Police killings of civilians are a sad staple of newspaper headlines, and their regular occurrence is clearly a problem, no matter who or what you think is to blame. Various solutions have been proposed, from incremental reforms all the way up to abolition of police departments as we now know them.* The latter option has yet to be tried, so we can’t say if the result would be better or worse than what we have not, but we do know that minor attempts at reform—more inclusiveness, better training—have not solved the problem. Deirdre Fishel’s documentary Women in Blue, which looks at the experience of several women in the Minneapolis Police Department, contains that conclusion within itself, but the filmmaker herself doesn’t seem to realize it.
Women in Blue begins in 2017, when the MPD is led by Police Chief Janeé Harteau, the first female and the first openly gay person to hold that position (she also has Native American ancestry). Recalling the discrimination she faced as a police officer, she’s determined to increase female representation at all levels of the MPD, in part because she feels that female officers are less likely to be involved in shootings. Harteau resigns just as the film is beginning, however, following yet another highly-publicized shooting of a civilian (Justine Damond) by a police officer (Mohamed Noor).
Much of Women in Blue focuses in part on the careers of three women serving in the MPD when the film begins: rookie Erin Grabowsky, Sergeant Alice White, and Commander Melissa Chiodo. It’s a good idea, and could have served as the basis for an entire documentary (so could the career of Police Chief Harteau). Unfortunately, there’s just too many things going on at once in Women in Blue, and sometimes the film feels more like a muddled collage than any attempt at coherent storytelling. The individual who makes the strongest impression is White, in part because we get to know her and her daughter, and because she’s willing to speak about the conflicts she experiences as a black woman on a largely white, male force.
Early in the film, we see White having a frank conversation with her daughter about what it means to have a mom that is a cop. It’s not great, the daughter says, since her peers think cops can just shoot and taze and handcuff “whoever you want, however you want.” Mom takes a deep breath, then confides that she doesn’t tell people she’s a policeman—instead, she says, she tells them she “works for the city.” In another revealing moment, White confides that the 2015 MPD shooting of Jamar Clark made her think, for the first time, that she “really needed to choose a side between black and blue.” That kind of honesty and self-reflection is rare in Women in Blue, and hearing someone get real, if only for a moment, points up what’s lacking in the rest of the film.
There’s an old saying that “Everyone is Irish when you put on the blue,” meaning that when you join an institution like the police department, you have to conform to its behavioral norms. It’s a concept that Americans are particularly bad at grasping, because we’re raised to think in terms individual behaviors and individual decisions, while discounting the power of institutional and cultural norms. If the problem is in the institution itself, good intentions aren’t going to have much effect, and we can’t expect a few right-minded individuals to bring about much change either (remember Frank Serpico?). We see a lot of good intentions at work in the MPD—training that urges officers to not pre-judge a situation, proposals to create new options to deal with people who are mentally disturbed—but little examination of whether those changes had any effect, or indeed, if they could have any significant effect. The result is a film that feels like a series of snapshots of different aspects of life in the MPD, and which remains unsatisfying because it remains determinedly on the surface, so that those snapshots don’t add up to anything.
* If you followed events following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the MPD, you probably know that nine members of the Minneapolis City Council declared, this past June, that they were in favor of defunding and dismantling their city’s police department. You probably also know that they have all walked back from that commitment since. The more things change… | Sarah Boslaugh
Women in Blue is available for home viewing in Missouri and Illinois from Nov. 5-22 as part of the Saint Louis International Film Festival. It is a free film, but must be unlocked through the festival web site; a Q & A session about the film is available as well. Further information about SLIFF, including a complete list of films available and viewing options, is also available from the festival web site.