directors Alan Raymond, Susan Raymond
Shot on what was at the time a new technology, portable video, husband and wife team Alan and Susan Raymond spent three months in the South Bronx, riding along with police through what was then the most crime-ridden area of New York City. The resulting film, The Police Tapes, was originally aired on a PBS channel, 90 minutes of footage from an “on the scene” reportage. This sort of film-making today is as common as dirt. The whole of COPS, essentially, by technology and distribution, is captured in a similar spirit, and even one of my favorite television shows, The First 48, shares aspects of this film’s creation.
The Police Tapes pioneered the technology and also the subject matter, being freed up to move about the fast-moving crime scenes with the officers, among crowds, criminals, and the amazingly decrepit borough of the Bronx. There is an immediacy to video that differs from film, something in the movement perhaps that captures a “presence” in its imagery. And even in black and white, in what was a very early quality level for mobile video, the character of the people, the place and the time leap outward. The South Bronx at the time was incredibly impoverished and ethnically diverse. The police that appear on camera are trying to keep the whole thing from blowing up, breaking up fights before they turn lethal, doing what they can to control a caustic and volatile situations.
The Bronx Borough Commander, Anthony Bourza, who appears onscreen speaking eloquently about the issues of his precinct, was the one who brought the Raymonds in to expose the reality of the world his officers were venturing into every day. He recognizes that the problems stem from poverty and opportunity and seeks social change at levels higher than in his power to control. By having the couple come and shoot the film, the exposure to the rest of the country of the reality of life in the inner city might help change government policy.
What is amazing in the footage as it differs from the nearly ubiquitous eye of cameras today is the lack of sophistication with which things are handled. Murder scenes are muddled by officers, once just to get a look, another time to try and defuse a riotous crowd. Interviews in the police station are done at desks, rather than interview rooms, and typically not on tape. Volatile people pervade the scenes. You can feel the pulse of the city on edge.
Like COPS, mostly the film is intended to side with the efforts of the police, not to expose mistreatment or abuse. It’s the double-edged sword of “reality”, open to the possibility of creating propaganda from different sides. The earnest reality of the film is that the cops depicted are generally really trying to help resolve problems. One cop does end up bashing a ranting, raving, violent woman into submission but she’s pretty out of control and there are no walls between the front and back of a police car at that time.
The Bronx of the late 1970’s looks like frightening slums, teaming with people, a wild place, a powder keg. The film also apparently inspired the show Hill Street Blues, basing the captain after Bourza, who during one meeting with his officers, warns them to be careful out there (or something quite similar). Even though we’ve become familiar with the “on the street” style of filming police at work, The Police Tapes is quite fascinating. It’s hardly a perfect piece of cultural anthropology but it certainly is a compelling time capsule in time and space to a very different New York.