Thinking Like a Cop: Charles Burnett's THE GLASS SHIELD

Examining the cycles of silence and collusion that help perpetuate police brutality against people of color.

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Why would anyone want to become a cop?

Is it power? The authority? The gun and the badge? Decades of watching Hollywood glamorize cowboys, soldiers, and law enforcement personnel? Family tradition? Perhaps the genuine desire and opportunity to help people? Or is the motivation rooted in centuries of white supremacy and bigotry, the fact that more often than not you can kill someone and go unpunished as long as your victim has black or brown skin?

During the turbulent time period that has transpired since smartphone footage documented four Minneapolis “peace” officers murdering an innocent Black man named George Floyd on May 25, and while police around the country have continuously and egregiously rioted, inciting violence against American citizens exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest systemic brutality and intolerance, this single question has popped into my head more than any other.

It’s also the central inquiry at the heart of Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994), a blistering anti-neo-noir about institutional racism, corruption, and malignant white privilege that has long spread through a California Sherrif’s department. Operating unchecked for decades, the criminal officers follow a code of silence, making it difficult to uncover their terror polices even when outside investigations pop up. The surrounding political establishment has been mostly compromised as a result, tipping the scales of justice from criminal courtrooms all the way to city hall.

Long recognized as a major independent filmmaker whose work examines the multi-dimensional experiences of modern Black families and communities - Killer of Sheep (1978), My Brother’s Wedding (1983), and To Sleep With Anger (1990) are all brilliant - Burnett makes a surprising foray into genre filmmaking that allows him to overtly recognize social justice issues that are sadly still relevant to this day. Most notably, the rampant racial profiling and suspicious deaths of black prisoners under police supervision (aka murder).

These elements are never presented in flashy, stylistic ways. In stripping the cop film of all its aesthetic glamor, Burnett reveals how susceptible institutionalized white supremacy can be when faced with increased community oversight and awareness, and no macho mythology propping it up. Of course, such a shift threatens the very existence of those who have skirted accountability for so long. Anyone with a conscience must come to grips with fear of reprisal at every turn.

The layers of this rotten onion are slowly peeled back from the perspective of J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), the department’s first-ever Black deputy. We first see him animated, quite literally, in the film’s comic book strip opening scene where he and fellow deputy Deborah Fields (Lori Petty) bravely engage two thugs in a brazen midday shootout. Burnett begins with crime-fighting as pure fantasy, then transitions to the slow, monotonous, soul-crushing grind of actual police work.

But it’s the perfect introduction to a man who arrogantly claims that one day they’ll name the department building after him. Being starry-eyed and naive to the realities at hand, J.J. badly wants to assimilate into the aggressive, gung ho social dynamic created by leadership figures like Watch Commander Clarence Massey (Richard Anderson) and Detective Gene Baker (Michael Ironside).

Despite getting subjugated to casual (and not so casual) harassment almost immediately, J.J. brushes off the unfair treatment as par for the course, something to endure rather than challenge. To him, it’s a masculinity thing, not a race thing. But these notions are too simplistic, as his fellow outcast Deborah (a Jewish woman) knows all too well. J.J. laughs off her warnings, adding in some sexist jokes of his own. Abuse hierarchies can easily be perpetuated even by those who suffer from it.

J.J.’s relationship with his peers gets thornier after partaking in the illegal traffic stop of Teddy Woods (Ice Cube), a young Black man on his way to the movies with his girlfriend. They committed the mortal sin of having an unloaded 9mm Glock under the passenger seat.

Every cop in the precinct, including J.J., is quick to connect the flimsy evidentiary dots between Teddy’s seized gun and a reported failed carjacking that left one White woman dead and her highly suspicious husband (Elliot Gould) as the only witness. At the height of his collusion, J.J. agrees to lie on the courtroom stand backing up the other arresting officer, a worthless scumbag named Bono (Jack Harvey) who admits privately to having no just cause for the arrest.

Interestingly, only when the corruption touches J.J. personally does he begin to have vested interest in stopping it, and the damning protectionism practiced by his fellow deputies. While reviewing Teddy’s arrest report, he notices that the gun’s serial number has been altered using white-out (the 1990s baby!). J.J.’s anger stems mostly from being duped, but then quickly evolves into something resembling activism as the conspiratorial scope becomes more obvious.

While J.J. and Deborah begin their own investigation off the grid, Black community leaders and professionals continue their ongoing quest to expose Massey’s cancerous influence over city council members, judges, and wealthy business owners. Teddy’s resolute attorney, James Lockett (Bernard Casey), and community leader Father Banks (Tommy Redmond Hicks) team up to work every conceivable angle.

But only when J.J.’s inside man begins feeding them intel do they start to gain real leverage over the situation. Still, even with substantial proof, they are questioned incessantly by government representatives. One of the most damning moments comes after Lockett, Banks, and fellow attorney Carmen Munoz (Wanda De Jesus) confront a high ranking city official with clear-cut evidence of Massey and Baker’s crimes. His response? “You could ruin their careers.”

Therein lies the devastating reality The Glass Shield accurately represents when it comes to who is assumed to be innocent and who is automatically perceived as guilty. Like every other Black character except J.J., Teddy understands just how difficult it is to defeat the assumptions of embedded white supremacy. “Well like the song says, my skin is my sin,” he tells Baker and the equally corrupt Detective Jesse Hall (M. Emmett Walsh) during their initial interrogation. The two older white cops, who’ve probably spent their careers using Black people as pawns in their schemes, make no secret of trying to con Teddy into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit. Luckily, he’s wise to the situation and demands an attorney.

Although Teddy is a supporting character, he stands in for the collective of Black communities that have long been dehumanized and terrorized by police around the United States. That the character is played by Ice Cube, whose iconic rap group N.W.A. had released the classic anthem “Fuck the Police” only six years before the film’s release, is not accidental.

This social and cultural context makes J.J.’s deeply flawed character even more fascinating. Considering the backstory Burnett gives us, J.J. has seemingly grown up middle class with a family that’s always offered emotional guidance and financial support. We’re left to wonder if this level of comfort has blinded him to recognize the harsh realities and injustices facing communities of color? Or is Burnett’s indictment more deeply connected to masculinity, specifically the chest-thumping psychological framework society associates with being a cop in the first place?

Either way, The Glass Shield suggests that silence and deception are the single greatest forces perpetuating police violence and white supremacy. Not from the community at large, who in the film appears more than willing to go to war with unjust cops, but from the ranks of other morally conflicted officers within law enforcement itself.

In the film’s final act, J.J. and Deborah survive multiple attempts on their lives by desperate colleagues whose only goal is to silence them. But they are given no fair warning from others who might be on the fence, the supposed “good apples” right-wing pundits like to reference. In one harrowing scene, J.J. and Deborah are set up to enter the back door of a residence during a drug bust while Baker’s goons wait with guns drawn inside. Sensing something is wrong, they announce their presence and get no answer, slowly backing away only to be reprimanded later for leaving their post. But at least they’re alive.

As J.J. and Deborah grow to understand the nefarious lengths their brothers in beige will go to silence them, they become increasingly agile at recognizing threats and gathering evidence. Ultimately, J.J. confesses late in the film that it was the policeman’s mindset, a sense of misguided loyalty to the police fraternity that deluded him into thinking he was doing the right thing. “I was thinking like a cop,” he says to Lockett, trying fruitlessly to explain the rationale for his lies.

Viewing The Glass Shield through this lens in the current moment, wherein police departments all over the country are protecting their own at all costs, acting like brutish gangs by inciting violence and hiding badge numbers to avoid punishment, I keep coming back to one particular line of dialogue. A White deputy named Foster (Linden Chiles) finally breaks ranks and threatens to expose the department. Baker sneers and tells him, “You don’t want to be an outsider.” To this very day, police all over America are expressing that very sentiment to the people they’ve sworn to protect. Their actions have spoken volumes: fall in line, or get your head bashed in. Sounds like Fascism to me.

It takes J.J. the entire film to experience an awakening of perspective and social justice. But his unappreciated, deeply intelligent girlfriend Barbara (Victoria Dillard) has known these truths from the very beginning. In the final scene, she looks him square in the eye and says, “I can see through that badge. It doesn’t hide evilness.”

So to all of those police officers who’ve taunted protesters, knocked down old people, driven their SUVs into crowds, shot rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful demonstrations, hid behind their militarized costumes and equipment, and have helped perpetuate ideologies of white supremacy through their reckless disregard for human life, I say to you, we can see through your badges too.

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Please consider donating to the following organizations who are fighting against police brutality and holding those in power accountable.

And forever remember Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Botham Jean, Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Aiyana Jones, and so many more innocent Black citizens needlessly killed by police.

Black Lives Matter. Defund the police. Register to vote. Stay safe.

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Where to Watch

The Glass Shield is available on Amazon VOD for rental.

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Until next time,

GHJ