TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The intersection of gender, race and violence in policing is the subject of the new documentary "Women In Blue," directed by Deirdre Fishel. Her focus is the Minneapolis Police Department. When Fishel started shooting the film in 2017, she had no idea that three years later, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, while handcuffed face down on the ground with an officer's knee on Floyd's neck, would put the Minneapolis Police Department at the center of protests around the world and lead to widespread calls to defund the police.
The film ends with Floyd's killing, but most of the film focuses on four women in the department who are each committed to changing the culture of policing in the Minneapolis police force. One of those four women, Sergeant Alice White, is joining us, along with director Deirdre Fishel. White grew up in Minneapolis and joined the department in 2004. She served on street patrol and, in 2018, became one of only six Black women on the force to hold the rank of sergeant. "Women In Blue" premieres tonight on the PBS series Independent Lens and will stream on pbs.org.
Let's start with a clip from the film, of Alice White talking in 2018, after the police body cam footage was released showing a foot chase of two white cops pursuing Thurman Blevins, a Black man, after a call saying Blevins was shooting a gun in the air and acting drunk. The officers fired multiple shots, killing Blevins. No charges were filed against the officers because the investigation indicated Blevins did have a loaded gun. The shooting and the lack of criminal charges led to protests in Minneapolis. Here's Sergeant White.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WOMEN IN BLUE")
ALICE WHITE: I always wonder if that was a white guy, would they have been shot? I always wonder that. And it's not just because of police; it's because of this country and what it's been founded upon.
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WHITE: I don't know. I don't know. Like, I might have responded that way because it was a gun involved. I didn't watch the video. I really try to stay as neutral as I can because I think I have a propensity to sway towards the people who look like me, and I don't want that to overshadow my ability to do my job, professionally and legally. So I really just - I go to work, and I do what I'm doing for that day, and I go home, and I'm a mom. So that's how I survive.
GROSS: Sergeant Alice White, Deirdre Fishel - welcome, both of you, to FRESH AIR. It's really a terrific film. Sergeant White, I'd like you to elaborate on that conflict that you were talking about. In the clip, you talk about how you don't watch videos of police shootings because you want to stay neutral, and you don't want to be swayed by people who look like you. And on one hand, you know, Black people look like you; on the other hand, police officers look like you in the sense that, for a lot of people, I think when they see a police officer, what they see is the uniform. They don't see the person; they see the uniform. So can you elaborate on how you think you're perceived by people in your community when you're patrolling?
WHITE: Absolutely. Thank you for having me on. I appreciate it. Obviously, these conversations, I feel like, need to be had. That's why I've allowed myself to be a part of this. In response to your question, it's a juggling act, I would say. How can I understand what law enforcement response is to a situation but then also be sensitive and empathetic to the people who look like me - meaning Black people? When I said that, I meant Black people. It's a challenge, and it can be hard. And sometimes it can be difficult to even want to put myself in this predicament.
GROSS: So I know you didn't watch the video, the body cam video of the police killing of Blevins. Did you watch the George Floyd video? And how did you decide about whether to do that? Because it seems like people around the globe had watched that. And it was such - I mean, it's excruciating to watch. So what did you do?
WHITE: I will forever remember the day I walked into the precinct and one officer - I said, well, good morning. And he's like, good morning. And I was like, how's your day? And he said, better than someone else's; I didn't kill anyone today. And I kind of just stood there because I didn't know what he was talking about. And I said, what are you talking about? And he said, you didn't hear what happened? And I said, no. And he went on to tell me what happened at 38th and Chicago with George Floyd and the Minneapolis Police Department.
And my office isn't far from the door. And I think two other officers approached me. They were very upset about the incident. And I still hadn't known what they were talking about. And they said, you know, you should probably go watch it. So I walked back to my office. And I usually show up an hour early for work, so I had some time before doing roll call. And I sat down at my desk, and I watched the video. And I cried uncontrollably. And I've never done that at work in 17 years.
And I thought I was being discreet, but one of my coworkers who were in the next office over, he came over, and he said, are you watching the video? And I couldn't even get a word out. I just said - I just nodded my head. And as you would think, officers aren't typically touchy-feely, huggy-type people. And he just came over and hugged me and rubbed my back, while I cried uncontrollably.
Watching the video, there was no excuse to be made. It was there in plain sight. There was no way to avoid it. The overwhelming amount of sadness that filled me is undescribable. I've never felt like that. There's been situations that I haven't agreed with or haven't been comfortable with, but just that blatant, in-my-face situation - it was hard. It was one of the hardest things, actually, I've dealt with being in law enforcement. And immediately, I felt like, why am I doing this? How can I be a part of this?
GROSS: Why are you still a cop? Is that what you were asking yourself?
WHITE: Why am I working for this department? I felt like a traitor. I felt like I was betraying my people because I am a part of this agency. That's how I felt that day.
GROSS: But you stayed. Why did you decide to stay?
WHITE: I stayed because I have a super strong familial support system, and my family supported me. And after talking to my family and them reassuring me that I'm here in this department for a reason and all the reasons that I became a police officer are still valid and, no matter what, they stand behind me, and that incident doesn't represent me - and if I leave, who's going to replace me on the goals that I've set forth for my whole foundation of being a police officer? And then I talked to the community. And they embraced me so tight. There was so much love. And so I stayed.
GROSS: Do you feel like anything changed within the Minneapolis police department after that?
WHITE: You know, honestly, I can't speak for the Minneapolis police department. I can only speak for me. And I can say I changed. I changed in being more intentional with making sure that issues that I have a concern about aren't just, oh, this is just social interaction, or this is outside of law enforcement. No, I'm more intentional about making sure that macro and microaggressions that may occur are called out. I'm more intentional about making sure my stance on racial issues is known. And I'm more intentional about educating younger officers when I see them maybe going in a direction that I might not agree with.
GROSS: Were other officers willing to speak out against this killing? Or was there pressure to close ranks and not say anything?
WHITE: They were very vocal. The officers were very, very vocal, which - you know, I understand completely Black people's hesitance with law enforcement just because of the history of law enforcement in this country. But from my experience, at least on my department, when an officer is wrong, the other officers will say they were deadass wrong. From what I've experienced, they're not going to uphold a situation that had any questionable behavior. So from the officers I spoke to, most officers thought it was bad.
GROSS: Deirdre Fishel, let me bring you into this conversation. You directed the film "Women In Blue." Why did you make this movie? And what was your initial goal in making it?
DEIRDRE FISHEL: Well, ironically - or tragically, I should say, my impetus for making the film was the choking death of Eric Garner in 2014 by the NYPD. And I was filming a couple of blocks away. And I was just so outraged. It seemed so senseless. He was selling loose cigarettes. They were just trying to get him to move. And I turned to the only police officer I happened to know, who was a woman, a lieutenant at the time. And I asked her if it could have happened on her watch. And she said it couldn't have, that this - that the rookie had kind of escalated the situation quickly out of control. And she would have just been like, hey, my name is Sally (ph). What's yours? I got a call. You got to move.
And it was the tone. It was the, hi. My name is Sally Norris (ph). It was just so kind of human and basic, not, you know - it wasn't instigating. And I just started to think, do women police differently? And when I found data going back to the 1990s - actually, after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles - there was a commission set up called the Christopher Commission to investigate what was happening in the LAPD and how to make the police department more effective and humane. And they came out with a lot of things about women, that they rely less on physical force, that they possess more effective communication skills and that they're better at diffusing potentially violent confrontations before they turn deadly.
And they recommended that there should be 43% women in police departments. And there was kind of a movement in the '90s to get more women on that was also supported by the attorney general at the time, Janet Reno. But when 9/11 happened and it kind of moved towards militarization, it was sort of halted. And I just thought, given the pervasiveness of police violence - and this is back when I started, was really kind of researching and starting the film in 2016 - I just felt like I really wanted to explore this question of what could women potentially bring to police departments.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, I have two guests. Deirdre Fishel directed the new documentary "Women In Blue." It follows four women officers in the Minneapolis police department from 2017 to the killing of George Floyd last May. Sergeant Alice White is one of those four officers. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with documentary filmmaker Deirdre Fishel and Police Sergeant Alice White. Fishel directed the new documentary "Women In Blue." It follows four women in the Minneapolis police department, including Sergeant White. Fishel shot the film from 2017 until 2020 and the killing of George Floyd. Alice White served on street patrol and is one of the few Black women on the force to have risen to the rank of sergeant. "Women In Blue" premieres tonight on the PBS series "Independent Lens" and will stream on PBS.org.
Sergeant White, you say in the documentary that you grew up in the '90s and, you know, in Minneapolis, where you are an officer. And when you were growing up, it was the period where the motto was F the police. And, you know, there was the NWA rap that had come out in the late '80s titled that (laughter). So can you talk a little bit about what policing looked like to you in your neighborhood when you were growing up?
WHITE: When I was growing up, policing - the demographic of the Minneapolis police department was - and as a child, you know, all adults look old. But it was older white men on the police department. The behavior of the police department was very rarely something positive until my second cousin joined the police department. He joined the Minneapolis police department. And a friend of mine was at my house. And he was doing something felonious. And my aunt actually had to call the cops. She had to call the police. And my cousin came. And, actually, one of the now deputy chiefs came with him as his partner.
And the way they treated him was different than I had ever seen. And I attributed that to him being my family. And now looking back, it may have just been his policing style was to treat people different than I had ever seen, which was with respect and dignity even though he was committing a crime, my friend. And at that moment - I mean, since I was 5 years old, I always wanted to be a police officer. And at that moment, I knew that this is what I would do.
GROSS: You know, Deirdre Fishel was saying she wanted to see if it was true that women policed differently than men. Do you feel that they do based on your own behavior and your experiences watching other women officers?
WHITE: Yes. And let me follow that up with, I'm not saying that all men police aggressively or in a manner that is unprofessional and bad. But I am going to say women typically aren't policing in a manner that causes them to use their muscle, their physical muscle. They're policing in a manner that they use their brain muscle because a lot of the time, we're encountering someone who could outweigh us, outfight us. But you're thinking of different tactics, a different way to approach a situation. And that's, typically, with your mental power. So yes, I do agree that women tend to - not to stereotype, but tend to police differently than men.
GROSS: Can you give an example of a time when somebody who was physically stronger than you or had a weapon and you knew you were unlikely to, like, physically overpower them and you tried something else and it was successful?
WHITE: Yeah. There's a lot of times like that. This one incident that really stands out in my brain was probably - I was a five-year officer. And there was an apartment complex on the south side that we responded to quite frequently for domestic violence calls or weapons calls and - or unwanted people calls. And this particular call was all of that. It was a weapon. It was a domestic. It was an unwanted person. And officers had already arrived on scene. I remember this was - this is how dated it is. There was yellow - those big, gigantic yellow phone books that we all used to use.
GROSS: Oh, yes.
WHITE: Yeah. They were holding the door open so other officers arriving could get into the secure building. And I stepped over the phone books. And all I could hear was yelling, yelling back and forth between the officers that were on scene and this male who had a knife and wasn't leaving the apartment complex, who's kind of standing at the top of the stairs. And the officers are standing at the bottom. And it could have went really bad. And instinctively, I just was like, everyone, calm down. I was like, we need to lower the tone. We need to relax a little bit. And everyone kind of calmed down. The officers calmed down. The guy with the knife calmed down. He dropped the knife. He came down the stairs. He put his hands behind his back. We were able to cuff him without incident when that could have went bad because everyone was so escalated, nobody could hear each other.
So that's how I kind of envision women, at least the women I've supervised and the woman I am, working. I have the capability - and I'm not saying men can't do it. But this is more so what I've witnessed women do, is to come into a situation and calm it down. And I also think - and I might sound really sexist. But men sometimes will listen to a woman telling him to calm down quicker than he will another man because there's no ego challenge there.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Alice White, a sergeant in the Minneapolis Police Department, and Deirdre Fishel, whose new documentary, "Women In Blue," follows White and three other women officers in the department. Fishel shot the documentary from 2017 until the killing of George Floyd last year. The documentary premieres tonight on the PBS series "Independent Lens" and will stream on PBS.org. We'll talk more after a break. And book critic Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel by Vendela Vida that Maureen says is extraordinary. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Deirdre Fishel. Her new documentary, "Women In Blue," is about the intersection of gender, race and violence in policing focusing on four women in the Minneapolis Police Department, including Sergeant Alice White, who is also with us. In "Women In Blue," Fishel examines what women at different levels of authority in the department are up against in a male-dominated field and considers whether it's true that women are better at de-escalating violence and restraining from using physical force. Sergeant White grew up in Minneapolis, joined the force in 2004 and moved up the ranks. The film "Women In Blue" premieres tonight on the PBS series Independent Lens and will stream on pbs.org.
Sergeant White, can you describe the precinct that you work in, the neighborhoods that are in the precinct?
WHITE: So Minneapolis, I believe, is, I would say, 12 to 14% Black. It's a very low number. And the north side, where I work - north Minneapolis is probably between 60 and 80% Black. So the majority of the African American community lives on the north side, where I patrol, where I supervise the middle watch officers. It's a poor community. I think that Minneapolis has some of the highest racial disparities for Black people in the nation. And a while ago, I read in a magazine that Minneapolis is No. 1 to raise a family if you are white and the worst place to raise a family if you are Black. Minneapolis has the highest violent crime in the state on the north side of Minneapolis.
GROSS: You were a trainer in the procedural justice unit for a while. What is procedural justice, and what was your training like? What were you trying to teach fellow officers?
WHITE: So the foundation of procedural justice is voice, neutrality, respect, trustworthiness. So voice - teaching officers that even though this call is repetitious and you've been to 10 domestic violent calls tonight, take a minute, and let this person talk to you and explain their situation to you. Give them a voice.
Respond neutrally - so even though you've been to 10 domestic calls tonight, being neutral in your decision-making based on this incident that you're on right now.
Respect - you might not respect this violent person who you're encountering right now. But I always said, treat everyone professionally, and it's going to appear as if you are respecting that person. It's hard in law enforcement to show respect for someone who you know is a violent person who just beat up their wife and, you know, attempted to kill her, but you can be professional.
GROSS: What does it mean to be professional when you show up, say, for a domestic violence call and you see that the wife or partner has been beaten up and you have to deal with her, talk down the man who might even be armed? What does it mean to show respect while trying to de-escalate the crisis and deal appropriately - for instance, handcuffing him if necessary, taking him to the precinct if necessary?
WHITE: There's a way. I've arrested people in my life - when I get down to jail, they're thanking me. And they are not thanking me because I put them in handcuffs and took them to jail. They were thanking me because I treated them humanely. And as a human, I think we all know what that means. If you have to use force on someone, you use the amount of force that's necessary for the situation, and then you stop.
You don't have to talk to someone disrespectfully. Sometimes their humility is the last thing that this person has. And if you take that from them, you're backing them into a corner. And you're not giving them an opportunity to comply with what you need them to comply with - so treating people humanely and obviously responding to a situation the way you have to in a law enforcement matter but stopping when you can and then going back to being professional so you're not taking it personally, you're not responding emotionally.
GROSS: There's an incident you describe in the documentary "Women In Blue" in which you show up and there's someone in the car pulled over on the side who has no driver's license. And I want you to describe the scene and how you handled it.
WHITE: Yeah. So police officers have a lot of discretion, discretion meaning I get to dictate what happens in a situation as long as I'm not violating the law. So I can decide whether or not I'm going to give someone a traffic ticket or if I'm going to tow their car. And growing up poor, I think I have a better understanding how, if I towed this person's car, that could set them up for, you know, a catastrophic situation financially that they might not ever be able to get out of. It's expensive to get your car out of the impound lot. And let's just say they don't have proof of insurance. They'll never get their car out of the impound lot, which means they'll never get their driver's license valid. And it just can set them up for, you know, a domino effect.
So I stopped that gentleman because he was driving in a manner that alerted me to him, and he knew everything that was going on within his vehicle that I didn't know. And when I walked up, he was scared, and I noticed it. And so I called it out like, why not say something? Why not tell him? I see you shaking. You seem nervous. Legally, I cannot arrest you for driving without a valid driver's license. People like to know what's going to happen to them. You go to the dentist. Before they start drilling on your teeth, you'd like them to tell you, like, we're going to drill your teeth. You don't want them to just immediately start drilling. It calms you down. It makes you feel more relaxed. So any time I can make someone feel more relaxed, I'm going to.
FISHEL: But if I can jump in here, Terry - and the question is, what is going to create public safety? What is going to protect us? And I think that the enforcement of laws doesn't always protect us, and it actually often really hurts people who really can't afford that ticket. And then they don't pay it, and then they get a warrant. And that's the whole way that our criminal justice system, you know, punishes people for being poor. But I think the thing is that officers do have discretion. And I think that's why who we - who goes into policing really does matter, right? Who is that person, and how do they view - are they concerned? And I just think, you know, I think you can hear that, you know, for Sergeant White. She's thinking a lot about who is this person, and, you know, they're terrified of a police officer, and I don't want to cause them more trauma. That's a very particular set of feelings to come in with. And I truly believe that we need a lot more people in public safety who are really thinking about public safety and not just about enforcing laws, and, like, you do what I say, you know? And I know people have a lot of anger towards the police, but what would it be like if we had a lot of people who were really concerned and cared about protecting communities?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, I have two guests - Alice White, a sergeant in the Minneapolis Police Department, and Deirdre Fishel, whose documentary "Women In Blue" follows White and three other women officers in the department from 2017 until the killing of George Floyd last year. The documentary premieres tonight on the PBS series Independent Lens and will stream on PBS.org. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with documentary filmmaker Deirdre Fishel and Police Sergeant Alice White. Fishel's new documentary, "Women In Blue," focuses on four women in the Minneapolis police department, including Sergeant White, from 2017 to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Sergeant White grew up in Minneapolis and still lives there. She joined the force in 2004.
Deirdre, one of the questions you raise in the movie is, you know, what do police departments need to do to recruit more women so that women are better represented in American police departments. And what are some of your thoughts about that, about what police departments can do to recruit more women and to have police departments in which women would feel more comfortable working?
FISHEL: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. Well, I mean, first of all, the entry requirements, they're still very discriminatory towards women. So they really emphasize, like, upper body strength or speed. I was going to follow a woman, a young Black woman from north Minneapolis and at the beginning of filming, and she couldn't pass this mile and a half. She could run a mile and a half, but she couldn't do it fast enough. And she wound up not getting on the police force. So here was a police force with - desperately needed more Black women. And she was from the community. And her father was a police officer in the MPD and couldn't run this test.
So I think right away, you know, what do we want police officers to do? So are we focusing on testing communication skills, on empathy? Like, all sorts of things that as a country we're saying that we want police officers to have. So if we really want women - and the number's not moved in 30 years, it's 12%. And I think that that would take a lot of thinking about. And it would have to be very, very intentional.
But I had - there's a woman who's been thinking about these issues for 30 years, and she called me last - you know, couple of weeks ago. And she said, Deirdre, the only way that you're going to get more women into policing is to get to decision-makers and get people who do policy, you know, mayors and city councils and legislators and think about all of these issues about how could you get more and how could you retain them and how could you help them rise to the ranks because it just hasn't happened in, you know, many, many years.
GROSS: Sergeant White, what are your thoughts on recruiting more women?
WHITE: I've been a part of a couple recruitment initiatives. And I was on the recruitment team since day one with the Minneapolis Police Department. And I agree with Deirdre. There should be more women on the police department. It's been a challenge to get women, especially Black women, interested in law enforcement - or any minority woman.
A lot of the time, it's not the fear of being able to make the cut on the testing or the requirements to become a law enforcement officer. It's the lack of support from their family and their friends and their community because this career is very highly stigmatized. And the women in people's family are of great value, obviously. I mean, women tend to hold families together. And a lot of families have a problem with women moving into to law enforcement. It's always been a challenge to get women interested in law enforcement.
GROSS: What are the reasons why families often don't want women to go into law enforcement? Is it fear of them being in danger or is it because they don't like the police or both?
WHITE: For me, I can speak for myself, for my family. My brother, he was totally against me becoming a police officer. He was very clear and vocal about it. He didn't want me to be a part of law enforcement because of the systemic racism, because of the suppression of Black people in the United States. He didn't want me to have anything to do with law enforcement. This isn't the career choice that he wanted to see for me. And then there's my aunt who raised me. She's like my mom. She's like, you have children. Is this safe for you to do? Should you be moving into a career that you might not come home from?
So I think it's both. I think it's a combination of both. And then the totality of it is your family doesn't want to see you hurt. They don't want to see you stigmatized. They don't want to see you go through life and be worried or possibly hurt or injured. They'd rather see you working a secretary job where it's safe inside of a corporate building, you know? So yeah, I think it's probably a combination, at least for me it was.
GROSS: The killing of George Floyd in the hands of Minneapolis police, and you're a sergeant in the Minneapolis police force. That led to cries of defund the police. What does defund the police mean to you? And what is your reaction to that as a concept or just to the language of that as a slogan?
WHITE: So I work for the community. I work for the citizens of Minneapolis. And the citizens of Minneapolis, from the side of town I work on, have not been screaming defund the police. That's not their mantra, and that's not what they want. I think that's some other people who are screaming that, and it's not necessarily the people that I'm serving. So that's the first thing. And I never really understood what that definition meant. To me, defunding something means to take the money away that would pay for police service. But the people that I serve have been thanking me and saying, we don't want you to go away. We know we need you in this community. We want you in this community. And who do I need to tell that to? Because if you're not here, it's anarchy for us.
GROSS: Deirdre, after making the documentary "Women In Blue," about women in policing, about women in the police department in Minneapolis, did the process of making the film change your mind about anything regarding police officers or, you know, the way we police in general in America? Did it give you insights that you hadn't had before?
FISHEL: I certainly think that the, you know, murder of George Floyd made me realize or feel that incremental change reform, you know, doesn't work. And I don't necessarily mean that we need a dismantling of a police department, but I think we need major changes. There just - there's so many things, from the power of the union to why are we, you know, getting people for lower-level offenses and is that making people safe? And so there's no question in my mind that women are not the only solution.
But I think after sort of being so devastated after George Floyd and thinking, like, why did I make this film and what does it even matter, I do think now that as a society, as we're thinking about what - how do we reimagine public safety or how do we reimagine policing so that we have - that we really protect people and we have stronger connections with the community? I do believe, like, OK, yeah, I still actually really believe that women could make a difference, but not without some other major systemic changes.
GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.
FISHEL: Thank you, Terry.
WHITE: Thank you.
GROSS: Deirdre Fishel directed the new documentary "Women In Blue," focusing on four women in the Minneapolis Police Department, including Sergeant Alice White. The film premieres tonight on the PBS series Independent Lens and will stream on pbs.org.
Our book critic Maureen Corrigan just read a new novel that she describes as extraordinary. She'll tell us all about it after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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