Police in history and Hollywood

Two curators share interesting law enforcement-related artifacts in their collections, inspired by National Police Week.

Curator Eric Jentsch: Hollywood's version of police work

Police badge from "Barney Miller" television show
Police badge from "Barney Miller" television show

"Barney Miller," portrayed by actor Hal Linden (born in 1931,) was Captain of New York City's fictional 12th Precinct Detective's Office. There, Miller sensitively oversaw a diverse squad of wacky officers and their daily interactions with eccentric criminals and endless paperwork. The comedy was broadcast on ABC from 1975-1982.

 

Sgt. Pepper's badge from "Police Woman"
Sgt. Pepper's badge from "Police Woman"

Angie Dickinson (born in 1931) portrayed LAPD undercover officer Sgt. "Pepper" Anderson on the NBC drama Police Woman (1974-1978.) A spin-off from the television series Police Story (1973-1978,) the show was one of the first and most successful police dramas to feature a female protagonist.

 

Badge from "Live Free or Die Hard"
Badge from "Live Free or Die Hard"

Beginning with the 1988 film Die Hard, and through the course of four sequels, New York Police Department (NYPD) officer John McClane has relied on humor and wits to combat such bad guys as terrorists, mercenaries, and thieves. The role took Bruce Willis (born in 1955), from television comedy (ABC's Moonlighting, 1985-1989) to film, where the unlikely action hero became a box-office megastar. This badge comes from the fourth film in the series, 2007's Live Free or Die Hard.

 

Curator Tim Winkle: Real law enforcement

 

Prohibition agent's badge from the 1920s
Prohibition agent's badge from the 1920s

Prohibition agents raid a lunch room on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1923
Prohibition agents raid a lunch room on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1923

Formed in 1920 by the Volstead Act to enforce the 18th Amendment, the Prohibition Bureau was originally organized as a unit within the Treasury Department's Bureau of Internal Revenue (later the Internal Revenue Service). It was tasked with enforcing the prohibition on the manufacture, transportation and sale (but not consumption) of "intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes." The exploits of well-known Prohibition Agents like Eliot Ness and his "Untouchables" in Chicago, Illinois, and the New York duo of "Izzy" Einstein and Moe Smith made newspaper headlines, but most "prohi" agents faced a daunting challenge from the start.

Elevated to a bureau within the Treasury in 1927 and put under the Justice Department in 1930, it returned to the Internal Revenue after Prohibition was repealed in 1933. In time, this service would form the basis of today's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

 

Irene Gardner's Sergeant Badge c. 1965
Irene Gardner's Sergeant Badge c. 1965
Irene Gardner in her badge and uniform c. 1950
Irene Gardner in her badge and uniform c. 1950

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was an early proponent of women in law enforcement, appointing both the nation's first full-time salaried female police officer (Alice Stebbins Wells, 1910) and the first female detective (Isabella Goodwin, 1912). Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Irene C. Gardner (nee Leveille) joined the growing ranks of policewomen in the LAPD in 1944, and was promoted to Sergeant in 1965. She served in the LAPD for over 30 years with distinction, working primarily with juvenile offenders and developing programs to help keep kids away from crime.

Irene was a good shot as well—in 1961, she won the award for highest pistol score among policewomen at the Los Angeles Police Revolver and Athletic Club.

 

Badge for the Tremont Horse Thief Detective Association
Booklet of by-laws for the Tremont HTDA. The first proviso hints at an alternative agenda—members could only be "one hundred percent AMERICAN WHITE MALE" 
Booklet of by-laws for the Tremont HTDA. The first proviso hints at an alternative agenda—members could only be "one hundred percent AMERICAN WHITE MALE"
Badge for the Tremont Horse Thief Detective Association

This badge belonged to a member of the Tremont Horse Thief Detective Association, one of many such local law enforcement organizations established in the 1920s in Indiana. Beginning in the 1840s and unique to Indiana, the state granted police powers to citizens' groups who organized chapters of the Horse Thief Detective Association (HTDA) in their communities for the purpose of protecting property, horses in particular. With the advent of the automobile, membership was on the decline and the HTDA seemed increasingly obsolete.

In the 1920s, however, membership rebounded and new chapters were regularly founded, sometimes as many as four or five in a single county. Behind this resurgence was another organization—the Ku Klux Klan. Re-established in 1915, the Klan claimed over four million members nationwide by the mid-1920s, and it extended throughout the country, including mid-western states like Indiana. Klansmen usurped the state's idiosyncratic Horse Thief Detective Association as a means of legally providing police powers and government sanction to what would otherwise be gangs of armed vigilantes.

Eric W. Jentsch is the Deputy Chair for the Division of Culture and the Arts at the National Museum of American History. Tim Winkle is an associate curator with the Division of Home and Community Life.

Posted at 6:11 pm EDT in From the Collections