House and Home

The 25 Most Unforgettable Cops in Television History



When the cops show up at your house, it usually means Uncle Morty violated his probation again. But when the cops show up on TV, they're almost always a welcome sight.

Police procedurals and crime dramas have long been among the most popular shows on television. From "The Mod Squad" to "Law & Order," there's always been a police presence on our airwaves, keeping the bad guys at bay and our eyes on the screens.

In fact, we'd be willing to bet that you've followed at least one of the cops listed below. (But we wouldn't make that bet with your Uncle Morty. As per the rules of his probation, he's not supposed to be gambling.) Oh, and we know there are actually more than 25 cops listed — consider the extras a bonus.

Frank Columbo: 'Columbo'

Frank Columbo nabbed more than 70 criminals during his decades-long tenure on network TV, usually by pestering them with long-winded stories until they incriminated themselves. But we viewers always knew who was guilty from the beginning; the fun was seeing how Columbo solved each week's mystery at the episode's end.

Pete, Julie and Linc: 'The Mod Squad'

The three youngsters who made up "The Mod Squad" (which, again, we're lumping together into one entry for the purposes of this article) acted as undercover detectives in order to avoid jail, but they soon discovered a knack for police work. In that way, they were an odd mash-up of late-sixties counterculture and the establishment, all at once, during their five-season run.

The Reno Sheriff's Department: 'Reno 911!'

One wonders if Reno's actual police took offense when "Reno 911!" debuted on Comedy Central, seeing as it painted their law enforcement officers as underqualified and trigger-happy. Then again, no police department could possibly be this inept and ineffective, so the Reno PD likely appreciated this "Cops"-style comedy for the spoof that it was. 

Brenda Leigh Johnson: 'The Closer'

Appropriately enough, Deputy Chief Johnson's specialty on TNT's "The Closer" was closing cases, usually through perceptive police work and methodical interrogation. She did most of it with a lilting Southern accent that belied her tough-as-nails tactics, too.

Lennie Briscoe: 'Law & Order'

Lennie Briscoe was a gruff, no-nonsense detective who quickly became a fan favorite when he was introduced on "Law & Order." Hardened by years of homicide cases (and more than one ex-wife), Briscoe was one of the fastest-talking and quickest cops on television for 12 seasons.

Frank Drebin: 'Police Squad!'

Detective Frank Drebin successfully bumbled through a half-dozen cases on the short-lived ABC comedy "Police Squad!" before the network canceled the show. Even still, Drebin's antics made a lasting impact with viewers, and his character was resurrected for the highly successful "Naked Gun" film franchise.

Joe Friday: 'Dragnet'

"Dragnet" was possibly the first cop show to aim for realism, depicting both the dangerous and mundane sides of police work. Each episode's events were based on real-life cases, with the stoic Sergeant Joe Friday — and his unmistakable voice — leading us through the week's investigations.

Pete Malloy and Jim Reed: 'Adam-12'

Any list that includes Joe Friday has to mention Malloy and Reed from "Adam-12," seeing as "Dragnet" star Jack Webb co-created and produced the show. And, just like Friday's cases, Malloy and Reed's investigations were based on real-life events. The main difference was that Malloy and Reed spent a lot more time in their squad car, the trusty 1-Adam-12.

Hank Schrader: 'Breaking Bad'

Say what you will about Hank's salty language or occasional insensitive remark. The guy was almost too dedicated to his job at the DEA, chasing the same meth kingpin over five seasons at the cost of his own health and safety. He was usually good for some tension-breaking comic relief, too.

Chief Wiggum: 'The Simpsons'

Chief Clancy Wiggum is possibly the most inept cop to ever appear on television. He's always more interested in catching some Zs than catching a perp, and when he does accomplish something, it's usually by accident. He's lucky his fellow officers Eddie and Lou are more competent, or Springfield would be totally overrun with criminals.

Vic Mackey: 'The Shield'

Vic Mackey was far from a good cop in terms of morality or personality, but he certainly made for good TV. He almost never followed the proper protocol — breaking the law himself on multiple occasions — but that's probably why this Mackey jerk was so much fun to watch.

Ray Holt: 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine'

There are zanier cops in New York City's 99th Precinct, but Captain Ray Holt is quite possibly the funniest. He delivers nearly every line with the same seriousness as a guard outside Buckingham Palace, yet still manages to score some of the biggest laughs on the show.

Olivia Benson: 'Law & Order: SVU'

Olivia Benson has a tendency to get emotionally involved in her work, but that doesn't mean she's a pushover. She's empathetic and compassionate when dealing with victims, but tough as nails with the creeps responsible for the crimes. It's no wonder she's risen through the ranks of her department to become the head of the Special Victims Unit.

Barney Fife: 'The Andy Griffith Show'

Andy Taylor was the more competent half of Mayberry's police force, but Barney Fife made for more entertaining TV. A know-it-all with a penchant for losing his cool, Barney would often try to prove his mettle in front of the townsfolk with hilarious or disastrous results.

Andy Sipowicz: 'NYPD Blue'

How much you enjoyed "NYPD Blue" was directly proportional to how much you enjoyed Andy Sipowicz's abrasive personality (and, to a lesser extent, his naked butt). But as far as verbally abusive, loud-mouthed cops go, there was almost none more entertaining. In fact, Sipowicz to become a surprisingly popular breakout character, especially on an ensemble show like "NYPD Blue."

Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart: 'True Detective'

Rustin "Rust" Cohle and Marty Hart served as unlikely partners investigating a trail of homicides in a sleepy Louisiana parish. They had a tendency to get on each other's nerves too, with Rust disapproving of Marty's risky lifestyle and Marty chiding Rust for his existential tangents. And they did it all while collectively consuming about three packs of Camel Lights and about a dozen Lone Star tallboys per day.

Carl Winslow, 'Family Matters'

Chicago police officer Carl Winslow was a fine character, but in all honesty, actor Reginald VelJohnson deserves to be on this list for the sheer number of law enforcement officials he's portrayed during his career. Not only did VelJohnson star as a cop in "Family Matters," but he played crime fighters in "Die Hard," "Die Hard 2," "Ghostbusters" and "Turner & Hooch," among others.

James Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs: 'Miami Vice'

For two guys who were supposed to be undercover, Crockett and Tubbs really stood out in a crowd. With their pastel attire and expensive Ferraris, these two Miami vice cops infiltrated drug rings and busted weapons dealers, usually to a soundtrack of the era's coolest tunes and the constant din of Jan Hammer's synthesizer.

NYC's 12th Precinct Detectives: 'Barney Miller'

Police Captain Barney Miller was the least eccentric of his crew, which included the downtrodden Fish, the sharp-dressed Ron, the sarcastic Nick, and the naive Wojo, among others. Together, they dealt with the criminals in New York's Greenwich Village, once while unwittingly high off of hash-laced brownies.

Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey: 'Cagney & Lacey'

"Cagney & Lacey" didn't shy away from controversial subject matter, showing us the personal and professional struggles of its two female leads while they cleaned up crime in New York. Not only was it a good show, but it paved the way for female-driven cop shows — as well as female-driven shows of any genre.

Horatio Caine, 'CSI: Miami'

For viewers even remotely familiar with "CSI: Miami," Horatio Caine's sunglass-adorned face is what immediately comes to mind whenever anybody mentions the show. For 10 seasons, Caine led his lab in investigating the city's more heinous crimes, though he was probably best known for making wry remarks about homicides while casually slipping on his shades.

David Starsky and Kenneth Hutchinson: 'Starsky & Hutch'

In the late 1970s, the residents of Bay City were used to seeing Detectives Starsky and Hutch tear through their neighborhood in a Ford Gran Torino. And when the crime-fighting duo wasn't bombing through the streets, they could often be found gathering intel at Huggy Bear's or pursuing their bromance during an undercover assignment.

Mike Stone and Steve Keller: 'The Streets of San Francisco'

While Starsky and Hutch were fighting crime in the fictional Bay City, Mike Stone and Steve Keller were cleaning up an actual  bay city on "The Streets of San Francisco." One was a veteran detective and the other was a rookie, but they made a pretty effective team before Keller — played by Michael Douglas — called it quits in the fifth season and got replaced by Inspector Dan Robbins.

Vince Masuka: 'Dexter'

Most of the cops on Miami's Metro Police had their quirks (and that's putting it lightly), but none flaunted their perversions as publicly as Vince Masuka. And we mean that literally — whether he was making jokes at a crime scene or riding in an elevator, Masuka always found a way to say something borderline obscene.

The Hill Street Blues: 'Hill Street Blues'

"Hill Street Blues" was largely responsible for ushering in a whole new era of police television. Like many of today's crime dramas, the cops talked like regular people, the stories weren't wrapped up nicely by the end of each week's episode, and the plotlines were always wide enough to delve into the private lives of the "blues" on the force.