(from Pageant Magazine, January 1955)
(Many thanks to author Michael Hayde for sending this in.)
We’ve dramatized about 116 actual police cases on Dragnet in the past three years. When you ask “Which case was your favorite? Which excited your interest most? Which presented the biggest challenge?”—I think of four candidates. There was the middle-aged woman forger who wrote bum checks—because she wanted to give the money to charity! There was the lady kidnapper, who stole a baby out of her frantic longing for children. There was the twelve-year-old boy who opened his Christmas present—a .22 rifle—one day early and accidentally killed his best friend with it.
You’ll note that none of these dealt with “criminals” in the usual sense. There are no deep-eyed villains in the plot. Dragnet crimes are often “petty” in a sense, dealing with small robberies, child neglect, traffic infringements. The best Dragnet shows are good, I believe, because they focus not on the crime but on the people, and that most fascinating whodunit of all—what motivates people?
My favorite case of all, however, is a script we did about two years ago. We called it our “Accident Trilogy.” There’s no plot as such. No mystery about who committed the crime. It’s a series of vignettes of entirely routine cases, taken from the files of the Accident Investigation Division of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Our object was to show the horror, and the heartbreak, which attends a traffic accident, the kind of commonplace murder that happens every day on U.S. highways. In this story, a young police officer—good friend to Friday and Smith—has been fatally hurt in the line of duty.
FRIDAY TELLS THE STORY
FRIDAY: Frank and I were out cruising when we got a call at 2:48 p.m. for Wilshire and Teberman. As we approached, I could see a smashed motorcycle on the street, and a uniformed officer lying in the gutter, about 30 feet away. Ahead, on the street, was another car, with its door panel smashed in. The officer, we soon learned, was young Mike O’Brien. He was badly injured. From his labored words we were able to gather that while chasing a speeding car, with his cycle siren going full blast, he had collided with another car driven by a young woman who’d carelessly forgotten to make the customary hand signal in turning the corner. Mike’s last request before he died was that Frank and I break the news to Evelyn, the girl he shortly planned to marry.
It’s at moments like these that a cop hates his job. You suddenly become aware of how intensely fragile human beings are, how carelessly and senselessly a human life can be taken, how little you can do, once the terrible damage is done.
WAS SHE THE VILLAIN?
In the waiting car sat Corrine Norton, a bookkeeper in a South Los Angeles defense plant. “I was making a left turn, that’s all,” she explained. “Next thing I knew, he hit my car. You can see what he did to it. Who’s going to pay the damages? How am I going to get to work on Monday? I was on my way home and started to make a left turn onto Teberman and this cop on the motorcycle drove right into me. His fault. I couldn’t help it.” I asked if she’d given a hand signal, before she turned. Oh, yes, she said. Was the car in exactly the same condition as when the accident happened? Oh, yes, she said. “Then how,” we asked, “do you account for the fact that the left hand window of your car is rolled up? How could you possibly have signaled?”
“I didn’t kill him,” she still insisted. “Speeding on a motorcycle like that. He shouldn’t have been going that fast anyway.” “That was his job, ma’am,” I said. “That’s what they pay him for. He was chasing a drunken driver.”
“All right,” she reiterated. “That’s his job. He knew it was dangerous when he took it. That’s what we pay him for.”
“He’s dead, ma’am,” I said. “Who’s going to pay him for that?”
A COP’S TOUGHEST JOB
As Corrine Norton was taken by a traffic officer to the station where a further investigation would be made, Frank and I set off for Evelyn Monroe’s. We knew Mike had been planning on getting married on July 15th. Evelyn greeted us in an obviously happy mood, and insisted we have coffee and doughnuts, the kind Mike likes.
“What’s the matter, Joe?” she asked, noting my troubled face. “Hard day?” “Yeah, a real tough one,” I said. “Sit down, Evelyn, please. We want to talk to you.”
“Sure, Joe, sounds serious.”
“It is, Evelyn. It’s about Mike. He was hurt tonight.”
“Oh, no,” she said, sharply drawing her breath. “Was it bad? Where can I see him? Have they told his mother and father?”
“Yeah, Evelyn. Joe Whitehead’s there now.”
“Joe Whitehead!” she said. “Medical detail? He doesn’t usually go out unless they’re dead! Joe, Joe! What’s happened?”
The news could be withheld no longer. “He’s dead, Evelyn,” I finally said.
“It’s not true,” Evelyn said, incredulous. “He called me at eleven. He’ll be here any minute… Mike… Mike…”
“He was chasing a drunk driver. Down Wilshire. Woman turned in front of him. I’m sorry.”
“Why should he die….” Evelyn sobbed, over and over again…. “why should it be Mike… we had so many plans… the wedding, not even two weeks away… Why should HE die? Why?”
“Old question, Evelyn. I don’t know the answer. It went fast. He didn’t suffer. He talked about you. The last thing. It was about you. Here’s a handkerchief. Go ahead and cry. If crying’d help, I’d cry with you.”
Joe?” she insisted. “Why did he have to die?”
“I got an idea… somebody forgot to stick out their hand.”
There’s the villain. A good man died – because a lady forgot to give a commonplace traffic signal.
That’s the best kind of Dragnet story – about more or less ordinary people caught up in situations beyond their depth, or subject to quixotic fate. Whether we admit it or not, many of these things could happen to me, to you, to anyone.
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