When a 1975 New York Times cover story charged the NYPD with widespread graft and thuggery, we got Al Pacino as Serpico, one lone idealist who exposes the department and lives — just barely — to tell the tale. When the RAMPART report in the ’90s likened the LAPD to a gang with badges, we got Training Day, where rookie Ethan Hawke manages to take out the corrupted veteran Denzel. It’s nice to think that one good cop is all it takes to crack the bad eggs, and Hollywood keeps that hope alive.
But his week’s report from the Department of Justice on the Ferguson Police Department is so visceral, so appallingly detailed, that it’s hard to imagine blockbuster crowds cheering on a gritty but feel-good adaptation starring Michael B. Jordan as the rookie cop who mops up racism in St. Louis County.
Sadly, you can’t montage away the type of top-down cultural sludge on display here.
Still, it’s tempting to imagine a satisfying, if drawn-out, resolution to this noxious tale. The Ferguson police department has spent months under the hot microscope of international scrutiny, their words and actions poked and prodded by everyone from protestors to CNN to the attorney general of the United States. You could imagine the force changing despite itself, worn down not by the moral weight of arguments hurled from behind protest lines, but by the simple fatigue of constant exposure. The bad cops will get embittered and leave, the reformer cops will stay, and we’ll start to see some nice photo-negative Riggs and Murtaugh moments: the crusty old white cop and the hip young black cop bonding over beers and fighting crime shoulder-to-shoulder in post-racial Ferguson.
This requires the prolonged application of heat, and protestors get tired, too. In theory, this is where the Justice Department comes in. But cities like Pittsburgh and New Orleans have had their police departments put under consent decree, only to see them slip back into the same predatory practices once the feds left town.
Locally applied pressure doesn’t always stick, either. Both Darren Wilson and and Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland cop who shot and killed Tamir Rice, had been fired from police departments in neighboring towns for charges of corruption, brutality and discrimination, but within a year both were back in uniform in another town just down the road.
As much as we’d like to believe it, the past indicates rehabilitation is out of reach for a department like Ferguson’s, whether you’re reaching for it with a carrot or with a stick.
There is one plot line that could work here. The entire Ferguson Police department has to be disbanded and rebuilt from the ground up. This isn’t unprecedented; several departments in the St. Louis area have been disbanded in the past three years for charges less egregious than those in the DOJ report. The cost of finding and hiring new, more qualified officers is certainly no more expensive to taxpayers than settlements and charges paid for by the same angry citizens who brought them.
This will not be accomplished easily or quickly, because that’s how reform works in a country where every state, county, city and town can can make up its own rules for policing and civilian fines. In some cities, collective bargaining agreements make it easy to fire dirty cops. In others, it’s nearly impossible. In some cities, the chief of police is an elected position, putting reform within reach of the ballot box. In others, chiefs are appointed — and protected — by the mayor. In other words, reform in America is often a piecemeal slog, with thousands of individual sets of dusty statutes and arcane policies to sift through and rework. Even if someone managed to muster the political will to crack open the books in the thousands of other Fergusons out there, the ones Holder will never step foot in, it would be years, even decades before true change was felt.
Doesn’t make for a sexy Hollywood ending, but it’s the one that will finally bring justice to the people of Ferguson.
This article originally appeared online at NPR Code Switch.