It is easy to see what drew documentary filmmaker Deirdre Fishel to the Minneapolis police as a subject. At the time Women in Blue starts chronicling their story, the first female police chief, Janée Harteau, has been sworn in and has made it a point to promote women to positions of leadership. Women, Harteau points out, now occupy a position in every level of the department.
Following the shooting death of Jamar Clark in 2015 by Minneapolis it becomes apparent that something needs to be done. Protesters occupied the local precinct following the Jamar Clark shooting for 18 days; an even that helped Harteau understand the need to detoxify the police beyond her own experience of fighting back against a workplace hostile to women.
What’s incredibly frustrating about this story is that while it’s focussing on the story of Harteau, along with four other female police officers at various ranks in the organization and the misogyny they face, the story of the institutional racism within the police force is playing out in the background seemingly unobserved. Harteau says that the policing needs an update for the 21st century, but she also ended that 18-day protest at 4 am with 10 minutes notice and arrested anyone who didn’t vacate.
There’s no denying that women in policing have it tough, or that there is a culture of toxic masculinity within policing. Each of the four women profiled face macro- and microaggressions on a daily basis and each of them has at least one heartbreaking scene where they tell us how they have had to change themselves to fit into a force that doesn’t want them, all the while speaking about how hard it is to make changes around them.
I say four women because Harteau disappears from the film almost immediately, forced to resign following the death of Justine Diamond, a white woman who was shot by police after phoning 9-1-1 to report a possible assault in the alley behind her home.
It’s here where the frustrating divide in the film begins. Harteau was forced to resign within a week of the Diamond shooting, which occurred more than 18 months after the death of Clark, an unarmed 24-year-old black man. While it technically occurred in the next jurisdiction over the film doesn’t even mention Philando Castille, shot by police in St. Paul, the other half of the twin cities.
Sergeant Alice White has the most gut-wrenching of the stories as a newly promoted African American woman, tasked with leading a group of white men in their daily routines. In one scene with her daughter, White confesses that she doesn’t tell people she’s a police officer, only that she works for the city. In another where she is giving a briefing to her cohort of patrol officers, White laughs along as they talk about a local library and it’s “stench of liberalism” being the common thread in a series of crimes. One of them even stops, mid-sentence, as she enters the briefing room, obviously in the middle of a story that he doesn’t want us to hear, but she insists that the only way to get along is to let them know that she’s cool.
When she’s asked about the shooting of Jamar Clark, White mentions that it was the first time she needed to choose between her colours, black and blue, but then the film doesn’t take any time to explore what she chose or why, and never picks up the thread again.
Each of their stories plays out as the more significant story happens in the background. Rookie office Erin Grabosky has a hard time as a new cop; she tells us how hard it has been to adjust to being in a man’s world while at the same time shows her interacting with a black man who was “causing a disturbance” or restraining a black woman who is obviously distraught.
Grabosky ends up with a reprimand for the number of times that she uses force, she claims because she reports when she uses her mace and her colleagues do not, but the film never explores the fact that use of force is probably dramatically underreported. When a local mayoral candidate speaks about disarming the police Grabosky is frank about the fact that she won’t be a cop if she can’t carry a gun.
Women in Blue is well-intentioned in its bid to explore how the rot within the police force might be healed by female voices. Still, the film never seems to realise that the problem isn’t so much the bad apples as it is the barrel.
In both the case of Jamar Clark and Justine Diamond, the families of the victims settled with the police. Jamar Clark’s family received $200,000. Justine DIamond’s family received $20 MIllion. If that’s not a perfect metaphor for what needs to change, I don’t know what is.