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How do I write fairly about a documentary about police officers? It’s harder than it seems. Police officers have become polarizing figures in our culture and writing about them inevitably leads to arguments on all sides. If I don’t write critically of police officers I will be accused of ignoring the terrible traumas that police officers have inflicted upon the innocent and guilty alike. If I write negatively of police officers I am accused of not understanding the difficulty of their job and having some leftist political agenda.
So, how do I write about the new documentary Fallen and serve both the masters of being truthful and being respectful. Just by saying there are two sides to this I’m already in trouble with one side or the other so maybe whatever I write here doesn’t matter. Those of you who believe the police are corrupt bullies and those of you who believe police are being persecuted likely stopped reading this to argue after the first paragraph.
That’s a shame because the new documentary Fallen is one of those that deserves to be seen by anyone with a beating heart and not just those for whom it fulfills a side of an argument. Narrated by Michael Chiklis, Fallen takes us to the homes and families of police officers who were killed in the line of duty. The documentary aims to humanize the loss of a life, not just the death of a police officer, and it is a powerful and moving message about grief and loss.
Directed by former LAPD officer Thomas Marchese, Fallen tells five specific stories, including Thomas’s own brush with death which enters the narrative just as the film is being made. Fallen contains some very disturbing footage of actual encounters where police officers are shot or otherwise assaulted and had their lives threatened or taken. The footage is shocking for its visceral, Faces of Death level violence and its complete, uncompromising reality.
The shock footage thankfully is only a portion of Fallen, though a necessary one. The bulk of the film takes us to the hometowns of officers who’ve been killed to talk about the human and specific impact of these people’s deaths, from a pair of police officers murdered in a coffee shop while doing paperwork to the stunning story of a motorcycle cop who simply stopped to aid what he thought was a broken down motorist and wound up being shot and killed.
The motorist, it turns out, was a disturbed man who’d been taking shots at passing cars from his vehicle while he was contemplating taking his own life. There is no word on how many vehicles the shooter hit before the officer arrived but the film indicates strongly that the officer did not know what he was getting himself into when he approached that vehicle. That too is an important aspect of Fallen, the attempt to explain the mindset of continual trauma that police officers must cope with throughout their job.
It approaches cliché but it’s true that you most often meet a police officer at the worst moments in life. Most often it might just be a mistake of driving too fast or not having updated your license plate but a lot of the time it’s because something tragic has happened and they’re the ones who must respond to that and try to process it professionally and contextualize the situation emotionally so that they can follow procedures that often don’t jibe with the needs of a real life situation.
That complexity of emotion, that extraordinary level of responsibility in our society left to bare on the shoulders of otherwise normal people is something we neglect when we think about police officers. Our tendency, quite fairly, is to focus on our dealings with the police and more often than not those are not positive interactions. Police officers have become villains and boogeymen in peoples lives and in making them villains in our minds we deny them their humanity.
Fallen asks that you try to bring a little of that consideration of their humanity back to your perception. Fallen doesn’t ask you to trust all police officers or excuse the ones who’ve done terrible things, the film simply attempts to restore the humanity that exists behind the badge and behind our personal impressions of police officers that we’ve built from having to pay speeding tickets or insurance tickets or the myriad of other ways a police officer becomes a villain in our lives.
That doesn’t even begin to approach the racial aspect of police perception. Black people have a fair perception of police officers that cannot be undone simply because not all police officers are bad. Of course, not all police officers are bad but many have been and more often than not those bad officers have been horrible to people simply because they are black. Fallen doesn’t ask forgiveness for those bad officers but instead just asks for a modicum of understanding for officers who’ve died in the same way you might offer sympathy for anyone who’s died.
Empathy for someone who dies is among the most incredible things we can offer another human being. Fallen is a movie that just asks for empathy for those who’ve lost someone they love who happens to also be a police officer. It’s simple and humane to comfort those who’ve lost someone and asking that we put aside our perceptions for a moment to just offer sympathy isn’t a bad thing and it’s all that the makers of Fallen are asking of the audience and that makes it powerful.