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Filmed in 1969, a documentary on the Pittsburgh Police resurfaces

A woman tells police she loaned her boyfriend $40 he won’t give back; when another woman tries to attack the man, a scuffle ensues. An obviously drunk man tells police he isn’t drunk. An elderly couple complains about disrespectful neighborhood children to an officer who counters "they’re just kids." Police investigating the hit-and-run of a 3-year-old child question the young woman who was in the car with the driver, a young man known as “Punkin.”

“Pittsburgh Police: 1969” is a like a freshly uncovered time capsule of the city in 1969 and 1970: Some three hours of black-and-white cinema verité footage of police responding to calls in various North Side neighborhoods.

The films (originally titled “Pittsburgh Police Film Series”) were shot by noted documentarian John Marshall for the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence, at Brandeis University. The project was undertaken in the wake of the civil unrest, in cities including Pittsburgh, that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In what’s surely their local public premiere, a selection of the films screens at the Harris Theater for six nights starting Fri., Sept. 23. The films might even provide useful context for current discussions about the purpose and future of policing.

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Inevitably, the films, which are not narrated, often feel like a precursor to “Cops,” the reality TV series that debuted in 1989. But Will Zavala, the University of Pittsburgh film educator who rediscovered the films, said their origin as educational tools, rather than entertainment, makes them unique.

“I feel like these are particularly more valuable, because I probably got a better feel of what it was like to be a police officer, and also to live in certain neighborhoods in Pittsburgh at the time,” he said.

Filmmaker Marshall was known for his ethnographic work, including films about indigenous hunter-gatherers in Africa. According to the Pittsburgh Police series distributor, the venerable Massachusetts-based nonprofit Documentary Educational Resources, Marshall got permission to film from municipal and police officials.

Marshall shot with a hand-held 16 mm camera, accompanied by a sound man and likely, on night shoots, a lighting person. Zavala said Marshall embedded with the police, sometimes spending the night at the station. While the police encounter (and take calls from) citizens both Black and white, Pittsburgh’s racial segregation is much on display: The officers themselves are overwhelmingly white, and the streets they visit mostly seem to be either Black or white.

In other episodes, an apoplectic customer at an auto parts store complains that its owner ripped him off. A Black man calls the police on his brother for breaking his car window. And a cop, seated in his patrol car, tells a young white man in Brighton Heights, “You think you’re making jagoffs out of us, you’re crazy. Next time you run I’ll wrap that club around your head.”

In all, the series includes about 20 short episodes with titles like “A Forty Dollar Misunderstanding” and “Nothing Hurt But My Pride,” later assembled into themed programs for viewing at law schools, community relations projects, and by police themselves.

Along with the human drama on display, Zavala said, he thinks viewers today will be interested to see “how policing has changed.”

“The cops physically look different than cops today,” said Zavala. “They’re not wearing body armor or a lot of the accessories that they wear today. My impression is that they were a less intimidating presence.”

He was also struck by the handful of incidents captured in the footage in which citizens resist arrest, leading to fights with officers. “That was really surprising. They’re practically wrestling. Today I don’t think that would happen. I think [police] would immediately, you know, pull out the taser.”

For the screenings at the Harris, Zavala has assembled the films into two programs, A and B, each running about 100 minutes (with some episodes included in both programs). The first two nights also include guest experts to discuss the films.

On Fri., Sept. 23, a screening of Program A will be followed by a discussion about police body-worn cameras and smartphone footage with a Pittsburgh Police officer and Elaine Frantz-Parsons, a Kent State University professor writing a history of the city’s police. The Sat., Sept. 24, screening of Program B will be followed by a discussion using video as evidence with Duquesne University sociology professor Norm Conti and Liz LaForgia, a chief investigator for the Allegheny County Public Defender.

More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm