But One Plays Me on TV

This fall, Slate presents reviews of new fall TV shows by people with real-life knowledge of the experiences the shows depict. Our fifth installment is from Lucas Miller, an NYPD detective, on the CBS show The District, premiering Saturday  at 10 p.m. ET  (click here for the first “Dispatch” on NBC’s Deadline, here for the second on Fox’s Dark Angelhere for the third on NBC’s Ed,and here for the fourth, on ABC’s Gideon’s Crossing).

I grew up on Starsky and Hutch and Kojak. In my office, we still call the little flashing red light that we put on the roof of an unmarked police car a “Kojak light.” Although I am no Sipowicz, I take the popularity of NYPD Blue personally. So I was very curious to check out The District, the new cop show starring Craig T. Nelson as Jack Mannion, a new police chief in Washington, D.C.

I was even more intrigued once I realized that Mannion is a thinly disguised version of William Bratton, Rudy Giuliani’s first police commissioner and my former boss. The references are unmistakable: A former New York City transit cop who scored major crime reductions as police chief of Newark, N.J., Mannion has been brought to Washington by the capital’s popular black mayor (David Dinkins originally hired Bratton, who had cleaned up Boston). Mannion’s PR operation is handled by an ex-reporter (that would be John Miller, a popular TV crime reporter who served as Bratton’s deputy commissioner for public information). The new chief recruits an older black woman clerk to run his statistics department, the key to his plans to whip the complacent police commanders into shape. What they’re talking about is Bratton’s “Comstat” strategy, in which the NYPD began continuous, immediate tallying of neighborhood crime stats, with each police commander held accountable for even the tiniest of rises. Even Mannion’s spectator shoes are a tip of the hat to Jack Maple, Bratton’s deputy commissioner of operations, who was famous for his showy, old-fashioned footwear.

Most cop shows follow one of two formulas: They present realistic characters in exciting circumstances or especially clever or entertaining characters in ordinary situations. NYPD Blue is brilliant in its capture of the texture of life in a precinct detective squad. The language, the props, and the characters are so close that you can really feel yourself in that squad room. Of course, any one of those detectives handles more cases, solves more murders, and gets in more shootings in a season than a real cop does in his career. On the other hand, it is commonly held on the job that the most accurate cop show ever made was Barney Miller. There was little action, but there was a lot of clever banter about the absurd but real cases that found their way into the squad.

The District probably falls into the first category, but with an odd twist: This is one of those rare instances in which the actual players and events are much more exciting than the made-for-TV version. Now, I like Craig T. Nelson. I liked him in Poltergeist. I liked him as “Coach.” I even liked him as the cold, cold crime boss in Action Jackson. But Bratton was a huge figure for me. I joined the NYPD under Mayor David Dinkins and Commissioner Lee Brown. Dinkins didn’t like us and Brown didn’t care. Bratton was a cowboy who rode into town from up in Boston and took over the Transit Police, giving transit cops resources, respect, and sympathy that they had never known, and turning them from New York’s second-rate, second-place police department into an agency that we in the NYPD admired and envied. When Giuliani appointed Bratton NYPD commissioner, it was suddenly a very exciting time to be a cop in New York. We began to capture the public’s imagination as Bratton had captured ours. Bratton remains for me larger than life, a positive force both in my life, the job that I do, and the city that I love. For this reason it was tough for me to watch this fictionalization of events and characters when I know that the men who inspired The District are so much more compelling.

The events portrayed in The District are almost true to life, at least right out of the newspaper, albeit with a little mixing and matching. The mayor is caught on tape with prostitutes and cocaine. A disturbed man enters a federal building and opens fire, killing a federal agent. But the characters don’t come to life, and none of the actors do their real-life inspirations any justice. I knew William Bratton, and Craig T. Nelson is no William Bratton.