (47 percent), and the two groups of series regulars together constituted 87 percent of the rule bending. Interestingly, these rule benders fared somewhat better as a group than those who walked a straight line. Of those who bent the rules, 64 percent were portrayed positively compared to a 56 percent positive rating for those who went by the book. Government agents were more than twice as likely as any other occupational group to bend the rules; 20 percent did so. But this total was largely accounted for by the repeated escapades of Bill Maxwell, the not-so-typical FBI man on The Greatest American Hero.
We usually think of crime solving as the chief business of law enforcers pursuing criminals rather than tending to more mundane activities certainly makes for more exciting television. Surprisingly, however, almost half of all law enforcers (49 percent) were not involved in crime-solving activity even if they performed other tasks related to their jobs. Twenty percent were primary agents in solving crimes and 13 percent lent secondary assistance in this endeavor. Eighteen percent of those involved in tracking criminals failed to solve crimes.
Involvement in crime solving varied considerably among the different types of characters. Forty-nine percent of all stars were primary agents in solving crimes compared to only 5 percent among minor regulars and 11 percent of those making guest appearances. Only 5 percent of stars failed at solving crimes compared to 24 percent of minor series regulars and 22 percent of guest characters.
A character's role in crime-solving was closely linked with his overall function. Table 26 shows that 98 percent of the primary crime-solving agents were positively portrayed as were 84 percent of secondary agents. In contrast, only 38 percent of those not involved in crime solving were shown as positive, as were only 27 percent of those who were involved in investigations but did not solve the crime. Forty-nine percent of those in the last group were shown in a negative light.
Dexterity in solving crimes was also related to a law enforcer's occupation as Table 27 indicates. The key finding here was the high success rate of private eyes relative to all other groups. Sixty-two percent of the private eyes were portrayed as catching the bad guy themselves, a success rate over three times as high as that enjoyed by any other group. By contrast, only 19 percent of policemen functioned as primary crime solvers.
Thus, the role of private eyes like Dan Tanna, Thomas Magnum and Nero Wolfe usually focused on crime solving. Even when other law enforcers assisted them, these private eyes inevitably ended up in the Sherlock Holmes role as master crime solver, while their companions were relegated to the role of second-rate Doctor Watsons.
The privileged position of private eyes helped mask most law enforcers' tendency to fail at crime solving. Every other group actually failed to get its man more often than it succeeded By contrast, private eyes proved almost incapable of failure in catching criminals; the 7 percent who did so paled in comparison to the 62 percent who were primary agents in solving crimes.
The unexpectedly high failure rate of most law enforcers, combined with the fantastic success of private eyes, is one of the most striking findings of the study. Once again it is the outsider -the man in the trenchcoat- who saves the day when ordinary law enforcers prove unequal to the task.
The involvement in crime solving (along with a host of other factors) affected the way characters fared in plot resolution. The results are shown in Table 28. Not surprisingly, 95 percent of the primary crime solvers and 87 percent of the secondary ones were ultimately successful compared to only about a third of those who were either not involved in crime solving or those who were involved but did not solve a crime themselves. The latter groups were defeated 32 and 48 percent of the time respectively.
Overall, law enforcers succeeded 58 percent of the time and were defeated 21 percent of the time. Two percent underwent a character change and 19 percent had an unresolved outcome.
Not surprisingly, stars (who were more likely to be positive and primary crime solvers) were also the most successful. As Table 29 indicates, 76 percent of all stars were successful compared to 59 percent of minor regulars and 31 percent of those who made a single appearance. This last group was the only one more likely to be defeated than to succeed. Thirty-seven percent of these guest characters were defeated compared to 25 percent of minor regulars and only 5 percent of stars. Among the successful stars was Sheriff Lobo who captures bank robbers and rescues those they had held hostage (4/7). Likewise, a police detective who played a minor continuing role on Hill Street Blues succeeds in capturing a drug dealer (4/4). But among single appearance law enforcers, a police sergeant on Enos who deals in drugs is himself captured by other police (4115).
Overall, success was enjoyed by positively portrayed law enforcers while evil or foolish ones were defeated. Eightyfive percent of positive characters were successful and only 4 percent were defeated. The remainder was unresolved. In contrast, 59 percent of the bad guys failed and only 10 percent succeeded.
Differences in outcome were also evident among various occupations, as Table 30 reveals. Private eyes received the lion's share of success with a 100 percent success rate in plot resolutions. This diminished to 59 percent for police, 34 percent for lawyers and 33 percent for government agents. This last group was defeated twice as often as it succeeded while police and lawyers were each defeated about 20 percent of the time.
Typical of private investigators was Dan Tanna who miraculously captures a murderer even though he is temporarily blinded (3/18). In contrast, a police detective on Hill Street Blues ignores all of his other responsibilities because he wants to set up a laundromat on the side. But his hopes and financial investment are dissolved when the property he purchases for his business is destroyed (3121). And of course the most egregious of bad guys, like a drug dealing cop on Enos, gets a taste of the law and order he fails to uphold (4/15).
Thus far we have dealt only with characters who are law enforcers by profession. But on television, citizens play an active role in crime solving. Here we shall document their role and examine how these citizens relate to law enforcers in the fight against crime.
A total of 37 citizens took some active part in crime solving in the series we coded. They accounted for just under 10 percent of all characters involved in law enforcement. Many did so because the crimes somehow affected them or their acquaintances. For example, millionaire Jonathan Hart of Hart to Hart cracks a counterfeiting ring that was operating on a ship he owned (4/14).
Relative to the law enforcement professionals, citizens were more likely to be stars. Eighty-one percent of them were series stars like Jonathan and Jennifer Hart or the hell-raising Duke boys from The Dukes of Hazzard. Among professional law enforcers, private eyes were most likely to be stars (69 percent).
Citizens were also more positively portrayed than other law enforcement characters. In fact, all citizens involved in solving crimes were shown positively. The most positively portrayed law enforcers were private eyes, another group of "outsiders," at 93 percent. But from there it is quite a drop to the 53 percent positive rating for police.
Thirty percent of citizens bent the rules a higher proportion than any group of law enforcers. But this did not tarnish their positive image at all. Thus, a high school teacher who leads a double life as The Greatest American Hero "flies" into the FBI to "borrow" files on a top-secret case (4/8). And hero Jonathan Hart breaks into an apartment to find information on a murderer (3/17).
Further, citizens were more likely to be primary crime solvers than any group of law enforcers. Sixty-eight percent were primary crime solvers, as were 62 percent of private eyes. Yet only 20 percent of police and 19 percent of government agents were the primary solvers.
Not surprisingly, almost all citizens (97 percent) were successful in their endeavor. Only PIs enjoyed a slightly higher success rate of 100 percent in plot resolutions. This was quite a contrast to the next-highest success rate of 59 percent for police. Thus, Jonathan Hart captures a murderer (3/24) and breaks up a counterfeiting ring (4/14) while The Greatest American Hero saves a young couple from the clutches of Soviet spies (4/8).