Two kinds of police appeared on mid-century American television. The good guys solved crime on prime-time police procedurals like “Dragnet,” starting in 1951, and “Adam-12,” beginning in 1968 (both featured the L.A.P.D.). The bad guys shocked America’s conscience on the nightly news: Arkansas state troopers barring Black students from entering Little Rock Central High School, in 1957; Birmingham police clubbing and arresting some seven hundred Black children protesting segregation, in 1963; and Alabama state troopers beating voting-rights marchers at Selma, in 1965. These two faces of policing help explain how, in the nineteen-sixties, the more people protested police brutality, the more money governments gave to police departments.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on crime,” and asked Congress to pass the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, under which the federal government would supply local police with military-grade weapons, weapons that were being used in the war in Vietnam. During riots in Watts that summer, law enforcement killed thirty-one people and arrested more than four thousand; fighting the protesters, the head of the L.A.P.D. said, was “very much like fighting the Viet Cong.” Preparing for a Senate vote just days after the uprising ended, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee said, “For some time, it has been my feeling that the task of law enforcement agencies is really not much different from military forces; namely, to deter crime before it occurs, just as our military objective is deterrence of aggression.”
Jill Lepore, “The Long Blue Line”, The New Yorker (20 July 2020), 68.