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The Police Tapes by Alan and Susan Raymonds Review Essay

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2021

The Police Tapes is an experimental documentary of 1976 shot by Alan and Susan Raymonds. Officers of the Law made by two filmmakers at University Community Video in Minneapolis served as a starting prototype for this work with the only difference that the area where this film was shot was not that dirty and horrifying than the one depicted in the Police Tapes. The authors of the film did not foresee the influence that their film would make on film industry. The sense of realism and immediacy that the Raymonds managed to render by means of the first portable video recorders in order to depict the ordinary work of Bronx police officers has shaken the film industry. Later, numerous films will arise (Fort Apache, The Bronx, Hill Street Blues and the like) where police officers, suspects, and crime victims are followed by interviewers with handled cameras. This paper focuses on describing how the police work is depicted in the Police Tapes, as well as discusses the main arguments posed in this film.

The success of the Police Tapes (two Emmy Awards, a Peabody and DuPont-Columbia University Award) is not surprising as the force and tension with which the Raymonds describe how police officers deal with the urban crime, violence, cynicism, brutality and despair at the 44th precinct in the South Bronx amazes and horrifies. This film portrays the work of police officers in a shocking and gory manner. Some episodes can terrify, especially when the viewer realizes that these events happen in real life. The old woman accused of whacking her own daughter with an axe is a hideous example of what the officers sometimes have to deal with. This story reveals the true nature of police work, which in such cases may have psychological impacts on the officers. Other violent disputes portrayed in this film, like a quarrel between neighbors, and a story of a man who took his family hostage in his apartment shows that policeman deal with not just murders, theft and gangs, but also can manage household disputes that have transformed into cutthroat conflicts. Police work is also depicted in this film as being extremely unexpected. One should be always ready to apprehend a violent clash, even when the suspect seems to be not threatening. This is clearly visible in the episode where the car thief is arrested and becomes exceedingly violent.

The Police Tapes is a realistic view of the police work in the highest -crime-rate America’s ghetto as seen by the policeman of the 44th police division in the South Bronx, known as Fort Apache. In the year of 1976, one of the most chaotic in the New York City’s history, two filmmakers follow the police officers and document their ordinary life which seems to be an ever-lasting nightmare. In spite of the fact that the police officers were doing such a tremendous risky job of protecting the community, struggling with murders, violence, theft, and some crimes that were striking with their brutality and cynicism, the policemen were still not getting much respect from the people they protected. All film long the filmmakers follow the policemen before, during and after each accident, picturing their own perceptions of themselves, revealing much about the brevity of their characters and their inner despair at the same time. The roles of the officers and the community they serve are not evaluated directly but implied by the Raymonds. Sometimes, the officers’ feelings amaze the viewer. Cops have the power to speak candidly about their frustrations and fears in the system they deal with. This power helps them to fight with angry and demoralized world.

There is no narration in the Police Tapes, but the episodes are unified by an interview with the Bronx Borough Commander – chief Tony Bouza. The Commander’s nightmare work seems to him a work of the Commander of an occupying army. He believes that rape, gang warfare, murder and other cases of violence result from poverty. He describes idealistic police officers and the hardening effects that urban violence has on them. Manufacturing criminals and manufacturing brutality, these words seem to be the most suitable for him to describe the current state of police affairs. The Commander realizes the power of his leadership but can do nothing to benefit from it and change the situation for better. Tony Bouza is well known for his vivid explanation of the Bronx, also called the “theater of the absurd”. The Raymonds are using this dialogue, describing the issues that affect the Bronx, as well as police officers, in order to build an argument that no matter how good the cops do their job, the problems connected with murders, violence, theft will still exist, and that something more than good police work is required in aid of stopping the criminal wave in the ghetto. Chief Tony Bouza gives plenty of comments on these problems, and states that maybe if the cops do not do such a good job, the problem of high crime rates will become more evident to the rest of the country, implying that there is another way of dealing with these issues. I believe that the Raymonds are arguing that there is much more to crime, than just people’s desire of revenge, violence, and theft. The real causes and roots of high crime rates grow much deeper. It is really the ghetto, which is packed with lower class contingent that are more inclined towards criminal activity that the other wealthier part of the population. If the rest of the country becomes more aware of this problem which arises not just in New York City, but in most major American metropolis type cities, higher governmental agencies might deal with this problem more effectively. Through this dialogue with the police chief the film is arguing that poverty is the most lousy and detestable thing that can happen in the life of a human being, as most crimes are committed on the basis of poor financial circumstances.

One should admit the fact that though the Raymonds’ view on the American ghetto seems subjective it does not fail to be powerful. The audience of the film is guided by the filmmakers and none dares to hesitate about the film’s being a real print of the ghetto world which is hard to analyze. But there is an attempt to understand the complex of social and political foundation of ghetto crime. This attempt is made by the interviewee, the cop’s psychology and his own frustration in the system is rendered throughout the film. The power of logical argumentation is responsible for the effect the Commander’s narration has: he presents his personal demonstration of proof, uses logical reasoning for persuading his audience.

The Police Tapes gained its popular and critical acclaim being broadcasted in New York. Then came a national fame, but the most violent scenes and the street language were cut out. Even being shortened up to 50 minutes (from the previous 90), the film found its audience. The experiment was a success and influenced a generation of police dramas and reality shows. Nothing strikes so much as skillfully depicted truth and this is what the Police Tapes is based on.

The job of police work depicted in the Police Tapes may make hundreds of young viewers forget about their burning desire to serve community. But those who will keep faithful to their childish dreams will keep faithful to themselves as well as the characters of the film do. The human dignity is never bitten. It remains untouchable notwithstanding the difficulties people’s life is full of. No matter how dreadful the crime ghetto is the human dignity will win. This seems to be the main message of the Police Tapes. Looking at the dirty world through someone’s personal emotions may really change if not the whole world, but at least the 44th precinct of the South Bronx for better.

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