Policing in America

Andy Taylor Versus Barney Fife:  Policing in America

By C. J. Oakes


The Andy Griffith Show teaches much about law enforcement in America.

Even though the sit-com aired nearly 50 years ago, the principles upon which modern law enforcement is founded still resound.  Though the program presented just a glimpse of the total law enforcement picture in America, a considerable understanding can still be gained of the role of various agencies as well as the unique relationship all police officers have with the laws of the land.

What We Can Learn from the Andy Griffith Show

On thing we learn from the program is that there are numerous law enforcement agencies other than the county Sheriffs Office.  On various occasions, Andy Taylor had dealings with local police from neighboring cities, the FBI, and State Police.  Of course, in addition to these local, state, and federal agencies, there are Special district police, Tribal police, and private security firms (Walker-Katz, 2008).  Through the interactions on the show between Sheriff Taylor and other police/Law enforcement agencies, we can gain an understanding of how the different police agencies throughout the United States interact.

Publicity photo of Andy Griffith and Don Knott...
Publicity photo of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts from a Jim Nabors television special. Griffith and Knotts revive their Andy and Barney roles for a skit on the show. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As students of modern law enforcement/criminal justice know, each agency has a different role to play in policing the nation.  In the case of Mayberry, where Sheriff Taylor lived and worked, there existed no city police; the small town had a single Sheriff and one deputy to serve both the town and county; the situation today is somewhat similar in many locations. In fact, by examining the List of U.S. Police Agencies provided on this site, we can often see many such jurisdictions.

In small towns, the law enforcement force may still only be a handful of police officers while in major cities, there are hundreds, sometimes thousands (Walker-Katz, 2008).  These local agencies serve to enforce local laws and keep the peace.  They patrol the streets and are generally the first responders to a 911 call from within the city limits, whereas county officers respond to those calls from outside.  Usually, each force has officers with the rank of detective who investigate crimes.


State/Federal Law Enforcement Agencies

State agencies do more.  They not only patrol the highways of the state but also provide such services as driver licensing, weights and measures, alcohol control, and even regulation of athletics in schools.  In addition, these agencies may provide training for local police along with labwork as requested so as to help solve crimes (Walker-Katz, 2008).  These agencies likewise have detectives, but these detectives have greater jurisdictional abilities than their local counterparts.

Then there are the Federal agencies, such as the FBI.  These conduct activities of a national scope and generally do not become involved in local matters unless requested.  There also exist Military police who patrol military bases and serve as police in international hotspots such as Iraq and Afganistan.

The principles of law enforcement have not changed since the Andy Griffith Show first aired the needs of society certainly have.  Since that time, there have also come into existence special district police such as Transit Authority officers and university police departments.  These are in place to provide ample support to local police in difficult to patrol areas with highly concentrated populations.

Publicity photo from the television program Ma...
Publicity photo from the television program Mayberry R.F.D. Pictured are Ken Berry (Sam Jones), Buddy Foster (Mike Jones), and Andy Griffith (Sheriff Andy Taylor). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tribal Police/Private Security

Tribal police that enforce law on “Indian” reservations are a separate branch of police agency because of treaties and laws unique to these citizens.

Recent decades have seen the growth of a large private security sector because of a demand and need for security at such places as refineries, libraries, museums, carnivals, and so forth.  Sworn personnel are not necessary in such situations to maintain security; there has been steady growth in this branch of law enforcement (Walker-Katz, 2008).

Although all these agencies have differing roles and responsibilities in our nation, there is a single common thread:  Every officer at some point in his day must make a choice between what officer D. Daugherty of the Louisiana State Police Troop D called, “The letter of the law and the spirit of the law.”

Spirit of the Law/Letter of the Law

Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from The Andy Griffith Show centers on the concept that there exists two elements to law: The spirit of the law and the letter of the law.

The Andy Griffith Show demonstrated how every law enforcement officer faces a choice between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law in nearly every episode.

We often see a conflict ocuring between the Sheriff Andy Taylor and his faithful deputy Barney Fife.  Barney was all about enforcing the law because it was the law.  He would always add extra emphasis on the word “law” as if to make the point that if it is written, then it is inviolable.  Often Barney would find himself making a situation far worse than it was, usually with humorous consequences, because of his firm adherance to the letter of the law.

Sheriff Andy Taylor would have to intercede to smooth over matters and keep the peace.  The major difference between the two was that Barney operated on the “letter of the law” while Andy tried to apply the “spirit of the law.”  In other words, Andy saw through the words of the law to understand the intent, namely, what purpose a particular law was written to serve.  In so doing, he demonstrated one of the principles of Sir Robert Peel:

“The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect” (Lee, 1901).

Anyone who has ever watched the Andy Griffith Show knows how little respect the public had for Barney Fife with his “letter of the law” approach and how much respect they had for Sheriff Andy Taylor, who fairly applied the law for the good of everyone.

As enforcers of the law, police can either be like Barney or be like Andy.  The choice made between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law will dictate how effective they are in maintaining public order. This is perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from the Andy Griffith Show.

You May Also Like Reading…

How to Prepare for a Career as a Police Officer

United States Police Agencies List

The Letter of the Law, the Spirit of the Law

Sir Robert Peel and the Principles of Order

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  • Lee, W. (1901). A History of Police in England. : .
  • Walker-Katz, . (2008). The Police in America: An Introduction (6th ed.). : McGraw Hill.

2 thoughts on “Policing in America”

  1. Mrs. Simms played a woman that Barney was ineertsted in dating back during season one, I believe. I wonder why they didn’t just find a new actress to play the part instead of recycling past actors? lol

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