Every now and then an unjustly overlooked film will resurface and garner the praise it deserves. Last week it was the Denison, Texas Police Department’s 2014 recruitment video that belatedly caught the attention of national audiences. Though Radley Balko had featured it in the Washington Post shortly after its initial release, Denison Police Recruitment remained a box-office sleeper until an enthusiastic YouTube viewer created a petition urging Denison’s police chief and mayor to take their film to Sundance. Oh wait, no—the petition in fact urges them to delete the video and “recruit guardians instead of warriors.” OK, that’s harsh criticism. Almost two-star-Fandango-review harsh.
Times are tough for creators of police recruitment videos; they face increasingly stiff competition from low-budget indie documentaries like California Cops Punching Unarmed Woman For Seatbelt Violation, and Cop Shoots Unarmed Man In the Back, and the surprise summer blockbuster Officer Pulls Gun On Teens at Pool Party (featuring breakout star Eric Casebolt, the former McKinney, Texas Police Corporal who does all his own stunts).
So it’s nice to see official police recruitment videos finally generating some buzz. They’re an under appreciated genre: what they lack in broad audience appeal, they make up for with their charmingly strict adherence to formulae. Here’s a quick critical tour, starting with:
The Denison flick
All the classic elements are here: The soundtrack, reminiscent of a higher-quality video game or a regionally popular grunge metal band. Sirens. Darkness. Static-filled radio dispatcher messages. Strobe lighting. Car chases. Foot pursuits. Crime scene photography. A drug bust that’s blocked like West Side Story, but with armed bicycle cops. The obligatory police dog, because everyone loves dogs. And weapons. So many weapons.
The stock themes are handled expertly, and further developed by the addition of a dramatic secondary plot about a police sniper on a rooftop preparing to shoot some poor, white hostage-taker through a plate glass window (sadly, the production budget wasn’t big enough to show the shooting). The film’s creators also strike a nice literary note by framing their work with inspirational quotes from Edmund Burke and George Orwell—both of which, unfortunately, are apocryphal.
But this minor slip is easily overlooked, so adroitly does the Denison Police Department wield its arsenal of filmmaking tools: Fog. Shooting. Yelling. More shooting. Pointing. Handcuffs. A blonde police lady using a computer in a car (more compelling than it sounds). A lights-flashing highway motorcade at dusk that seems to be just aimlessly driving around.
For the target audience—people who want to be cops and are willing to live in Denison, Texas—this film hits all the right notes. It’s a solid effort and a model of the genre. Though the production team in Denison might want to brush up on their Orwell a bit. I’m pretty sure he was anti-fascist.
Rating: Four flashing sirens
Cons: All the “suspects” appear to be white. REVERSE DISCRIMINATION.
Pros: They are careful to let us know that there is at least one black police officer in Denison, Texas.
Good as it is, Denison Police Recruitment is hardly the most impressive offering in the cop recruitment film category. Consider this 2012 effort from the...
Portsmouth, Virginia Police Department
You may already be familiar with this one; it was featured in the Guardian after a Portsmouth cop shot an unarmed 18-year-old at a Wal-Mart last May. Film aficionados, however, will remember Portsmouth Police Department Recruitment Video’s daring use of nonlinear narrative.
It opens with a standard guitar track, a dispatcher voice, a car chase and then a cop running after a suspect (white). But then we jump to an unexpected sequence of Cops At Home, doing normal everyday non-cop stuff like cooking and yard work. (Hey, look, a dog!)
Then we’re in a committee meeting, where a decidedly non-urgent-sounding conversation takes place about two murder suspects holed up in a house. Then, suddenly, there’s a sniper covered in mosquito netting and a bunch of guys in body armor on an armored troop carrier with automatic weapons out the wazoo, busting in windows and doors and arresting the shit out of a (white) suspect who is extremely respectful as he is handcuffed at gunpoint. The dog does some official police dog barking.
But then we jump back to the cop in the car from the very first scene—remember him? It turns out he’s chasing the other (white) murder suspect! Everything in between has been a flashback! Is that innovative or what? Our protagonist finally catches the suspect, pulls his gun and shouts, “Down on your knees!”And after all that, the driving, chasing, shouting, gun-pointing cop returns home to his million-dollar colonial house (it must have at least five bedrooms, implying an impossible amount of overtime) and his little blonde daughter hugs him and says, “Hi Daddy! How was your day?”
“Just an ordinary day,” Daddy replies, smiling complacently.
Then he changes his shoes, puts on a sweater, and takes us on a magic trolley ride to the Land of Make-Believe.
Rating: Three flashing sirens
Cons: The absence of the little girl’s mother is never explained. Did her father kill his wife and frame the two (white) suspects for the crime?
Pros: Innovative narrative form stretches the boundaries of the filmmaker’s art.
Few directors dare to embrace the structural fluidity found in Portsmouth Police Department Recruitment Video, perhaps because cop recruitment videos are directed at viewers whose IQ is under 110. Most do not hesitate to give the audience what they want, like this 2015 release from...
Cape Girardeau, Missouri
DISCIPLINE. PRIDE. TEAMWORK. TRAINING. OPPORTUNITY. RESPECT. LOYALTY. HONOR. DEDICATION. INTEGRITY. Film students, if you worry about how to communicate subtle themes to an audience, do not scorn the technique of spelling them out in big shiny letters that explode in reverse. Just look how impressive that is, especially with the fog. Orson Welles would have done that all the time if he’d had the technology.
In between the shiny words, we see a dog, darkness, flashing lights, cops driving, cops walking, cops doing paperwork, and, of course, weapons. Some other hallmarks of the genre stand out: Gear that won’t kill anyone but is still cool, like infrared scopes and surveillance cameras. Cops shoving a suspect up against a brick wall—this scene is to cop recruitment videos what the Awkward First Kiss scene is to romantic comedies. Close-up shots panning across badges and patches. And kids—cops love kids, or at least they need to be able to act like they do when people are watching. All this action is packed into a brisk 2:12.
Rating: Four flashing sirens
Cons: Isn’t that one cop pointing his rifle at a gas pump?
Pros: This video makes looking at surveillance cameras seem like an awful lot of fun!
A very different aesthetic is explored in...
Vail Police Department Recruitment
Spoiler alert: THIS VIDEO HAS A BEAR. A CRIMINAL BEAR. And there are other surprises. After a standard sirens-and-badges intro we get some gorgeous scenery. Ski lifts. Kayaking. Waterfalls. Then we switch gears to a SWAT team playing follow the leader in a parking lot. Then we see people trying on gas masks (Gas masks in Vail? Wouldn’t that make more sense in Denver?). Note the directors’ intriguing choice to randomly speed up the footage in places. It gives the distinct impression that they persuaded a vacationing Hollywood studio executive to edit this as community service. The vibe is...jittery.
Rating: Three flashing sirens
Cons: Sadly, the whole bear plot line goes unresolved, which is really frustrating and sort of ruined the whole thing for me.
Pros: Skiing, kayaking, and bears. Why any cop works anywhere but Vail is a mystery.
In the “unintentionally revealing” category, we have...
Oakland Housing Authority Police Recruiting Video
First comes the explainer: “The Oakland Housing Authority Police Department Is The Premier Police Presence For The Entire Housing Authority Community It Serves.” Then they show us what they mean by “serve,” with a shot of four officers—two aiming rifles directly AT THE CAMERA—advancing behind a guy with a blast shield. It’s a truly breathtaking vision of “community.”
After this bold aesthetic statement, the video settles into information mode. Oakland Housing Authority cops, we learn, “Require A Diverse Skill Set And Unique Ability To Protect And Serve The Communities They Work [sic].” Those unique abilities appear to include:
Holding a stick
Hitting things with a stick
Holding a gun
Riding a bike
Shaking hands with children
Tailgating civilians’ cars
Dressing up as McGruff the Crime Dog
Holding blast shields
Shooting automatic weapons
Then a spokeslady cop talks about vacation days and the great work environment. She says, “We’re so small, we do everything. We write the search warrant, we do the surveillance.”
The subtext seems to be, “There is no judicial oversight of the Oakland Housing Authority Police.” That’s good to know! Because one common failing of cop recruitment videos is that they don’t address important questions prospective recruits are likely to have, such as “Who am I allowed to rape?” and “What are the opportunities for graft and corruption?”
More skills: Waving. Driving. Driving and waving. Handing out business cards to children who look dubious about your intentions. Standing in front of a patrol car with your arms crossed.
Rating: Four flashing sirens
Cons: Glass buildings, a lake, a boat, palm trees, blah blah blah. We get it. You’re in California. It’s still OAKLAND. Face it, you’re not going to compete with Vail on scenery.
But the film that most fully explores every possible artistic angle of police recruitment has to be UM Police Recruiting Ad, from the...
University of Maryland Police Department
This timeless 2006 triumph opens at a blistering pace: Guitars. Guns. Pointing. Marching. Shin guards. Nightsticks. Shooting. Riot shields. Computer animation of Chairman Mao (I think). “Discipline.” More animation. A teacher lecturing a class. You know what, I just realized this whole segment is basically a shot-by-shot reconstruction of the riot scene from Pink Floyd—The Wall. An homage, almost. Very classy.
“Why be a cop?” asks the narrator. “Because it’s what you want.”
Know that potential University of Maryland cop recruits, despite their proximity, don’t want to be college students; they want to conduct high speed car chases through campus, and shoot things on campus, and dress up in riot gear so they can advance in a line, thrusting their batons in front of them and shouting “BACK! BACK! BACK!” at whoever might need to be told to move back, on campus.
“I’m not scared to get in a fight, I’m not submissive in any way,” says a blonde lady cop, which is great to hear, really—Girl Power!—but kind of an odd attitude for an adult whose job is to protect a bunch of people barely out of their teens. But what do I know? I’m just a civilian.
The training process for campus cops at UM is to “break you down from a civilian and get you in the police officer’s mindset. There will be heroic music playing the whole time that you “jump-start” your career—another common theme in the cop recruitment genre. Unfortunately, the ideal audience for these videos is composed of people who are both (1) very bored in their current situation and (2) very interested in shooting things. So it’s a good thing that all police departments rigorously screen job candidates for psychological issues before hiring them (like psychologist Carole Busick, who has been giving Harris County Sheriff’s Office workers “psychological evaluations” for $100, sight unseen and no ID needed).
“If you can handle the training,” the narrator says, his tone implying that we probably can’t, “if you can handle it all—the gear, and the guns and the cars,” then “the University of Maryland can put you on the front lines of police work.”
The front lines are actually Fraternity Row, but if you add some tear gas and imagine that the rioting basketball fans are Nazi storm troopers, it’s pretty darned dramatic.
Rating: Five flashing sirens
Pros: During the nighttime car chase sequence, at 1:48, you can distinctly hear someone say “One Adam.” I think they honest to God stole footage from an old episode of Adam-12. That’s pretty ballsy.
Cons: This thing is over eight minutes long. It’s good, sure, but it’s not Dr. fucking Zhivago.
Susan Schorn is the author of Smile at Strangers, and Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly; she also writes the column Bitchslap for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.