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Charles Remsberg10-8: Life on the Line
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Why is law enforcement losing respect, public support & recruits?

Movies like American Gangster hold the answer.

By Senior PoliceOne Correspondent Chuck Remsberg
Sponsored by Blauer

I should be numbed to Hollywood’s perversion of policing by now, but American Gangster has my teeth grinding.

The film, starring Denzel Washington in the title role and Russell Crowe as his law enforcement nemesis, alleges to be “based on a true story.” In this context, “based” has got to be one of the most elastic words in the English language.

Maybe things are different on the East Coast, where Denzel is a Harlem drug lord who’s even “above the Mafia.” But where I’m from, a chief narcotics detective in a major takedown does not show up as the prosecutor when the case comes to court.

Unfortunately, American Gangster is well-acted, suspensefully scripted, and artfully photographed. Unfortunate, because that gritty craftsmanship buttresses its illusion of authenticity.

Crowe, who’s barely a few ashes shy of being a burned-out case, gets permanently stigmatized in the police world at the beginning of the movie because he turns in nearly $1,000,000 in untraceable cash seized during a drug bust instead of stuffing his pockets with it. His partner begs him not to do something that rash, because if he insists on being honest, all the other cops will hate the two of them.

Amazingly, that may be the least cynical moment in the film.

Crowe’s partner turns out to be a closet junkie. He murders a drug dealer in the projects while trying to rip him off, then phones Crowe to rescue him when a lynch mob blocks his escape route.

Crowe radios for backup as he drives toward the scene, but the dispatcher refuses to send cars. Payback, see, for Crowe having refused to steal the dirty money, thus betraying the blue brotherhood by doing the right thing. Even the dispatchers are in on it.

Every law officer with even modest face time on camera is mired in corruption. One particularly egregious bunch, in addition to openly extorting dope and money, invades Denzel’s mansion, terrorizes his beauty queen wife and doddering mama, and slaughters the family dog before plundering a buried cache of cash.

Of course, there are no swans in a sewer, so even Crowe, while haplessly honest, is profoundly flawed.

Just after trying to convince his estranged wife that he’s a worthy human being, he demolishes a kitchen in a caroming sex scene with his female divorce attorney, while she screams, “Fuck me like a cop!”

Soon after, he casually abandons a half-hearted attempt at getting shared custody of his young son. His ex-wife should take the boy off to live a continent away in Las Vegas, he decides, because his obsessive war on Denzel leaves no time or appetite for committed fatherhood.

In the end, even our “hero” sells out. While pursuing Denzel, Crowe, seemingly speaking from the heart, excoriates him (accurately) as a ruthless destroyer of lives, a sociopathic cancer unfit to stain the streets. But once he’s helped incarcerate this public menace, he becomes, apparently without a second thought, a defense lawyer. His first client: the reviled Denzel himself.

We all know of cops who would do that, who have done it. We know police corruption exists, and shame to those whose deeds lend credence to movies like this. But we also know American Gangster, despite its claim to “truthiness,” is not representative of American police culture.

Recently, I wrote a column about a book titled The Calling, a realistic portrayal of the first five years of an ordinary police officer’s professional life [Read the column]. When I interviewed the author, Dan Marcou, a retired lieutenant from the La Crosse (Wisc.) P.D., he made this observation:

“Most modern police stories on TV or in the movies show cops to be incredibly corrupt or tolerant of corruption. Moviemakers portray police as violent, uncaring alcoholics, who have no family but ex-wives and estranged children. Hollywood cops drink too much, all alone in a dingy apartment. All they have is an over-investment in law enforcement.”

American Gangster hadn’t been released yet when he said that, but he knew the territory.

We’re all painfully familiar with the increasing difficulty recruiters have in finding quality men and women who want to pin on a badge these days. What kind of prospects will be impressed by this movie and want to apply? How many civilians after seeing this depiction will emerge reassured about their own police?

American Gangster grossed $46.3 million in more than 3,000 theaters its first weekend, the second biggest R-rated motion picture opening in history for a movie that’s more than 2 1/2-hours long. They’re talking sequel. Oscar buzz is in the air.

About the author

Charles Remsberg co-founded the original Street Survival Seminar and the Street Survival Newsline, authored three of the best-selling law enforcement training textbooks, and helped produce numerous award-winning training videos. His nearly three decades of work earned him the prestigious O.W. Wilson Award for outstanding contributions to law enforcement and the American Police Hall of Fame Honor Award for distinguished achievement in public service.

Buy Charles Remsberg's latest book, Blood Lessons, which takes you inside more than 20 unforgettable confrontations where officers' lives are on the line.
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