Just the Facts, Ma'am: A Brief History of TV Cop Shows

The James Cagney gangster films of ‘30s may have helped produce the cop shows that began appearing on the new medium of television in the ‘50s. Dragnet, which took its name from a system of synchronized measures to capture perpetrators, starred Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday. Friday became well known for his Dragnet catchphrase – “Just the facts, ma’am.” The later episodes of Dragnet often showed the officers reading the suspects their Miranda rights, which start with “You have the right to remain silent.”

Another popular police show of the ‘50s was The Untouchables was based on the story of Eliot Ness, a Prohibition agent in the ‘30s, and his team of special agents, who were referred to as The Untouchables because of their courage and the inability to corrupt them.

Hawaii 5-0, which ran from 1968 until 1980, featured the four man team of Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) and was set in the exotic 50th state. McGarrett became well known for saying “Book’em Danno” to Officer Danny Williams. F.B.I., which starred Efrem Zimbalist Jr. , offered up fictional stories based on actual F.B.I. cases. F.B.I. chief J. Edgar Hoover served as a consultant on the show until his death in 1972 and Zimbalist Jr. often talked about those on the F.B.I.’s “Most Wanted” list at the end of episodes.

Jack Webb continued his run on television by creating and producing Adam 12, which told the story of veteran Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Pete Malloy and rookie Jim Reed. Kojak focused not on the rookies of law enforcement, but on an older, veteran detective. Telly Savalas starred as Kojak, a lieutenant with the New York Police Department (NYPD), who became known for his bald head, love of lollipops, and catchphrase “Who loves ya, baby?”

Few police shows defined the ‘80s like Miami Vice. Undercover officers Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs set fashion trends with their beard stubble, shades, pastel Armani jackets and t-shirts, linen pants, and loafers without socks. The show also incorporated popular music of the day, featuring such artists as Phil Collins, Glenn Frey, Billy Idol, and ZZ Top. 

Another ‘80s show, Hill Street Blues, featured the staff of the police department in an unnamed U.S. city. The show focused on real issues and the way in which it was filmed gave it a documentary feel. The personal lives as well as professional lives of the characters were covered in the show. T.J. Hooker starred William Shatner as a veteran police sergeant who went back to being a beat cop after his detective partner was murdered.

In the late ‘80s, Americans became interested in real police stories due to America’s Most Wanted, which still airs today. Viewers are given the facts of the cases by host John Walsh, whose son Adam was murdered in 1981, then encouraged to call in with any additional information. It is believed that over 1,000 fugitives have been captured thanks to the help of America’s Most Wanted viewers.

COPS is a series that documents real police officers as they answer calls of criminal activity. The long running show sends camera crews out with officers from different departments all over the country and its theme song, “Bad Boys,” has become synonymous with the show.

NYPD Blue also focused on the professional and personal lives of police officers. The show ran from 1993 until 2005. Law & Order and its spinoffs (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Law & Order: Trial by Jury) are arguably the most popular police series of all time. The show, which deals with the criminal justice system, has now gone into syndication and several episodes can be found on different channels every day.

Although cop shows have changed through the years, the fact remains that the viewing public loves watching fictional or real police officers catch the bad guys.

More information:

Badge 714 (information on Jack Webb and Dragnet)

A List of Kojak Episodes

22 years after 'Miami Vice,' its cultural influence still reverberates.

Television Show Mysteries by the Decade

A List of NYPD Blue Episode Recaps

Jack Webb TV Noir