There’s a moment midway through the new documentary Women in Blue that cuts directly to the issue at the heart of the film and the larger conversation surrounding the past, present and future of policing in America. For three years, director Deirdre Fishel followed female officers within the Minneapolis Police Department — a department that was known to be rife with problems even before the death of George Floyd last summer. At one point, Fishel goes for a ride-along with Sgt. Alice White, a veteran of the city’s police force, and one of only six Black women to reach that rank in the department’s history.
During their drive, Fishel films Sgt. White making a routine traffic stop on a Black driver who failed to properly yield to oncoming traffic. Over the years, the public has seen enough encounters between police and drivers recorded on dashboard cameras and cell phone cameras to know that these “routine traffic stops” can go very wrong, very quickly. And the driver that Sgt. White stops clearly knows that, too: “You can calm down, I can see you’re shaking,” she reassures him. “Just relax.”
Over the course of their brief encounter, Sgt. White maintains a calm, steady demeanor, clearly explaining to the nervous driver why she pulled him over, and not escalating the situation even when it emerges that he’s driving without a valid license. After running his information and confirming there are no outstanding warrants against him, she declines to take him to jail or even issue him a ticket, but does make it clear there are consequences for his actions. “I can’t allow you to drive this vehicle, so you’re going to have to have someone come pick it up,” she says, adding, “Have a better day,” as she walks back to her cruiser. Later on, she explains to Fishel why she approached that encounter in that way: “I know that fear. Even as a police sergeant, I still know what it’s like to feel nervous when the police get behind me.”
That traffic stop, and Sgt. White’s behavior during it, stays with Fishel to this day. “Her number one goal in that moment was to make him feel OK,” the director tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Her secondary goal was to make sure that he didn’t get back in that car. It begs the question: What makes our community safer? Is it safer because you are enforcing every law with force? Or is he more likely to drive more safely because he had that positive interaction with the police? I think it’s the latter, and that encapsulates what it means to have an officer who understand the trauma that Black communities have faced at the hands of the police, and want to do it differently.”
Fishel filmed Women in Blue from 2017 to 2020, and the documentary — which premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens on Feb. 8 — is bookended by twin tragedies that rocked the Twin Cities police force. Not long after Fishel started production, Justine Damond was shot and killed by former officer Mohamed Noor, in a case that made international headlines and forced the resignation of Minneapolis’s first female police chief, Janeé Harteau. And after George Floyd died in police custody in the summer of 2020, the director brought her cameras back to Minneapolis to capture the aftermath, which culminated in the city council voting to disband the police force. “It was brutal to see that murder, because it was so heartless with such a disregard for human life,” Fishel says now. “But was the writing on the wall? Yeah — this is a police department that was grappling with racism and police misconduct before he was killed.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Fishel discusses the circumstances that brought her to Minneapolis, the stories of institutional sexism she heard from the female cops she followed, the legacy of reality shows like Cops and how she hopes police departments across the country will be reformed in the wake of Floyd's death.
Yahoo Entertainment: Sgt. White’s traffic stop encapsulates one of the primary subjects explored in the film, which is how female cops approach the job differently than men. Was that how you experienced it in the moment?
Deirdre Fishel: I think that particular traffic stop happens in that way because Sgt. White is a Black woman, and there’s something very unique of that intersectionality that she holds. That's why, after making the film, it's become really clear to me that while we need more women in policing. We particularly need more Black women who bring that sense of care, but also really understand the trauma of what this country has done to Black communities. You can't understand it in that way unless it's something that you have experienced. So if we're looking at how we could stem police violence, Black women become important because they also have deep connections to the communities that have been terrorized by police departments.
Do you feel that scene could almost function as an instructional tool for police officers in training?
It's really interesting because cops are taught that any kind of furtive moment could be something that’s suspicious. Look, it is a dangerous job, there's no question about that; but the training often overemphasizes the danger. I think that certain cops would look at that traffic stop and say, ‘Wow, she was too easy. What if he pulled a gun on her?’ I think that's part of the problem: There’s this way in which police officers are also taught to feel that every interaction can be deadly, because some interactions can be deadly. It really takes a certain kind of person to be able to handle that and at least start the interaction in a way that makes it go as smoothly as possible. And I think one of the things that men do much more — and statistics bear this out — is they start with aggression first that escalates the situation instead of toning it down.
Then there’s the fact that — and this is what almost every cop tells you — you’ll hear one thing in training, and when you go out on the street and your field officer says, "Forget everything you learned in training." So officers may be taught to deescalate, but when they get on the street, it’s like, “Forget that, now, we're out in the real thing.” If we want police officers to be more connected, calmer and empathetic, then I think we need to be looking for that before officers come in. If you come in and you're just a really aggressive, law-and-order guy, I don't know that you can train that away. And right now, police departments often advertise to the military, and those ads are very aggressive. But most police interactions are really about communication skills.
When you started filming in 2017, Donald Trump had just been elected president. Were most of the cops in the department supportive of him?
I didn't talk to a huge number of cops about their politics, but I don't think there's any question that many, many of the cops in that department were supportive of him. In fact, the police union president, Bob Kroll — who I see as a real culprit of pushing forward a very aggressive style of policing — was a huge Trump supporter and introduced him at a rally in Minneapolis.
You actually interview Bob Kroll in the film: What was he like to speak with?
In the course of our interview, he was perfectly polite, but he’s also a caricature of everything that people think about the police and despise about the police. It’s tragic, because you had Chief Harteau who came in really trying to reform that police department and held a lot of beliefs that people don’t associate with police in terms of really understanding the history of racism and understanding that they had to get rid of certain cops. The union is very strong, and their laws make it so that a police chief can sign papers saying, “You are a rogue cop,” and they can be back on the job two weeks later. I think that element has to be rooted out across police departments if we ever want to stem the kind of brutal, tragic police violence that we’ve largely seen against men of color.
We interviewed Kroll long before the George Floyd murder, but in some ways his positions were already clear. So when George Floyd was murdered, he didn’t say, “This officer crossed the line.” He just has these views, and there's almost nothing that can deter it — just like what you see with a lot of Trump supporters. It's just a very specific worldview that doesn't seem to bend or mold according to facts. The thing about Bob Kroll is he really has no empathy at all for Black communities, and that’s something that Sgt. White does have because she grew up in the city. She’s not a police officer just to be a police officer: She’s a police officer because that’s her city and she wants to protect and serve that community. [Kroll retired as police union president in January.]
In general, how did the officers react to you filming them? Are they more used to cameras in the department because of TV shows like Cops?
Chief Harteau was really the one who wanted to have an independent film made about women on the police force, and gave me this tremendous access. Once she was gone, I would hear from the female officers that many of the men were not happy that I was there. They viewed it as a “women’s project,” and didn’t take it seriously. That said, everyone was really nice to me, but it was definitely like, “Oh, that’s a side project that doesn’t really concern us.”
Cops was canceled in the wake of George Floyd’s death: What impact do you think that show has had on policing?
I’ve never actually thought about that: Certainly it showcased a very aggressive approach. The fact of the matter is that most interactions with the police are like house calls. When I was there, officers would respond to calls like, “My son isn’t home yet,” and they’d have to say, “We can’t really do anything. Do you think he committed a crime?” Just kind of small interactions with people. But Cops was a show that took all of that out, and showcases on the maybe 10 percent of interactions with any kind of violence or showdowns, suggesting “This is what policing is.” And I think that really does do a huge disservice. Yes, there is violence, and there are a lot of people walking around with guns, but what we really need are people who have a social worker mentality, because while you have to have some way to protect people, a lot of the job is service. To have some young kid watching Cops and think, ‘Wow, that’s what being a police officer is,” means you’ll get someone who is attracted to policing because of those interactions. That's the kind of toxic masculinity we have now, in addition to systemic racism and sexism in police departments.
Were there specific stories about sexual harassment or overt misogyny that you caught on camera?
I tried for so long to get this into the film, but there’s a moment where Commander Melissa Chiodo told me that early on in her career she got a lot of flack for not using force. People would say, "You're chickens***” or "You're not a real cop." There was a lot of pressure to step up and be that kind of cop, which she resisted but felt she always paid a price for that resistance. Sgt. White also hears a lot of dirty jokes, which she says she’s comfortable with. I think that’s fine, but I just took workplace training at the City College of New York, where I’m a professor, and that kind of joking would be considered sexual harassment. So while Sgt. White might be OK with it, a lot of women wouldn’t be, and I don’t know that there’s a lot of space for them to object, because the guys really gang up on you if you do that. It’s an inhospitable environment for any woman who is not willing to be in that kind of locker-room environment.
You mentioned that Chief Harteau was the person who brought you in initially. Looking back, do you think she was right to step down after the Justine Damond case?
I think she really felt that it was going to be a battle with the mayor, and that the department was already in such turmoil that it would be the best thing for her to do. I also think she believed her successor, Medaria Arradondo, would carry forth some of her agendas around women in the department more than he did. But for me it was huge, because I had no idea if we were going to be able to continue making the movie. And it never felt the same after she left: I kept thinking, “What incident will happen where they finally say, 'We’re going to ask you to leave.'”
To that point, did you have another ending in mind for the film before the George Floyd case happened?
That’s exactly what happened. We were done with the film, and we’d had our first premiere at the Minneapolis Film Festival a week before George Floyd was murdered. At first, my reaction was, “Who needs this film?” It was just so devastating that after all these years of women trying to reform the police department, this is what had happened. So there was a moment where I really felt, “Who cares about women? This is clearly an institution beyond repair.” But I also felt that we had to go back. Now, I think the movie shows we need major systemic changes, and women can actually play a major part in how we reimagine public safety.
The Minneapolis City Council initially voted to disband the police, but it seems like they’ve been unable to move forward on that. What do you think the future holds?
It’s so complicated: On the one hand, I understand why people feel like the department cannot be reformed from the inside. But people are also very upset because the initial proposals to disband the police were not really that well thought out. Minneapolis has always had a fair amount of violence, and it has surged since George Floyd’s murder. The truth is that people in the Black community, particularly in the fourth precinct where Sgt. White works, don’t want to disband the cops. They feel, “We don’t want them to terrorize us, but we don’t want them to go away either.” I hope that they're successful in figuring out how to help transform that police department or turn it into another institution but without losing it completely.
It probably doesn’t help that “defund the police” has become a talking point that often obscures what the conversation is actually about.
“Defund” is a confusing term because it can mean dismantle, and it can also mean reallocation of resources. I don't think there's any question that there should be some reallocation of resources — people have been saying for years that so many of the police shootings are happening around mental health, and we need people who are really trained to deal with that. Meanwhile, the right wing is like, “You want to get rid of the police? Then there’s going to be total mayhem!” The lane that I really try to stay in is that more women are necessary, particularly more Black women.
What’s the one thing you’d like to see the Biden administration do to help reimagine policing?
I hope that there's some way to send out a message about accountability. We've got to figure out a way to hold officers accountable. If you think that you don't want to do this job if you're going to be held accountable, then you shouldn't be doing this job. I can't imagine what it feels like to have people murdered in your community, and then have a cop running around with no punishment. In 2015, President Obama formed a task force on policing and he didn’t have one female officer as part of that group. So I really hope that Biden and Kamala Harris are looking at women as being part of the power structure of our government, and will send that message to the Department of Justice. We need that in government, and we need that in police departments.
Women in Blue premieres Monday, Feb. 8 on PBS.
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