It’s no secret that there has been a lot of tension recently regarding the role of police officers in society. It seems like every week there is a new accusation of misconduct. We’re not going to weigh in on the matter, because everybody and their grandmother has an opinion. All we will say is that we’d like to recognize the members of the police force that do a stellar job protecting and serving the public… even if some of those officers are only found on-screen.
There has been bunch of great on-screen police officers over the years. From the rookies in Police Academy that are slow learners, to cool cops like Don Johnson on Miami Vice to renegades like Dirty Harry. This piece is dedicated to honoring our favorite TV and movie police officers. These characters reflect public perceptions of police officers in many different forms. Some are funny and some are serious. Some are loudmouthed while others are reserved. Some are still on the force whereas others are from yesteryear. But they’re all memorable in one way, shape or form. The officers that made this list reinforce in varying ways why law enforcement is so important in a community. In its best form, it helps to keep people safe, builds trust and can even break down barriers.
So let’s hear it for the boys (and girls) in blue. They have a tough job to do. And if you feel so inclined, please share this piece with your friends. We could all use a little positive news and escapism right now.
15 Sergeants Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh
Lethal Weapon is the buddy movie to end all buddy movies. And its success is due to the dynamic duo of Sergeants Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover). These two smashed police stereotypes – they didn’t gorge on donuts, they didn’t walk like an Egyptian and they weren’t dummies. Riggs and Murtaugh were often at odds with each other, but that is why their partnership worked so well. They evened each other out. Riggs starts off a little unhinged while Murtaugh is the conservative type. Riggs is super-energetic in his pursuit of criminals, while Murtaugh is reluctant and “too old for this sh*t.” And while the two saved innocents from senseless violence, they also saved each other. Riggs saved Murtaugh from feeling used-up and old, while Murtaugh saved Riggs from his suicidal funk. These two deserve medals.
14 Chief Clancey Wiggum
Chief Clancey Wiggum is loveable as an incompetent police officer on The Simpsons. He mixes up DUI and DOA, his uniform is stained with chocolate ice cream, and he couldn’t even solve the case of who shot Mr. Burns. But we have to give him credit for wearing his heart on his sleeve and telling it like it is. He’s been quoted as saying, “I’d rather let a thousand guilty men go free than chase after them.” He doesn’t even have qualms about letting prisoners out of jail. Chief Wiggum once let the felonious Snake out of jail in order to draw attendance to his son’s hockey game. Chief Wiggum told the prisoners, “All right, I'm going to make a little deal with you mugs. I'm going to let you all out to see my team play the hockey game if you promise to return to your cells!” And many a Simpsons fan will tell you that one of their favorite scenes from the show is when the TV show COPS was filmed in Springfield. It shows Wiggum fighting a mummy, and his team using the squad’s helicopter to watch a drive-in movie and finding hidden weapon’s in Jasper’s beard. There’s even a nifty parody of the “Bad Boys” song. Wiggum is probably the most inept portrayal of an officer on this list, but he provides important comic relief for a sensitive subject.
13 Officer Stacy Sheridan
Everyone’s favorite female police officer is Heather Locklear as rookie Stacy Sheridan on T.J. Hooker. She was total eye candy for the show, with her flowing blonde hair and police woman’s uniform – back when they wore skirts! Locklear played the police academy's captain’s daughter who was eager to get her hands dirty. She rose from a desk job to working the streets. She helped to solve crimes, console victims, and even went undercover as a lady of the night and as an exotic dancer. The role launched Locklear into superstardom. She acted on Dynasty at the same time, and then went on to play her iconic role as Amanda Woodward on Melrose Place. We think her best work, though, was as Stacy Sheridan. She showed everyone that women had a place on the police force, and that they could also look good while on the beat!
12 Sergeant Joe Friday
Police dramas today sure do put Dragnet to shame. They have more action, more suspense, and cover a broader range of topics. Still, we totally respect Sergeant Joe Friday (played by Jack Webb in the 1951 and 1967 series). His whole “Just the facts, ma’am” is the stuff of legend. We’ve all said the line out loud, appreciate its wisdom, and wish that we could be as cool, calm and collected as Friday. But the fact is that Friday never said the line in any episode of Dragnet. The line comes from a parody of the series. Still, Friday and his partner were amazing police officers. They rarely fired their weapons, and could get a witness to crack in seconds with a stern look. And Dragnet even had a great TV feature where it changed the names of the characters to protect the innocent. Priceless. We’d gladly welcome Friday patrolling our streets.
11 Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Paul Blart may be a mall cop and not a true police officer, but he definitely warrants a mention on this list. He helped foil burglaries at the mall in New Jersey in his first adventure, and thwarted crooks during a security convention in Las Vegas in his second adventure. With a record like that, we smell a third movie coming. And why not? Blart is one good cop. He’s loyal to the mother of his child - even if she did only get with him to gain American citizenship. He’s also determined - remember when he sucked on that disgusting floor lollipop to get his blood sugar up high enough to fight crime? He’d be an asset to any force. Finally, he loves his work. When he was offered a job with the state police, he turned it down because he was so dedicated to mall security. We’d love to have him protecting and serving us any day of the week. After all, everyone loves Kevin James in a uniform!
10 Detective Lennie Briscoe
Detective Lennie Briscoe, played by the dearly departed Jerry Orbach, is singlehandedly responsible for the success of the Law & Order franchise. He was a hard-working police officer that solved many cases, and worked well with a variety of partners including Mike Logan (Chris Noth), Ray Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) and Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin). He may have cracked jokes, but Briscoe gave everyone a fair shot, and his goal was always to get to the truth – nothing more. Briscoe also served to humanize police officers, as audiences got to learn about his past before joining the NYPD. He served in the military, and was open with the fact that his drinking drove his family away. Briscoe reminds us the police officers are people, too.
9 Lieutenant Olivia Benson
Lieutenant Olivia Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay, is the reason audiences have tuned into Law & Order: SVU for 17 years. She’s tough as nails on the outside, but is sensitive on the inside. Benson can really relate to her victims, as she grew up with an alcoholic mother, was a victim of sex crimes as an officer, and suffered discrimination as a female in the police force. She worked her way up the old-fashioned way: with hard work and true grit. She is multi-talented as she can be a shoulder to cry on when needed, or be a real toughie taking down a perp with brute strength. Her best quality is that she is fiercely loyal. Her co-workers have gotten into serious messes, but she always stood by them. Benson is the type of officer that you would want working your case if ever you were in need.
8 Officer Tom Hanson
Before 21 Jump Street was released as a comedic movie starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, it was a TV show in the 1980s starring none other than Johnny Depp. The original premise was the same as that of the movie: young looking police officers had to go undercover in teenage venues to stop crime. The difference was that the TV show was a drama, and sometimes ended with the cast members giving public service announcements. Officer Tom Hanson (Depp) was a positive role model for teens everywhere. He inspired youths to respect the law, and to better their communities. He also showed that police officers are your friends. Whether it was because of Depp’s teen idol good looks or acting ability, we can’t be sure. It is certain though, that Officer Hanson helped to tackle hard issues like hate crimes, homophobia and promiscuity. And for that, we owe him a debt of gratitude.
7 Officer Frank Drebin
Frank Drebin from the Naked Gun series has held plenty of titles, including detective, sergeant, and detective lieutenant – his title even changes within a scene. He’s so oblivious, though, that he can’t tell the difference. Drebin, played by Leslie Nielsen, causes more problems than he solves, but at the end of the day he somehow manages to get the bad guy. He foiled an assassination attempt on Queen Elizabeth II’s life, stopped a kidnapping, and was yanked out of retirement to thwart a criminal from blowing up the Academy Awards. Drebin is such a hit with fans because he encourages us not to take things so seriously. We’re pretty sure that if he knew we were laughing at him, he’d join right in. While Nielsen may be gone, Sony Pictures has announced that it will be revamping the franchise. Ed Helms is slated to take over the role.
6 Sergeant Andy Sipowicz
Remember when Sergeant Andy Sipowicz ruled evening TV back in the 1990s? Everyone watched to see what he would do next on NYPD Blue. The show was known for being gritty, and didn’t shy away from showing its characters struggle. Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz, was a very flawed human being. For starters, he was known for being a bigot. However, his character evolved and he eventually overcame his prejudice against the African American community through his interactions with the chief of the precinct, who was black. Sipowicz also struggled to stay on the wagon. His alcohol abuse showed the devastating effects that drinking can have on an individual, his work and his family. Sipowicz showed fans and critics that most people are multi-faceted, and have both good and bad qualities. On the lighter side, he did inspire a fashion trend known as “The Sipowicz” – wearing a short-sleeved tailored shirt with a tie!
5 Detective Axel Foley
Detective Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is an awesome police officer in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise. It’s dangerous to be his friend, as many of them get murdered, but he always nabs the bad guy by using his wits and wisdom. He’s fast-talking, funny and ingenuitive. That’s a winning combination, and it isn’t something they teach you in the police academy. Foley showed millions of fans that being street-smart is just as important as being book-smart. He may bend the rules, but he gets the job done. Foley adapts to any scenario, whether it is working the mean streets of Detroit or cutting through all the fluff in Beverly Hills. Eddie Murphy made that movie, and fans are still clamoring for another installment. While we’ve been teased with a fourth installment over the years, we can still rock out to the theme song.
4 Lieutenant Carl Winslow
Lieutenant Carl Winslow from Family Matters is one of our favorite police officers, because he showed us what life was like for a cop when he was off-duty. He was a family man through and through, even if he had low tolerance for his next-door neighbor, Steve Urkel. Reginald VelJohnson was hilarious in his depiction of the “Big Guy.” His slightly inflated ego got him into trouble with his wife and his cheapness did him more harm than good. Winslow’s over-protective parenting was something parents and kids could relate to. In one episode, he caught his son sneaking beer. His son told him, "It's time you stopped acting like a cop and start acting like my dad!" The ups and downs of family life were the predominant theme of the show, which ran for nine seasons. Much of the success was due to Vel Johnson’s skills in portraying an officer – and super fans will know that he cut his teeth playing a cop in Die Hard and Turner & Hooch.
3 Deputy Sheriff Wyatt Earp
Deputy Sheriff Wyatt Earp has been played on screen by Kevin Costner, James Garner and Henry Fonda. Kurt Russell (above) also played the old west lawman in the movie Tombstone. In real life, the lawman was no saint – he drank and gambled, was always on the hunt to make a quick buck, and was even arrested and jailed. However, it can be argued that he was a product of his time, and made an important contribution to society. Russell’s portrayal of Earp showcases the best features of the officer: his dislike of crime and his relentless pursuit of justice. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has become a symbol of the American Old West, as it happened in a time when the frontier was a breeding ground for outlaws to wreak havoc on an unprotected territory. Earp laid down the law, and marked the beginning of the west becoming more civilized. Kudos to Russell for offering a glimpse into a forgotten era.
2 Detective David Mills
Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) from Seven is one memorable police officer. He works with his partner to track down a brutal serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins to guide his modus operandi. Mills is at times unlikeable as the young, headstrong cop. However, he has growth as the case evolves. What is most relevant for today’s audience is that the movie shows how officers can be personally targeted by the public. The serial killer taunts Mills and his partner, and even murders Mills’ wife. While this is an extreme instance, it reminds us of how police officers face difficulties when trying to do their jobs. They can be disrespected, harassed, and even be victims of crimes themselves.
1 Detective Lieutenant John McClane
Yippee-ki-yay! Officer John McClane is the cop that tops this list – and for good reason. He’s a no-nonsense NYPD officer that risks life and limb again and again to save the day. McClane might say a lot of curse words, but he never says “die.” Bruce Willis has portrayed this reluctant hero in a total of five Die Hard movies. While we still think that the first one is by far the best, we will watch him in any movie because it’s so much fun to root for the good guy – and to know that good will always conquer evil -- at least on the silver screen. McClane doesn’t discriminate, as he will take on any terrorist. He’s fought Germans, Russians and a computer hacker. This guy has walked on broken glass, jumped out of tall buildings, and has been knocked off of a plane. No one wants to see him retire, but he has certainly earned his pension.