THE FIRST TIME I saw Clint Eastwood, he was in a luncheonette, eating a hot dog. He glanced out the window and happened to sight a bank robbery unfolding across the street. He told the manager of the luncheonette to call police headquarters and report a 211-in-progress. He took another bite from his hot dog. And another. And as the bank robbers emerged onto the street, he cursed their bad timing, set the hot dog down in disgust, reached under his left armpit for his .44 Magnum, stepped out into the San Francisco sunshine and let loose. Case closed.
This was after Clint had emerged from his Italian period to become "Dirty Harry" Callahan, and when I myself was a law enforcement officer in the jungle of inner-city Washington. So I knew a thing or two about robbery, and my experience didn't quite square with Clint's. In my circles, we encountered robberies all the time -- but only after they had happened. So-and-so, we would learn, had been robbed of such-and-such an amount by four subjects last seen running down thus-and-so alley. Number one subject was always "5-10, slim build, 18-30 years of age, wearing dark clothing." Numbers two, three and four were always "same general description" (a surprising number of quadruplets seemed to be drawn to careers in the robbery field).
We would write all this down religiously in our spiral notebooks, and maintain a constant vigil for anyone matching the particulars, knowing that when we found him, we would have the satisfaction of clearing literally thousands of old, unsolved robberies. But speaking for myself, I managed to apprehend a total of one robber in my probationary year, and he had made the questionable tactical choice of wearing leopard-spotted trousers on duty. The two marines he robbed at the corner of 14th and T streets remembered him vividly, describing him as "5-10, slim build, 18-30 years of age, wearing leopard-spotted trousers." My partner and I spotted his spots inside Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street about 15 minutes later.
As for actually witnessing a robbery -- a robbery-in-progress -- that was more or less out of the question. I read somewhere that it happens to the average policeman once every 14 years. So robbery was a major event for me, and I found Dirty Harry's nonchalant attitude toward it incredible -- and said so with passion to a number of amused friends. I listed all the other absurdities and inaccuracies of that movie, starting with Dirty Harry's rank of "Inspector." An inspector, I observed snootily, was someone who worked out of an office, armed with a telephone and a secretary, not a .44 Magnum.
There have been many such untruths down through the years, and they have taken a subtle toll on police and citizens alike. Movies and TV have given burglary victims ill-founded, grandiose ideas about fingerprints -- about the ease of finding them and the ease of identifying a suspect with nothing else to go by. They have given police their own delusions -- about high-speed auto chases and pinpoint marksmanship under stress. With their larger-than-life (and sometimes worse-than-life) images, they have encouraged us all to think of police as a breed apart, a tendency which helps explain why so many people don't talk to police officers they see on the street and why so many police officers have so few non-police friends.
The police hero has been through some changes these last 10 years. It has become fashionable to "understand" the police, and the latest fruit of that fashion is "Fort Apache, The Bronx." The celebrated urbanologist David Susskind, deciding that we have had enough of Dirty Harry and his fanciful kind, has produced a movie that aims to show us what police is really like, complete with all the environmental horrors that make police officers the way they really are.
Like "Serpico," "Fort Apache" focuses on a sympathetic policeman in a nest of vipers. The story has a small something to say about what makes that sympathetic policeman (Paul Newman) and his colorful partner (Ken Wahl) tick. It has nothing to say about what makes the vipers tick, because that isn't felt to be necessary. The policeman as viper needs no more explanation than the shark as shark in "Jaws."
This is true of "Fort Apache" just as it was true of "Getting Straight" and "The Strawberry Statement," Hollywood's student movement sagas of a decade ago, in which well-meaning kids got clubbed by faceless cops. It is true of the likes of "Dressed to Kill" and "The Eyes of Laura Mars," which don't bother to shroud their kinky violence in pretensions to sociological significance. In these movies and plenty more where they came from, the policeman is brutal, corrupt, uncaring, incompetent, and unashamed.
Only Joseph Wambaugh, author of "The Onion Field," "The Blue Knight" and "The New Centurions," has dared to show police officers as being like other human beings, without making a big deal of it. Wambaugh, naturally, is a Hollywood outcast. He has had to raise his own money and produce his own scripts just to keep others from twisting them into the usual pattern of violence and contrivance. (When Universal Pictures turned director Robert Aldrich loose on "The Choirboys," Wambaugh was so appalled by the result that he sued -- and won a $1 million-plus judgment and the right to remove his name from the picture.)
On TV, censorship and the family audience have contained the violence and the language, keeping some recent police shows almost as wholesome as their ancient ancestor, "Dragnet," which launched the tradition of using long litanies of true facts and true procedures to conceal a total indifference to any other sort of truth. In the '60s and '70s, inspired by "Dirty Harry," "Bullitt" and "The French Connection" on the big screen, TV gave us macho maniacs like Starsky and Hutch and Baretta, stomping their way over the scum of the slums and pausing every now and again to save the life of a member of some disadvantaged minority. The people who made "Fort Apache" undoubtedly have a low opinion of the people who make the police series on TV. But they are all in the same business, whether they know it or not -- the business of portraying police as made of something different from the rest of us, something stronger, weaker, nobler, shabbier or just weirder. That's how they portray slum residents too, as the organized leaders of the South Bronx shrewdly guessed before the movie began filming. When Susskind and Co. drove their wagons into the South Bronx last summer, they were immediately encircled by hostile natives. Now their scalps are up there on the screen for all to see, in the form of an announcement that cautions us: "The picture you are about to see is a portrayal of the lives of two policemen working out of a precinct in the South Bronx, N.Y. Because the story involves police work, it does not deal with the law-abiding members of the community, nor does it dramatize the efforts of the individuals who are struggling to turn the Bronx around."
It sounds reasonable. Involves police work . . . Does not deal with the law-abiding members of the community." But as I recollect police work, it tended to involve frequent contact with the law-abiding members of the community. They tended to call on the police to report burglaries and larcenies and cat bites and things like that. They called because they were closing up for business, late and wanted an escort to the night depository. They called because they wanted their ex-boyfriends (and the wardrobes thereof) off the premises, and hoped to survive the process. All in all, they tended to call on the police more often than the non-law-abiding members of the community.
Still, you can put only so much into any one motion picture. Maybe the producers wanted to show the lawabiding members of the community in "Fort Apache," but they just didn't have the time. They had set aside quite a lot of time, after all, for the adventures of Pam Grier as a wacko prostitute who murders random men by (just for instance) cutting their throats with a razor blade held between her teeth. Pam and her murders needed all that time because it's a mean world out there, and Hollywood wants us to know it.
Actually, Pam could have used even more time. "Fort Apache" never gets around to explaining the motive behind her murders, or why she commits each in a new, more bizarre and more graphic fashion than any employed before. This constant drive toward innovation, curiously, seems to affect Hollywood killers far more than the kind who ply their trade in the streets. The real-life murderer doesn't seem to mind using the tired old methods, provided they work.)
Aside from Pam Grier's exploits, "Fort Apache" is based on real events as certified by two veteran policemen from the 41st precinct of the South Bronx. But this is a movie that shows what a loose phrase "based on" can be -- and what an ornery rascal of a notion "accuracy" can be, even when you've got a citation for every so-called fact.
At the beginning of the movie, a by-the-book captain (Ed Asner, who seems to have studied management theory from Humphrey Bogart in "The Caine Mutiny") takes command of the precinct and demands more arrests, more interrogations, more all-around enforcement -- community relations be dammed. He calls a raid on a group called the South Bronx People's Party, hoping to get some information about the murder of two policemen. Instead, he gets a small revolution, and responds with tear gas and night sticks. Eventually, one of his men, sent onto a rooftop to deal with hooligans throwing objects at the police below, chucks a completely innocent youth to his death without any direct provocation.
This out-and-out murder is witnessed by Paul Newman, the most well-meaning policeman in all Fort Apache, who is left with an agonizing decision -- whether to testify and be a stool pigeon, or clam up. "You turn a cop in and you're finished," he says, "You might as well quit the force and leave the city."
As these events flowed by, I remembered an incident witnessed by me in the spring of 1970. I was new. My partner -- Officer Percival, I'll dub him -- was not. We had just escorted a tough-talking, semi-intoxicated prisoner into the precinct cell block, and he was talking big talk. He was hinting the he could handle either one of us hotshot police if we didn't have those .38 specials on our belts (the department didn't issue us any .44 Magnums; I didn't even know what a .44 Magnum was .) This talk had been going on ever since we installed the man in the back of our patrol wagon, and it had seemed like harmless guff even to my innocent ears. So I was absolutely stunned when we stepped into the cell block, just the three of us, and Percival suddenly thrust his gun into my hand, saying "Here, hold this!" I was so stunned, in fact, that I accepted delivery of the weapon and watched in amazement as Percival gave the prisoner a pummeling with his fists.
The prisoner was nothing like the paragon in the "Fort Apache" situation, and the abuse wasn't nearly so one-sided. And I'll bet that's true of the lion's share of brutality cases, real and alleged; the police have so many opportunities to rough up troublemakers that they just don't need to go hunting for model citizens.
I thought about telling my superiors what had happened between Percival and our prisoner. But there were obstacles. The prisoner himself had no interest in complaining. The superiors on duty that night weren't the kind who really enjoyed a good complaint. And I was scared silly. If I was going to stick with police work for the long haul, i.e., than another 36 hours or so, I sensed it would be prudent to wait for a bigger issue to sound off about. But I did consult a fellow officer (call him Cherenko) about the incident, and he had an opinion.
"Percival is a disgrace to this department," Cherenko told me. "If he has a brain, he keeps it on a tight leash. Half the section won't work with him. That's probably why you got stuck with him." I was advised to let Percival know that if I ever saw him do anythng like that again, he could depend on me not to back him up in court. "Because there's nothing in this job worth lying for," said Cherenko.
I don't mention this to say Paul Newman would have smooth sailing if he testified about a fellow officer who threw someone off a roof. But if the case were as blatant as the one in "Fort Apache" -- which it generally wouldn't be -- the response might be less extreme or less enduring. In any case, not all peer pressure moves in the same direction.
In the fall of 1970, there was an encounter between the D.C. police and a local revolutionary organization. It began small, as such things often did. A uniformed officer had decided to put an end to some unruly behavior on a street corner -- to wit, loud music in front of the revolutionary organization's headquarters, a building that made a strong architectural impression on the men of the Third District by having rifle slits instead of windows. The officer and a group of revolutionaries quarreled. Help was called. The officer was struck by a brick and taken away to the hospital. His fellow officers arrived in force, swept through the building, dealt and sustained a number of injuries, and locked up everyone in sight.
Later, just when word had filtered back from the hospital that the officer hit by the brick was going to be "a vegetable," an unpopular high official dropped by the precinct and, scuttlebutt had it, ordered all the felony charges of Assault on a Police Officer reduced to disorderly conduct. The precinct complained about that for days on end: one policeman knocked silly by a brick, several more with serious injuries to show, and no charge worse than disorderly! Yet some of the people who complained the loudest freely admitted that the police had acted rashly in the first place.
We had our own version of Ed Asner too. Lt. Cortez (another alias) wasn't quite such a certifiable nut case, but he got our attention at his very first roll call by mentioning the 2,000 felony arrests he had made in his first year on the department. Our own arrest figures were "pathetic," he told us, "I want to see some meat on the table tonight, gentlemen," he said. "It's out there. I'm not asking the impossible. i want this section to be feared. I want them hucklebucks telling each other, 'Don't you try nothin' on D Section's tour of duty. It ain't worth it.'"
These remarks produced some suppressed smirking during roll call, and much griping for weeks to come. They also produced a huge increase in arrests, covering the quality spectrum from top to sub-bottom. Two men even made a bet over which could make more felony cases in a week, and I saw one of them -- Officer Truax, let's say -- lay nine counts of Assault With a Deadly Weapon on a man when all he had done was wave a chair threateningly in the air. He had done this three times, and there were heads in the vicinity. Three acts multiplied by three complainants came to nine counts of "ADW-Chair" -- a charge that would be broken down to one count of simple assault, if not dropped altogether, at the U.S. attorney's office the next morning.
Truax later arrested a Cuban for carrying a razor. When the prisioner's brother came in to pay bail, he gave the police a piece of his mind. "You can't do this," he said. "All Cubans carry razors." Truax's face lit up. "All Cubans carry razors?" he asked. "Are you carrying a razor?" "Sure," the man replied and he reached into his pocket and proved it -- and was promptly arrested. But in addition to these "hummers" (as frivolous charges were derisively known). Truax had probably made as many solid arrests for holdups, homicides, burglaries, etc., as any uniformed policeman in the city, and he was capable of being unusually polite and industrious in the less glamorous phases of the job, like taking a missing-person report or helping an elderly, sick woman get some medical help.
Police officers are complicated people, in short, like everybody else. And a police department is an environment that is absolutely woozy with ambiguity. But ambiguity is about as popular in Hollywood as movies about Abe Lincoln.
No one has ever looked for gritty authenticity in TV police shows (except, again, for a Wambaugh project, the anthology series "Police Story"). Nevertheless, this season's "Hill Street Blues" has, at its best, an accuracy of spirit that is far more important than all the procedural details it ignores. One recent episode showed us two rookies barging into a tenement on a trivial complaint and getting deluged with garbage and obscenities for their troubles. One of them suggested a quick exit. "We leave now, we look like chickens," said his partner. "I can live with that," said the first officer. "I can't," said the partner.
The words may not have been right, but the idea was. And so was the next thing that happened -- a small war on the tenement staircase in which the two policemen seemed to forget their differences completely. One of the early rules a police officer learns is that when one partner wants to act tough and the other partner doesn't, the tough approach tends to prevail -- because a non-act can always be undone by an act, but an act can't be undone by a non-act.
The "Hill Street" officers are a bizarre crowd, only distantly related to living, breathing policemen and policewomen. But the very idea of a precinct as a zooful of eccentrics shows a more respectful view of police officers than the monotonous uncaring uniformity of "Fort Apache's" secondary troops. And in the same halfinadvertent way, movies like "Dirty Harry" and "The French Connection," with their super-heroic heroes and their fanciful rituals, probably told more truths about police work than "Fort Apache," with all its documentary-style camera effects and its high auspices.
Most of the police movies that came before "Fort Apache" never said they were telling it like it was. They set their own rules and defined their own outrageous environments, and we didn't go to them in search of social comment. All of a sudden, those movies are looking better and better. So try again, David Susskind -- or better yet, don't try again. And listen up, Popeye Doyle, Bullitt, Madigan, Dirty Harry and the rest of you guys. Come back. All is forgiven.