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Jack Webb Doesn't Live Here Anymore

ON CALIFORNIA

March 20, 1991|ROBERT A. JONES

LOS ANGELES — I remember the show ran on Monday nights and I remember my father loved it. He was the family's biggest fan of "Dragnet." My mother refused to watch, probably on religious grounds, but the rest of us did, every week. "Dragnet" was part of our routine.

That took place in Memphis, Tenn., 1953 or '54. We had one of the first TV sets on the block and "Dragnet" was our introduction to California. We saw palm trees growing out of the sidewalks and crooks wearing Hawaiian shirts.

But the important part was something else. Something we didn't recognize at the time. We were watching the invention of the LAPD.

The uniformed officers on "Dragnet" were unlike anything I had ever seen in Memphis. These cops were tall, had flat stomachs and showed respect at the crime scene. They seemed professional. They addressed detectives with a "Sir" and displayed no cynicism. They visited victims in the hospital.

The LAPD was being created for the first time. I am not referring here to the Los Angeles Police Department. That's a real police force with real people. The Los Angeles Police Department had existed for 100 years by the time "Dragnet" first appeared.

The LAPD is different. It was invented by television and to this day is still being invented by television. After "Dragnet," there was "Adam 12" and then "S.W.A.T." and "T.J. Hooker" and "Police Woman" and a dozen others. There has never been a television season without an LAPD cop show on the air.

This invented world was a place of simple moralities, simple virtues, and clean living. Every uniformed cop had a blond girlfriend and worried at night about the people he was hired to serve and protect.

And all this raises a question: After 30 years of having a mythical LAPD piped into our homes and our brains, did we come to believe the myth? Did we buy the notion that our clean, California cops behaved like "Adam 12?" And that only places like Philadelphia or Chicago had the other kind of cops, the kind who would accept a $10 bill to forget a speeding ticket.

I think we did believe in that invented LAPD, as did the rest of the world. And the shattering of that belief explains, in part, the sense of betrayal in Los Angeles over the past two weeks. Those officers swinging their clubs cannot be reconciled with the television version.

The next time you watch the videotape--which could be in five or 10 minutes if you have the television on--ask yourself just why the horror bites so sharply. After all, you have seen violence worse than the beating being administered to Rodney G. King. Unless you have been living on the moon, your television has shown you people--real people--being gunned down on the streets or burned to death.

Monks have immolated themselves in Asia, blacks have set one another afire in South Africa, soccer fans have been crushed to death in front of our eyes.

There's usually a reaction of some sort, but nothing like this. So what explains the Rodney G. King affair?

I think it's this: The King beating destroyed not only the way we thought of the LAPD but the way we thought of ourselves here in California. And we sense, with some anger, that there will be no going back. The California that was a separate world from the East, that had clean government and clean cops, has slipped away.

Not entirely, perhaps. I am not arguing that L.A. has turned into Philadelphia. But the sense of remove about California has been eroded in a serious way. We have watched our cops using their batons like rubber hoses just as, a year ago, we watched our Sacramento legislators taking their bribes in fat envelopes.

So it's become much harder to believe that California is exempt from the petty corruptions and viciousness of the old world back East. The distinctions between their world and ours have blurred.

And maybe that's not all bad, if we finally see the lies behind the television version of ourselves.

I remember one episode of "Dragnet" in which Sgt. Friday was forced to visit the East Coast during an investigation. He had a terrible time. It snowed, the crooks turned out to have connections in the Police Department, and Joe caught a cold.

He was so happy to get home. Life was simply better here, he said. In L.A. you knew who the good guys were and who the crooks were.

No more, Joe. But thanks for the memories.

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