The problem with learning about human society from TV is that the messages are quite often contradictory. Let’s examine the question of what good police work is. According to Lieutenant Columbo, it involves wearing a dirty raincoat, asking annoying questions and pretending to be a clot. This lulls the suspect into a false sense of security until – bingo! – he makes a careless remark that gives the game away. I used to find this pretty convincing until I noticed that lawyers never seem to get in Columbo’s way. Is this realistic in a country where members of the legal profession vastly outnumber racoons and coyotes? I then realised that the absence of lawyers is a contrivance to prevent exchanges like this from occurring:
Columbo (scratching his head like a baboon): If you’ll excuse me, Mr Mellon, there’s something I have a problem with. Why would you borrow your housekeeper’s apron if you were dressing up as the Queen of Sheba?
Lawyer: Mr Mellon, I’d advise you not to answer that question in accordance with your constitutional rights.
Mr Mellon: I’m so sorry, Lieutenant, there’s a really straightforward answer to your question but I have to take my lawyer’s advice. We can talk about other things if you want. I know a great place to get that raincoat of yours cleaned for five bucks.
This is why the Colombo approach would never work in real life. The dishevelled detective would have no good strategy for a suspect who stone-walled all his questions using a lawyer as a moderator. Colombo thinks he’s incredibly devious, but his whole approach depends on the one-to-one interrogation. Being continually interrupted by a lawyer would throw him off his stride and starve him of vital data. He’d never make another arrest.
So having written off Columbo, I considered the merits of Starsky and Hutch, who could hardly be more different. Their approach to police work involves driving too fast, roughing people up and trying to outdo Huggy Bear in jive-ass ghetto talk. They never seem to bother about clues or fingerprints: it’s all about getting to where the action is and arresting the villains with as much violence as they can get away with. Catching people in the act is the name of the game.
There is no doubt that this method of policing would be highly effective. Instead of waiting for a crime to occur before investigating it, turn up while the offence is in progress and nab the hoods red-handed. Dirty Harry takes the concept to its logical conclusion by shooting the suspects as well, saving the city of San Francisco a fortune in paperwork, legal costs and prison expenses.
But unfortunately it’s all too good to be true. Experts have calculated that the odds of a crime being interrupted by a policeman are one in seven-thousand. And even when it happens, it’s damned difficult, in the heat of the moment, for the police to differentiate between the crook, the victim and the innocent bystander. It must be admitted that criminals are crafty devils who wear identical clothes to the law-abiding public, making it very tempting for the confused policeman to shoot everyone in sight when confronted with a suspicious incident.
My conclusion is that the best policeman is not strictly a policeman at all. I commend Mr Jim Rockford, who has all the guile of Columbo without the foolish pretence that a crime can be solved simply by nagging the suspect. Rockford has no aversion to lawyers, retaining a moderately attractive blonde woman as his own, and is not too proud to get help in furthering his investigations. Dennis Becker (the police officer) and Angel (the nincompoop) are frequently invited to contribute to his projects and share in the glory of his achievements. It seems to me that these are the most important qualities in a law enforcer: the ability to work with all types of people and overcome your natural distaste for lawyers. Never trust a policeman whose best friend is his weapon.
I leave you with Mr Rockford’s theme music.
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