Behind the Badge With Women in Blue
Dierdre Fishel thought her documentary was complete, but the story of police reform brought her back
Thirty-six hours after Women in Blue – Dierdre Fishel's documentary on women police officers in the Minneapolis Police Department – screened at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival in May, George Floyd was killed by an MPD officer.
For Fishel, Floyd's death threw a truth about police reform into sharp relief: While increased gender equity might help address police violence, there is no substitute for the massive structural change required. "I do think women have something to offer, but it's very clear to me that they are not an answer to the structural changes that need to take place," she explained. "Gender is something I think we should be thinking about as we think about public safety. But the notion that women could have any kind of effect, without major structural change, I don't believe that. I think that this last murder kind of blew it out of the water."
Fishel's verité doc, which screens as part of this weekend's virtual All Genders, Lifestyles, and Identities Film Festival (aGLIFF), takes viewers inside a department then helmed by its first woman (and first openly gay) leader, Chief of Police Janeé Harteau, as she works to promote more women in its ranks. Harteau's tenure wasn't without its controversies, including two fatal officer-involved shootings – the killing of Jamar Clark in 2015, and of Justine Damond two years later. Damond's death ultimately led to Harteau's resignation in July of 2017, just three months after she had granted Fishel sweeping access to MPD for the documentary. "I don't think I realized at the time how incredible that access was," said Fishel. "As soon as she exited, I was just constantly waiting for the call from the current chief [Medaria Arradondo], or from his new [public information officer]." But Fishel continued the doc, shifting its focus after Harteau's departure to four women in MPD's ranks: Officer Erin Grabosky; former MPD Commander of Special Crimes Investigations Melissa Chiodo; Officer Alice White, who at the time led procedural justice trainings; and 3rd Precinct Inspector Catherine Johnson, now the director of the Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation for Hennepin County.
The origin story of Women in Blue can be traced back to 2014: Fishel was working on a film in New York City when, only a few blocks away, Eric Garner was choked to death by an NYPD officer. Disturbed by Garner's violent demise, Fishel called a friend, a woman police officer, and asked her, "Could this have happened on your watch?" Her friend said no, pointing to a de-escalation strategy intended to minimize or eliminate the use of force. "That got me into thinking about, do women police differently? And if they do, is that something to be thinking about since there's such pervasive police violence?"
There are some statistics behind Fishel's initial query; according to research cited in a 2016 article in The Atlantic on the possible benefits of recruiting women police officers, they're less likely to use excessive force, and a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that they're also much less likely to report that they have fired their weapon while on duty compared to male police officers. (The other side of the coin: An Arizona State University study earlier this year found that women police officers' use of force is seen as more justified.) Still, Fishel admits, "I think I was very naive to even think that you could approach policing just from a gender perspective," explaining that the film evolved to instead explore policing at the intersection of gender, race, and violence, but told through the perspective of women.
Now, in the wake of Floyd's death, Fishel calls the film a "work in progress" and is in the process of shooting an update she hopes to have finished by October. "It's like we ended it too early, and now we need a new ending and we need a new beginning." If anything, reframing Women in Blue might bring into sharper focus the futility of incremental reform, despite its subjects' seemingly best efforts to bring about transformative change. "If you start with [Floyd's] murder and go backwards, it's very different than this front kind of aspirational idea that we're going to be able to transform it," said Fishel. "These women are trying, they're on the forefront of reform, and yet this kind of police culture and this sort of aggressive rank and file cop, they weren't able to change it."
Women in Blue will be available beginning Aug. 8 on aGLIFF’s Virtual Festival platform. There’s a live Q&A with director Deirdre Fishel, Catherine “CJ” Johnson, and a local panelist at 1pm Sunday, Aug. 9.
All Genders, Lifestyles, and Identities Film Festival presents aGLIFF 33: Prism streaming festival, Aug. 6-16. Passes $65, or $35 for a single weekend (Aug. 6-12 or 10-16). Tickets and info at www.agliff.org/agliff-33.