by Alex Elkins
Dragnet — television’s first crime procedural — drew 16 million weekly viewers at its height in the mid-1950s, more than half the number of television-owning homes in America. Every week white suburbanites tuned in to watch Los Angeles Police Sergeant Joe Friday and his partner Frank Smith investigate back-alley muggings, missing children, dead housewives, and juvenile delinquents — against an urban backdrop that simultaneously repelled and attracted.
Jack Webb, the series creator, played Friday, a meticulous, no-nonsense detective who obeyed the rules and always got his man. By the time the show went off the air in 1959, most Americans could recite Friday’s catchphrase from memory: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
In 1954, Webb graced the cover of Time magazine. Praising the show, Time wrote that Americans have “gained a new appreciation of the underpaid, long-suffering ordinary policeman” and their “first rudimentary understanding of real-life law enforcement.”
The show’s gritty realism and positive portrayal of cops even won the praise of Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker. Sensing a public relations opportunity, the LAPD (at Parker’s direction) opened its doors, and case files, to Webb. Hence the lines at the start of each episode: “Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
Webb never explained why he chose Dragnet for the title. Perhaps, like everything else about the show, he thought it epitomized cutting-edge law enforcement. In the world of the series, dragnet suggested expert coordination, bureaucratic efficiency, and technological sophistication.
It also suggested zealotry: Friday was a crime-fighter who would go the extra mile and overcome any obstacle to catch the bad guy. This was dragnet-as-manhunt, or the wide-ranging search for a specific perpetrator. In this scenario, police suspicion was specific, localized to a single person. Friday’s methods were exacting, measured.
In the real world of 1950s policing, dragnet often meant just the opposite — at least for poor communities of color. For neighborhoods like Watts and Avondale, dragnet meant constant, indiscriminate suspicion spread to an entire demographic and enforced through police harassment, frisking, and arrest.
Defined in this way, Los Angeles was the perfect setting for Dragnet. Beginning in the 1930s, the LAPD pioneered the use of stop-and-search policing whereby officers flooded an area after a reported crime to question persons found on the street. This was the anti-Friday dragnet — indiscriminate, racist, and the reality for urban, black communities after World War II.
The Growth of Stop-and-Frisk
In the 1950s police officials in other cities took up, and expanded, the stop-and-search tactics pioneered by the LAPD, embracing a proactive, preventative theory of crime fighting.
Chiefs from San Francisco to New York City began to prioritize the street stop or field interrogation as a way to conduct surveillance of suspicious people and habitual offenders, elevating a very old tactic — patrolmen had always stopped and searched persons they deemed suspicious — into official strategy. Tellingly, “stop-and-frisk” did not become a thing, hyphenated and conjoined, until 1964, the year New York State passed the country’s first law under that name.
As stop-and-search policing became more deliberate and systematic, police presence in minority neighborhoods became heavier and more intrusive. While police continued to ignore murders of black people, they were increasingly quick to pounce on a corner if a few black men gathered there to gossip or talk politics.
The “battle of the corner,” as the Philadelphia police called it, was part of the broader “war on crime.” Vice crimes — low-level offenses like corner-lounging and dice-playing — were associated with graft and aggressively punished by police
In 1958 the Cincinnati Police Department implemented one of the first field interrogation campaigns. They selected Avondale, a neighborhood that became predominately African American after a decade of white flight, slum clearance, black migration, and redlining.
The campaign worked as follows: during a street stop, the officer asked the person for identification, his employment status, his purpose for being on the street, and whether he had a criminal record. If the person refused to cooperate, the officer threatened to arrest him or place him under surveillance. Each stop generated a police file, and police were expected to meet a quota of stops. In the event of future crimes in the area, the police now had a database of potential suspects to pick up and interrogate.
One week into the campaign, the Cincinnati branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) complained to the city manager. Jim Paradise, the branch president, criticized the “dragnet-like campaign of indiscriminate accosting and interrogation of the citizens.”
The ACLU had never heard of a program whereby the police “place an entire community under its control in this fashion,” and indeed, the constitutionality of the field interrogation was an open question. Until that point, no court had directly addressed the legal standard governing stop-and-frisk. Police simply did it, and all the time. What shocked the ACLU was the deliberate, systematic, and coercive nature of the campaign.
Perhaps the most famous proponent of this strategy was Orlando W. Wilson. As Chicago’s superintendent of police in the 1960s, Wilson developed what he called “aggressive, preventive patrol.” He said it worked like “psychological warfare” against criminals because it “gives the impression of the police being everywhere.”
Wilson modernized the department, looking to make it more efficient and rational. He introduced a system to distribute assigned patrol units to certain areas on particular nights of the year based on past crime data, added thousands of new squad cars to the force, and ordered his officers to patrol alone to maximize resources. In 1964, the department made 250,000 street stops. Many of these generated arrests. A year later, Chicago police arrested 75,000 people for disorderly conduct; over half were African American.
White Americans didn’t experience stop-and-frisk policing — for them Dragnet was reality. But in August 1965 that safe, confident reality was interrupted, its unspoken assumptions directly confronted, when the residents of Watts, an African-American neighborhood, rose up against Parker’s Los Angeles police force.
For six days Watts residents looted and burned white-owned stores and attacked white police officers. Some 23,000 people participated in the uprising; another 50,000 filled the streets, watching. Thirty-four people died; the vast majority were African American, killed by police and National Guardsmen.
The immediate trigger of the uprising was a routine stop of a young black man, named Marquette Frye, for drunk driving. But its deeper cause was the racial dragnet that had infiltrated black neighborhoods in unprecedented fashion during the 1950s.
In August 1964, a young black rioter in Paterson, New Jersey, told a Newsweek reporter:
These cops, they’ll stop your car and say, “All right, nigger, get out,” and you have to swallow that. Then they’ll say, “You niggers get up against that wall,” and they’ll smash you in the ribs, and you have to swallow that, too. And pretty soon you get tired of swallowing, so you wait for one of their cars to come by and try to get it with a brick. Or you try to get into one of these stores around here, ’cause they’re all the same — all these white people is all the same.
Two years after Watts, Avondale erupted, and 1,000 National Guardsmen were called in to put down the uprising. At a rally beforehand, on June 12, residents did not protest the area’s high unemployment or overcrowded housing — they attacked the city’s anti-loitering ordinance that made it a misdemeanor to disobey a police officer’s command to leave a street corner.
Cincinnati police routinely used the law to target and harass black Avondale residents. Between January 1966 and June 1967, African Americans (who were a quarter of the population) comprised 70 percent of the city’s total loitering arrests.
Government commissions appointed by President Lyndon Johnson highlighted the corrosive effect of the dragnet on minority communities. African Americans routinely experienced overt racism and public frisks — police stopped them for socializing with white people, for walking down the street at night, for driving expensive cars, or simply for standing on street corners.
Officers commonly referred to adult black men as “boy” and used “snap arrests” and “alley court” to punish perceived disrespect. Harassment was so routine it had become bureaucratic; black anger rose along with the increasingly systematic field checks and low-level summonses.
After Detroit’s uprising in late July 1967, a local community organizer told federal researchers to “spend two hours in our courts . . . Traffic and Recorder’s Courts.” There, the organizer said, the researchers would “see justice; see how the people don’t have their say; it is their word against the cops.”
In San Francisco, a young black man told researchers “there ain’t a day we don’t get rousted.” Another youth said, “Man, they always shouting, ‘Do this! Do that! Gimme your identification!’ All that old bull-shit. They talk to you like you already in prison and that gets me mad!”
On the day that Watts exploded, a large number of spectators had gathered to watch the arrest of Frye (along with his brother and mother). The crowd remained after the arrests, and later that night a California Highway Patrol officer grabbed Joyce Ann Gaines, a young African-American woman, from the crowd. The officer thought, incorrectly, that Gaines had spit on him.
Clamping his baton across her neck, he started to pull her backwards toward a patrol wagon. She gripped the baton, gasping for air. The crowd erupted. The woman was wearing a smock — she had come from a nearby hair salon, drawn to the noise like hundreds of others — leading bystanders to think she was pregnant. As the crowd tried to rescue her, a tug-of-war ensued. The patrolman, aided by fellow officers, finally pulled Gaines from the mass of people and arrested her.
Bystander attempts to rescue people being arrested by cops were not an unusual sight in African American neighborhoods in the 1960s — crowd rescues had been a national trend since the late 1950s. Law enforcement officials in Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York City, among other cities, bemoaned the rise of groups attacking officers or trying to free the prisoner.
By 1961 “cop-fighting” was regularly in the news. In New York City, bystander interventions climbed to an average of five a day. In July alone three hundred officers were attacked while making arrests. In October, Washington Post staff reporter Luther P. Jackson said, “In the Negro ghettos of cities across the Nation, there has been a rash of incidents in which slum dwellers have engaged police in ‘tugs of war.’ The charge of ‘police brutality’ is a rallying cry.”
Between 1961 and the Watts Rebellion, the daily press reported eighteen crowd assaults on police officers in Los Angeles County. In 1963, a crowd of one thousand helped free a police prisoner in Griffith Park, Los Angeles. Two black men were arrested (and, in a perverse irony, prosecuted, though not convicted, under the state’s anti-lynching law).
The street-level challenge to stop-and-search policing made its way to the US Supreme Court in June 1968. In Terry v. Ohio, the Court upheld the principles underlying stop-and-search policing, and determined that the threshold for a “stop-and-frisk” was an officer’s reasonable and articulable suspicion— not probable cause— that a person was involved in crime and was armed.
The facts of Terry were doubly ironic. The case revolved around a veteran detective’s careful observation of three men whom he suspected of preparing to rob a store in downtown Cleveland in 1963. The officer waited twelve minutes before approaching; the frisk turned up two concealed pistols. Thus, with the Court’s ruling, Dragnet policing that defied the norm — the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the men — legitimized and widened the dragnet.
Terry’s second irony was its setting. Cleveland had been selected for public hearings in 1966 after the US Commission on Civil Rights discovered that police routinely harassed and brutalized black people. Probable cause — for arrests — was rare. Police regularly detained African Americans for up to seventy-two hours without charging them with a crime. When pressed, officials invoked custom, not the law.
The judges in Terry were not blind to the dangers of stop-and-frisk. In a memo to Chief Justice Earl Warren, Justice William J. Brennan Jr, worried that their decision “will be taken by the police all over the country as our license to them to carry on, indeed widely expand, present ‘aggressive surveillance’ techniques which the press tell us are being deliberately employed in Miami, Chicago, Detroit, and other ghetto cities.”
Yet, with Brennan’s support, Warren wrote the majority opinion. Stop-and-frisk became official federal policy and the strategic cornerstone of the “war on crime” that followed.
The Legacy of the Postwar Dragnet
Over forty years after Terry, the racial dragnet, and the anger it produces in communities of color, continues. In August 2013, a federal judge ruled that the New York Police Department had violated the constitutional rights of minority residents. Between 2004 and 2012, New York City police officers made 4.43 million stops, 83 percent of which involved black or Latino residents. Almost 90 percent of the stops resulted in no evidence of criminal activity.
Several months before the ruling, New York Sen. Eric Adams (formerly a New York police captain) told the Guardian that Raymond Kelly, then the police commissioner, said in a private 2010 meeting that “he wanted to instill fear” in young black and Latino men that “every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police.”
More recently, the Department of Justice (DOJ) published a report on criminal justice in Ferguson, Missouri. The investigation came after massive protests against the killing of African-American teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014.
The DOJ found that black residents were systematically and disproportionately targeted by a racial dragnet. Ferguson policing practices were “shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” resulting in huge racial disparities that derived in part from “discriminatory intent” on the part of court officials, city councilors, and the Ferguson Police Department. African Americans, though only 67 percent of the Ferguson population, made up “85% of FPD’s traffic stops, 90% of FPD’s citations, and 93% of FPD’s arrests from 2012 and 2014.”
Much of the police violence directed at unarmed African Americans in recent years arose from routine investigative stops. On April 19, in Baltimore, twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray died a week after being detained by police. Police had given Gray what is known as a “rough ride” — they handcuffed him and restrained his legs but did not secure him in the police van. They made four stops on their drive around the neighborhood, ignoring his pleas for medical aid.
The tragic death of Gray — and countless others like it — is a reminder of how stop-and-frisk policing generates fiercely disputed territory in poor, urban, minority neighborhoods. Baltimore residents in the 1950s had a term for this phenomenon: “indicted corners” were the places where you could not stand without being ordered by police to move along. In Gray’s case, the long, bloody history of extralegal police violence came full circle: from “curbstone justice” to “indicted corner” to “rough ride.”
The most vociferous defenders of proactive policing today — Raymond Kelly; William Bratton, the current New York police commissioner; and George Kelling, a primary architect of “broken windows” policing — avoid the older racially charged language, at least in public. Parrying accusations of racism, they even claim to have the support of the black community.
Indeed, they say that stop-and-frisk is an inevitable part of street policing and that, properly implemented, it protects law-abiding residents from the men who stand on corners, the panhandlers, and the low-level drug dealers.
The problem, of course, is that many of the people targeted by police are innocent of any crime. These residents, disproportionately young men of color, do not see stop-and-frisk as community policing — they see it as a dragnet.
In 1967, the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognized this reality in its amicus brief for Terry. In a passage that resonates today, the brief noted that stop-and-frisk was inseparable from the country’s legacy of racial terror: “‘Hey, there’ to the man likely to be stopped — the man on the street in a ‘bad’ neighborhood, the man in the ghetto — is a challenge, an act of dominion by the Fuzz, a thinly veiled threat of force.”
The dragnet we know today was erected by police to contain the ghettos that took shape after World War II — to separate black people and their perceived disorder from white people and white-controlled spaces.
Police departments were enforcing the interests of white merchants, white realtors and mortgage lenders (and federal housing officials), white politicians, and the broader white public. After the 1960s, the police strategy of stop-and-search became America’s strategy. Arrest and jail became — and remains — the country’s overriding response to the disorder supposedly intrinsic to the inner city.
The uprisings of the 1960s all began as street-corner rebellions. Their proper geographic affiliation therefore is not the city but the neighborhood. Los Angeles did not erupt in 1965; Watts did; not Cincinnati, but Avondale; not Detroit, but the West Side; not Miami, but Liberty City. Likewise, this past April, Baltimore did not erupt, but Sandtown-Winchester: the economically depressed, predominantly black neighborhood that has one of the highest incarceration rates in the state, accompanied by the usual extralegal police harassment and violence.
Historically, the dragnet and the ghetto have gone hand in hand. End the ghetto and the “war on crime,” and you’ll end the dragnet — and restore democracy to the urban street corner.