‘Dragnet’: Was Show Creator Jack Webb Ever a Police Officer?

Jack Webb as Joe Friday in 'Dragnet'
Jack Webb as Joe Friday in ‘Dragnet’ | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The now-classic police series Dragnet ran on television in the 1950s and then after several years’ hiatus returned in the 1960s, chronicling with great detail and authenticity the daily life of a police officer on the job.

Webb respected and admired police officers so much, his career was practically a tribute to law enforcement.

The feeling, as it turned out at the end of his life, was mutual.

Who was Jack Webb?

Jack Webb on the 'Dragnet' radio show
Jack Webb on the ‘Dragnet’ radio show

Webb was born in 1920 in Santa Monica, California. Raised by a single mother, the future television producer and writer was asthmatic. His mother and grandmother relied greatly on public assistance and welfare to help their household survive.

As he got older, he showed himself to be a good student devoted to the arts and theater. Taking odd jobs to contribute to his family, Webb eventually participated in theater projects in his community.

He made the decision to learn about radio production during night classes at Los Angeles City College.

After his war service, he threw himself into radio work, hosting jazz music radio shows and at length, was cast in the role of police lab technician on a show called He Walked By Night. The part would steer Webb in a significant direction in his career.

Jack Webb educated viewers about the daily lives of police officers

Jack Webb, 1955
Jack Webb, 1955 | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Webb spent time with police officers on their drives and in their squad rooms, learning police procedures and jargon. Eventually, Joe Friday was born.

Once Webb had recorded the pilot episode of Dragnet, he ran it by the Los Angeles Police Chief as the show needed actual police files for its episodes.

The chief gave the pilot and the drama his blessing and his permission to allow Webb access to the department’s cases with certain conditions: confidentiality could never be compromised; members of the force could not be presented negatively; and the LAPD would be able to turn down any show sponsors it found offensive.

Webb never served as a police officer but was their best PR man

The actor, producer, and director never did work in law enforcement himself, but the fruit of his labors certainly showed his immense esteem for the civil servants.

Webb’s portrayal of officers humanized them to viewers. Many would say he was enmeshed with the LAPD to the point that the series lacked objectivity, even perhaps veering in the direction of propaganda.

However Webb is viewed, his legacy is evident in nearly every police drama that has come since Dragnet.

Although Webb did not want a funeral, the LAPD insisted on the ceremony for Webb with full police honors after his death in 1982 from a heart attack.

His speech as Joe Friday on what it means to be a police officer in the episode titled “The Interrogation” reportedly was used for a time at police academies in Los Angeles.

It read in part, “There are over 5000 men in this city who know that being a policeman is an endless, glamourless, thankless job that’s gotta be done. I know it, too. And I’m damn proud to be one of them.”

After Webb’s death the LAPD retired his badge number, 714, and ordered flags at its headquarters to be flown at half staff in his honor.