Lately I've been watching the long-running R.A. Cinander/Jack Webb creation Adam-12. And an episode I watched today kind of hit home, even though it was made about 40 years ago, when I was still a teen. In the episode, Officer Pete Malloy (played by Martin Milner) catches up with a suspect who was caught molesting and badly injuring a young girl. After Malloy gets him cuffed, the guy starts mouthing off about how the girls was asking for it, that he’d just given her what she wanted. And Malloy gets angry. We get angry. We know exactly how Malloy feels.
And Malloy, one of the show’s two main characters, a heroic figure, loses his cool and roughs the guy up before his partner Jim Reed (played by Kent McCord), stops him. We understand why Pete did it; we would have done it in his place. The perp is scum.
But the show doesn’t let Malloy off the hook. Malloy freely admits that what he did was wrong, and he pulls a suspension for four days without pay. Considering that the suspect has no serious injuries, it’s a pretty tough punishment. But police have to be held to a higher standard.
It’s a continuing theme in shows produced by Jack Webb. I think we who lived at the time those shows aired, who remember how they seemed to put police on a pedestal, forget how Webb portrayed that higher standard in several episodes of both Adam-12 and Dragnet. Webb made it clear that, while police are only human, they are given tremendous power in society, and that power can only be tamed if we make sure that the police adhere to a strict code of conduct.
Are we holding police to the same code of conduct today? I wonder. The Grand Jury in Ferguson, especially, mystified me. I’ve sat on a Grand Jury before; handing down an indictment is not handing down a conviction. I understand not returning a true bill on a suspected criminal if you don’t find the prosecution’s evidence convincing.
But when a police officer is involved, it seems to me, both the officer and the case have to be held to a higher standard. If there are any unanswered questions or contradictions, then the case needs to be sent to trial, a public proceeding, where we can all see how vigorously the prosecution is pursuing the case. That makes it more likely that all, or at least more, of the facts will come to light.
We need to see that prosecutors are protecting the rights of all to be free from abuse under color of authority. The police themselves should demand no less, for it is their reputation, and their authority, that rests on our perception that they really deserve to be given the power we’ve granted them in order to keep the peace.