As a cry of alarm and as a social document of the first urgency, "The Police Tapes," at 9 tonight on Channel 26, is a formidable and vital television achievement.
The 90-minute documentary, made by Alan and Susan Raymond, also marks a breakthrough for electronic journalism; it was recorded not on the mellow texture of film but on the cold and immediate canvas of video tape.
The Raymonds and their small crew spent three months in the spring of 1976 accompanying members of the 44th police precinct in New York's notorious South Bronx as they responded to calls for help and breaches of the peace. There were plenty of both. There was little peace to be breached.
Chief Tony Bouza, who is the Bronx borough commander and a casual quoter of Aristotie and B.F. Skinner, calls himself "the commander of an army of occupation in the ghetto" and decries the economic and political forces that have trapped people in lives of desperation that is anything but quiet.
"America attacks the problems it sees," Bouza laments. "It doesn't see these problems." Through this important and fascinating report, some of America will see urban angst and life at the end of the rope as it is never shown in carefree sugarless cop shows, where troubled lives are either tidied up or ended within an hour.
Ironically, though the situation shown seems a crucial societal scandal, it has taken over a year for "The Police Tapes" to be made available to a Washington audience. It was shown on producing station Channel 13 (WNET) in New York in January of 1977, then went on to win about even-award in the book.
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) failed to pick up "Police Tapes" for national distribution; Channel 26 and a few other stations, acquired the program independently. Meanwhile, commercial broadcasting, which one would think might be less responsive than public, has latch on to "Police Tapes" just as public stations finally get around to it; ABC will show them on Aug. 17 at 10 p.m.
The Raymonds were a little ahead of the state of the art when, with portable cameras, they shot "Police Tapes" on half-inch black and white videotape in 1976 (two-inch color videotape is the industry standard), sometimes at night with only available light. But the very primitivism of the picture quality turns out to be an enhancement to the impact of the program. In the '80s, virtually all TV journalism will be electronically produced. We hope the cameras fall into the right hands as they did with "Police Tapes."
As the documentary proceeds, with almost no narration, from case to case, we begin to sense the frustration, the heartache and the borderline rage that make up an environmental for thousands of essentially stranded people. Occasionally the rage crosses the borderline; an auto thief hauled unconscious into the precinct station suddenly explodes into such an incredible fit that six cops can barely contain him.
"That's not unusual at all," one of the policemen says later.
But people less overt in their anger may be just as frightening. One of the first episodes seems absurdly comic; an elderly woman has complained that her neighbor assaulted her apartment door because, the neighbor claims, the old woman had been slamming it to annoy her.
The cops listen as the grievance is repeated over and over and then visit the woman who attacked the door with, they learn, old tire irons wrapped in cloth. The woman is completely unintimidated by the police and stubbornly unrepentant about her actions; instead of being impressed with this display of authority, she goes out of her way to dismiss it. "Nothing scares me," she says, and she threatens that next time she'll assault the neighbor instead of the neighbor's door.
Of course the cops themselves are case studies: you can see after 15 or 20 minutes of this program why their sense of futility might easily evolve into hostility; maybe this is war. Late in the program one hears sentiments reminiscent of the Travis Bickle character in "Taxi Driver"; the princinct station is "Fort Apache" surrounded by "animals" nd a "flowing river . . . of (human) garbage."
Bouza himself notes the tendency toward "cynicism . . . hardness . . . callousness" in his men, partly because they arrive on the job thinking they are going "to help people" only to find they are "bitterly resented" throughout their constituency.
"The Police Tapes" lets us look into the faces of people Bouza says have been conditioned to fail by their environment and its institutions, and the effect is truly troubling; despair on this scale, conveyed through this medium, is contagious. To their credit, the Raymonds have made this an essay rather than a lecture.
They stay out of the way of the subject, and they use a relatively new technology not as a gimmick or a toy but as a new tool toward understanding. It's unfortunate that even though the technology is speedier and cheaper than film, and should therefore be able to shorten the lapse between shooting and telecast, "The Police Tapes" is getting wide distribution two full years after it was recorded.
There is no reason to believe the situation has changed in the South Bronx; a repeat of Bill Moyers' "The Fire Next Door" by CBS News recently pointed that out. And the ABC News Close-Up "Youth Terror" also took us deep into the eye of the storm, but in a gentler, more modulated way than this. "The Police Tapes" is volatile and invaluable television.