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No more good cop, bad cop: Revisiting Serpico and Training Day in the wake of global calls to abolish the police

Classic police corruption dramas Serpico and Training Day are back in cinemas. It's the first time they've been on the big screen since George Floyd's death forced a reckoning with institutional racism. What can they tell us?

Corrupt cops: Serpico lead actor Al Pacino and Training Day star Denzel Washington

Corrupt cops: Serpico lead actor Al Pacino and Training Day star Denzel WashingtonImages: Allstar Picture Library Ltd/Alamy; Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

Cameras have become crucial to exposing police brutality. Before people could use consumer-grade cameras to record the abuse cops would later try to deny, the most memorable footage of police violence was found in cinema, with anti-corruption films like 1973’s Serpico or 2001’s Training Day countering the “copaganda” of police procedurals or the self-protective messaging of the force’s “blue wall of silence”.

This August, these two films are back in cinemas for the first time since George Floyd’s murder in 2020, after which the police abolitionist movement was heard across the world. While their anti-corruption stories will find resonance now our own police’s institutional racism and a dangerous rape culture has been brought to light, Serpico and Training Day both engage with a myth that’s being increasingly questioned by current events – that law enforcement can ever be divided between “good cops” and “bad cops”. Despite depicting corruption in strikingly different ways, neither Serpico nor Training Day are able to pin down exactly what a just and moral police force would look like.

Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) is a fiercely moral NYPD recruit, who resists the shakedowns and bribery that are second nature to every other officer, marking him out as a dangerous and potentially traitorous outsider to the force. Based on the experiences of the real Serpico in the 1960s and ’70s, his fearless (perhaps, foolish) whistleblowing stands in complete opposition to Training Day’s Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). Over the course of a single day, Harris introduces rookie Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) to his version of justice – a dual-pistol wielding, contemptuous abuse of police powers, where violence, manipulation and self-gratification take precedence over maintaining law and order. 

Harris is endemic of the big-scale vice unit scandals that made headlines in California throughout the ’90s filtered down into a single bad guy, whereas the unchecked corruption and systematised cover-ups Serpico is up against goes above the bad actions of individuals. Still, both Serpico and Hoyt see single corrupt officers as more than just “bad apples”, but an indictment of the ideals they’re meant to uphold: if a system cannot stamp out and punish such corruption, isn’t it effectively condoning it?

For what it’s worth, Serpico works as a Watergate era, new Hollywood attack on too-real corruption. Training Day, despite drawing on real post-Rodney King LAPD corruption, feels cartoonish in execution. The key difference between the films, and what stands out like a sore thumb in 2023, is how the films imagine a future without corruption. 

In Serpico (as in real life), the botched inquiry into NYPD corruption caused very little change, and
Serpico took a self-elected exile from the city he wanted to clean up. Training Day may be the archetypal example of the myth that a good cop cancels out a bad one, as Hoyt ends the film shaken and exhausted, but only more committed to law and order. It’s as if seeing how much Harris perverts justice has opened Hoyt’s eyes to how much he has to fight to uphold it.

The problem is, Hoyt will only be trying to fight injustices as a cop, and as Serpico points out, trying to effect change from within a corrupt system will only end in conforming or alienation. 

Training Day screenwriter David Ayer (director of Fury and Suicide Squad) went on to clarify his pro-cop beliefs, which only affirms the message at the heart of the film: with enough honest, good police work, the bad apples can be expunged and the system can be cured.

There are police forces that have no interest in stamping out violent misogyny or racial violence, nor will they admit that the powers made available to officers are excessively used to take advantage of vulnerable citizens. 

Does that not suggest that, without significant effort to root out the problem, the police force implicitly encourages such behaviour? Harris and Serpico’s NYPD are not exceptions, they are the police system working as intended.

What does it mean to be a good cop if being a cop is a concept too flawed to function? 

Upheaving our police force brings fear of mass disorder. But what is law and order except a theoretical concept? Our police force is an attempt, an experiment, to achieve it. We have been shown throughout time, across the world, that it has not worked.

There was never a golden age of perfect policing we are pushing to get back to – both Serpico and Hoyt are chasing a version of policing that has never existed. 

Back in cinemas, Serpico and Training Day may end up feeling more depressing than radical: we have always dealt with the exact same problem, made worse by inaction every passing year.

Serpico is back in cinemas from 18 August, Training Day from 25 August

Rory Doherty is a critic and screenwriter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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