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Wayne Greene: A lesson in implicit bias ... from 'Dragnet'

Wayne Greene: A lesson in implicit bias ... from 'Dragnet'

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As a little boy, I watched a lot of reruns after school. There was “Star Trek” and “Laredo” and Jack Webb’s signature series, “Dragnet,” a personal favorite.

I got a lot of lessons about life by watching “Dragnet,” including:

Marijuana is a gateway drug, a slippery slope for fools that leads to heroin, LSD or both, and then, usually, a tragic, early death.

There are good parents and bad parents. Bad parents often provide their children all their material needs and more, but they are overly indulgent, distant and unloving. Good parents are easily recognized by their attention to discipline when appropriate.

Most Black people — “Negroes” in Sgt. Joe Friday’s dated language — are basically good, except for the ones who are addicted to narcotics or were poorly disciplined as children. There are even a handful of Black police officers, although they mostly were assigned to entry-level positions.

I didn’t realize I was receiving any of these lessons at the time.

The other day, I caught a 1970 “Dragnet” rerun on an obscure broadcast channel.

It was Monday, Jan. 12. It was cloudy in Los Angeles. We were working the burglary/auto division. The boss was Capt. Green....

The Haven family’s middle-class home in a fashionable part of Los Angeles had been burglarized. Jewelry, a shotgun and other odds and ends were missing. Mrs. Haven confided to Friday that $320 was also missing. It was money she kept hidden from her husband to help her daughter, 22, and son, 19, when they needed it.

She also suggested that a neighbor might have been the burglar because the back door hadn’t been forced open. Someone knew where they hid their spare key.

A pawn ticket and a little detective work led to a heroin dealer. One of his customers had used his ID to pawn the shotgun. Sgt. Friday arrested Tony Oliver, a clean-cut looking young man who said he was from “back East.” He said he had never been arrested before. He quickly admitted to the whole thing.

When Mr. Haven arrived to identify the stolen goods, he saw the burglar. It was his son, Ross Haven. The college student had somehow gotten addicted to heroin and had burglarized his parents’ home to support his habit.

Mr. Haven was irate. He had provided everything the boy needed, and this was how he repaid him? He was finished with the boy. Finished! The police should throw the book at him.

Sgt. Friday counseled a different course. Your son isn’t a criminal, he told Mr. Haven. He’s sick. He’s addicted to a drug. If he had cancer, you wouldn’t cut him off, would you? He doesn’t need prison. He needs treatment.

In the end, we learn that two psychiatrists testified at a hearing (Division 95 of Superior Court for the state of California) that the young man was addicted to narcotics. He was sent to a state mental facility for treatment.

It struck me as remarkably advanced thinking about crime for more than 50 years ago. It was completely in line with the smart-on-crime arguments I’ve made a dozen times in editorials and columns.

Drug users need treatment, education and training, not incarceration. Their lives are salvageable. I believe I’ve even used the cancer argument.

It’s all as true now as it was in 1970. Indeed, it’s the only way to prevent mass incarceration and its associated problem, out-of-control prison costs.

Would you like to guess the race of the Haven family? Of course, they were white. Every person in the episode was white.

And that, my friends, is what implicit bias in criminal justice is all about. Good kids from good families— white kids from white families — are different in Jack Webb’s world. If you intervened in their lives at the right moment, they could become honest taxpaying citizens, like Mr. Haven.

As for the others — the Negroes and the 700,000 people Webb had mentioned in the episode’s introduction (those who lived in L.A. but came from “other” nations) — well, their lives weren’t part of this story. That void is where mass incarceration comes from, isn’t it?

Mr. Haven wasn’t a bad man. I imagine he paid his taxes, mowed his lawn every week and went to church on Sunday. He just had a few things that he couldn’t imagine, like his son using drugs and burglarizing his home.

I know a lot of 2020 equivalents of Mr. Haven, good people mostly, but whenever you talk to them about implicit bias, they sigh slightly, roll their eyes a little and behave as if I were talking about having tea with a giant white rabbit and the Queen of Hearts. They’ve never seen implicit bias and can’t imagine that it exists. The notion of white privilege is an illusion, an excuse. Racism is an ugly relic of the past, something they’d never be part of, but they’ve worked for everything they have. They have Black friends. We’ve even elected a Black president.

I understand the modern-day Mr. Havens. I grew up with them. In their homes they, too, were sitting in front of the television sets every afternoon to watch Sgt. Friday find the bad guys and send them to prison. Or, occasionally, to the state mental facility because they weren’t criminals. They were sick ... and white, an extra added lesson from “Dragnet.”

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Editorial Pages Editor

I'm the editorial pages editor of the Tulsa World and a political columnist. A fourth-generation Oklahoman, I previously served as the World’s city editor for 13 years and as a reporter at the state Capitol of four years. Phone: 918-581-8308

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