Every cop show that's been on TV since the 1950s is part of the "Dragnet" legacy. Everything we think we know about crime and law enforcement — and everything we believe about the police — bears the imprint of the show. "Dragnet" fashioned the idea of modern policing in our cultural imagination. And, as viewers were reminded each week, all of it was true. But what most of us don’t know is that "Dragnet" was also calculated propaganda: the Los Angeles Police Department did far more than provide technical assistance, essentially co-producing the show.
"Dragnet" averaged 16.5 million viewers and 6 million radio listeners a week, who all eagerly absorbed the show’s heavy-handed message: police officers were courteous, clear-headed, and efficient, responsible executors of justice. These men only wanted the facts.
The Los Angeles Police Department was deeply involved in every stage of the show's production, from start to finish. A team of officers culled potential cases, and patrolmen and detectives wrote up their own cases in the hopes of inspiring an episode and pocketing a $100 payment. Scripts, which were studded with real jargon and the names of actual LAPD staff, were submitted to the police chief or his surrogates twice, once to check for technical accuracy and once for final approval.
"Dragnet" made the LAPD the most famous police department in the country and confidence in the police was high nationally. A 1967 Gallup poll found that 77 percent of Americans had “a great deal of confidence in the police”, just because of "Dragnet".