Issues of police and criminal justice reform have been at the forefront of national discussion over the past few years. Being a student at NYU Law has given me the opportunity to participate in that discussion in some unique ways. Last year, I gathered with fellow law students in Washington Square Park, where we joined the thousands of other New Yorkers marching down Fifth Avenue to show our solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and to promote greater urgency in criminal justice reform. But as the title above suggests, this post is about movies: specifically, how the issue of criminal justice reform is being explored through the medium of film.
A couple weeks ago I had one of those singular opportunities that only come when you are studying at a place like NYU Law. The Law School is home to an organization known as the Forum on Law, Culture & Society, or FOLCS. As part of FOLCS’s annual film festival, I attended a screening of Serpico, the 1973 film starring Al Pacino that tells the true story of an honest New York City cop who was instrumental in revealing the widespread police corruption rampant in the city throughout the ’60s. It’s a great film that has stood the test of time, but the highlight of the event was after the movie when Thane Rosenbaum, founder of FOLCS, led a discussion between Frank Serpico, the subject of the film, and Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the current New York County district attorney.
The discussion was civil, but with enough tension to keep it interesting. It centered on the past and present of police corruption in New York City and policing the police. Serpico was a scrappy older gentleman who fascinated the audience, recounting at length his current dissatisfaction with a lawsuit against a landscaper who had mistakenly cut down some trees in his yard. He also delighted us with poetry he had written, and garnered applause with impassioned soundbites about the recently publicized deaths caused by police (“Society isn’t blind to the cover ups”) and stop and frisk (“Reasonable suspicion is not a person of color or a man with a bag and a turban”).
The DA freely acknowledged the continuing issues with police behavior, though nothing quite as widespread and systematic as the graft going on during the period portrayed in the film. When asked if there was a lack of confidence in law enforcement, he admitted that there was much questioning recently of the efficacy of police enforcement and prosecution, mentioning the Innocence Project (http://www.innocenceproject.org/) and criticism about the racial profiling. Vance said that this criticism was an opportunity for those in law enforcement to ask themselves difficult questions, and told of his own efforts to have his office independently analyzed to determine the level of racial bias. Overall he was hopeful, pointing out that police-related deaths are declining in New York City, but that his goal was to get them to zero.
Just two weeks ago I had the opportunity to see a different film on the topic of police misconduct at the IFC Center, a block from the Law School. Peace Officer tells the story of Dub Lawrence, a former police sheriff obsessed with investigating officer-involved shooting deaths. This preoccupation was triggered when an over-militarized police force responded to a domestic disturbance with deadly force, killing Dub’s own son-in-law. The story is artfully told, balancing opinions on both sides of the line and weaving in expert interviews on the issue of police militarization and violence on a national scale.
The film interested me personally for two reasons: the police shooting that ended the life of Dub Lawrence’s son-in-law happened in my home town of Farmington, Utah, and the film was directed by my undergraduate documentary film professor. The discussion with Frank Serpico and the film Peace Officer shared many common themes, but one of the most troubling for me was the idea of the “blue wall of silence.” Dub Lawrence shows in Peace Officer that many investigations of officer-involved shootings are either not done sincerely or intentionally conducted poorly to cover up officer wrongdoing. Frank Serpico said that, despite being awarded a Medal of Honor, he is seen by many police officers as a rat rather than a hero because he spoke up. Serpico felt that a lack of encouragement of police who want to promote reform within their local precincts is still a major barrier to police accountability.
But it’s one thing to read about these issues in the news, or to watch a film. It’s another thing entirely to hear the current DA of New York County discuss how his office is dealing with them every day, so I have to thank FOLCS for putting together this event.
FOLCS has two screenings left in its 2015 Film Festival, so if you’re in the city be sure not to miss them. On October 27, a screening of The Bonfire of the Vanities will be followed by a discussion with guests Tom Wolfe and Preet Bharara at the 92nd Street Y (discounted tickets available to NYU students and staff), and on November 2 The Social Network will precede a post-screening discussion and book signing with Jesse Eisenberg (free to NYU Law students, staff, and faculty with an RSVP).