I once asked a good friend of mine, a police captain with the New York Police Department (NYPD) to define his job. John Culley was a career cop. He had joined as a patrolman at the age of 18 and at the time was the youngest captain on the force. We had become friends over a period of nine months while I had been making a television documentary on homicide in the South Bronx.
Of course, before this experience of working with real-life cops, films and television had shaped my vision of the New York cops. As a majority of us are law-abiding people, our perception of the police and police work comes mainly through the media – either films, TV, novels or newspaper reports. The image of the policeman is shaped partly by the screen and also by our emotional reaction to the story. Good cops/bad cops, they’re all playing their parts in this process. Naturally, it depends on the ‘star’ too. A likeable Harrison Ford makes us like policemen, a bad Richard Gere makes us distrust and fear them.
Cops have always been popular screen/TV/fictional characters. If we go back to the silent era, they were made fun of as the Keystone Cops and Charlie Chaplin was always on the wrong side of the uniformed police officer on the beat. Their mere profession made for gripping drama, unlike say accountants or doctors or writers. They hunted down killers and bad guys in real life which made their stories easily transferable to the screen. Theirs are action filled lives, not intellectual or technical, and ‘action’ makes for good cinema. And even if the movies did go cerebral on their cops, like the brilliant A Touch of Evil by the genius director Orson Welles, the action remained gripping. The detective in that film, played by Welles, is so evil that we cheer when he is finally gunned down.
Each visual experience of these filmed stories altered our emotions and our ideas of the policeman. They built into us either trust or distrust of the cop. Very few of us actually come into contact with policemen. Maybe for a traffic violation but otherwise he remains remote and distant, a person we don’t usually socialise with, whatever our society. They’re always beyond the normal social intercourse of cocktail parties, dinners, a round of golf. Except the very high up officers, police commissioners and above.
And if we should come in contact with working cops, it’s always because a bad thing – robbery, rape, murder, assault – has happened to us. At these times, we’re under enormous stress and, often as not, look on the police as callous and indifferent to the pain and suffering we’re going through. We even grow bitter when the police do not catch the criminal. They do it so quickly, so logically on television and in the movies!
I have to admit I had always seen the darker side of the New York Police. They didn’t exactly have unblemished reputations and their street presence was intimidating. Big heavy men with large guns strapped to their waists, belts sagging under that weight and night stick, cuffs, torches.
I considered the French Connection one of the most ‘realistic’ police films (and it did win the Oscar). I assumed the reality from the gritty New York street scenes, the hardness of the police and the fact that in the end the criminal gets away. Also ‘Popeye’ Doyle kills a fellow officer by mistake but has no regrets. That sounded all so real. In many ways, it was. Popeye Doyle was a real-life New York detective and the story was real. The film drew on his experiences, used the same locales and the same kinds of characters. Hollywood does have that ability to make fiction look as hard and authentic as a documentary. It knows real life makes for a good film. Another real life cop story Hollywood made around that time was Serpico. Serpico was the detective who blew the whistle on his corrupt colleagues and nearly ended up getting killed by them.
‘Reality’ is an odd word to use when looking at such a universally familiar character on film or television. It’s as far from it in real life as anything else we see on screen. The screen compresses time to suit our convenience, a couple of hours in which the cop solves the murder and hunts down the bad guy. Popeye worked for months – tedious, grinding work to get his French connection. There certainly wasn’t such a dramatic car chase either in his real life.
In contrast, Kojack the popular television series, was merely entertainment with a lollipop sucking police captain who dressed too well for the job. The streets were more pastel coloured and the cops all good and just men. More recently we have, I guess, a somewhat realistic television series in NYPD Blue – the drab government colours, desks jammed against each other, the chaos of people coming and going, the phones ringing, the banter among the characters. We also get glimpses of what their lives are like off-duty when we see them with their girlfriends, wives and friends. These are just quick glimpses, a taste of what it must be like to be in a cop’s real life. But it’s never for too long because we want to see the cops back in action.
American cops dominate films and television worldwide only because of Hollywood’s power. But every society has its own vision of what its policemen are like. In Britain the image began softly with good old ‘bobby’ shows like Dixon of Dock Green. This was how the British first imagined their policemen to be – uncle-like characters dispensing warmth and good advice. But over the decades as the media intruded more into the lives of real policemen, revealing corruption, racism and brutality, this image changed. From Dixon, British television moved to stripping away the rosy tinted image of their policeman to show him in a new reality.
In Indian cinema (it’s too early to discover any trend in television series), the policeman also began his screen life as a good man, battling the forces of evil. And like the British counterpart, we have gradually evolved to see him as a dark, more corrupt figure in our society. In fact, I read somewhere that the policeman’s union was extremely upset about the depiction of policemen in Indian cinema. We had gone from light to dark without understanding the grey realities of police work.
I do wonder whether the policeman changed or we changed in the darkness of the cinema and in front of the flickering light of television? We moved from innocent belief in their goodness to the cynical vision of their corruption and brutality.
Yet over this time, I doubt whether policemen and their work did really change. Right from the very start of civilisation someone or a group of men, were made the chowkidars of that society. They were given the authority to deal with the crimes, track down the perpetrators and deliver them to a judicial system. Once we hand over authority to someone to control us, this immediately puts him above us. We are expected to obey the laws he has been asked to enforce, one way or another. For centuries, the criteria for recruiting these cops was almost always the same – they had to be physically capable of controlling violent people and they needed a limited amount of intelligence.
Which brings me back to my question to Captain Culley. He defined his job as: ‘We’re the legal muscle employed by society to control the illegal muscle on the streets.’ I always considered that a wise answer. Muscle to equal muscle and a job not for the squeamish. Cops come from the very same streets as the illegal muscle that they fight to control. It’s chance they became cops, not criminals. A detective I knew well, Andy Lugo, was born and raised in Spanish Harlem, a tough neighbourhood. He told me that most of the kids he grew up with were either dead or behind bars.
In films and television, we seldom ever see the social class from which the cops come from. There’s no time in such action films. But, in every society, the men and women who become cops come from the same neighbourhoods as the criminals. (Here I’m talking about the patrolmen, the constable, and not the higher ranks). Criminals/cops are two sides of the same coin.
Films romanticise these ordinary lives, and that’s to be expected. In real life, the cops I came across led hard lives. New York is never an easy city to police and back then it had one of the highest crime rates in the world. This took its toll on the men I worked with on my documentary.
They paid a high personal price for being detectives. A good 90 per cent had broken marriages. Wives could not bear the tension of waiting at home, the irregular hours, and the violence and, worse still, the comraderie of the cops among themselves. They moved in tight circles, drinking in the same bars, hanging out in the precinct, speaking their own special language. They needed this companionship of themselves, as those outside never understood their lives. Real life for them was the long, boring tedium of stakeouts, hanging around for days in the courts, enormous reams of paperwork. But interspersed with this was the daily danger, the adrenaline of fear and the chase, sometimes the gun battle, then the slow descent back to normality of routine.
Cops see only the under belly of society. They see the many ways in which people kill each other and they use evasive words to describe these ways – ‘iced’, ‘taken out’, ‘chopped’, ‘floater’, ‘jumper’, ‘whacked’. In all my time they never said someone was ‘killed’. Apart from death they nurse the wounded, some horribly so, they have to break the news to relatives and friends, they see the scum of con-men, thieves, pimps, drug pushers. It’s not surprising that slowly the division in their lives blur into a grey reality. Their daily business is crime and the men and women they meet and mix with daily are criminals, lawbreakers.
Afew of the detectives I got to know ended up as criminals too. They were all accused of taking bribes or making money in an illegal way. One ended up in prison, while the others were fired from the force. Hollywood made a film called Prince of the City about an elite band of detectives who investigated drugs. I met one of the ‘prince’s’ – in prison. He explained frankly: ‘There was so much cash lying around, suitcases of them, and when I looked at my life and what these guys were making, I couldn’t resist taking some of it. So I got caught.’
The transition back, from legal muscle to illegal muscle, can be just as quick and easy.
By the time I ended my documentary, I looked on the ‘cop’ film in a very different light. They’re only entertainment, and they have nothing at all, no matter how real it can be made to look, to do with a cop’s real life. His is a world filled with mean streets and there’s little glamour or even glory found on it. Unless he can make a film deal about one of his experiences and then, of course, no one would ever recognise his life story.