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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

Geraldo Comes to Prime Time With a Cop Story

October 23, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Here's a police story you won't find on Fox's worshipful "Cops."

If there's one common denominator linking many inner cities in the U.S., it's mistrust of police agencies by large segments of the African American citizenry they're pledged to serve. And consequently, resentment by police for being accused by blacks of misconduct they insist is a bad rap.

All of which has landed Geraldo Rivera, the newest star of NBC News, in Pittsburgh, whose police are being monitored by the Justice Department under a federal consent decree that grew out of numerous complaints of cop brutality. The feds were sufficiently persuaded to step in.

"Geraldo Rivera Reports: Blacks & Blue" (at 7 p.m. Sunday) is a rare "Dateline NBC" devoted to a single topic, a fairly interesting one that not only catalogs the horror stories that Pittsburgh blacks tell about police but also the impact of their complaints on officers.

The "racial divide" that Rivera describes is affirmed by what he reports, even though his assertion that "a secret rebellion is emerging"--by whom?--seems at once vague and overwrought.

He hits the streets, riding with cops and chatting with those who believe they've been seriously abused, including two women (one black, one white) who say police beat them when they stopped to watch officers clobber a black man, and an African American Baptist minister who charges that he also was beaten without cause.

Given how convincingly both cops and their alleged victims put forth their cases, this is one of those he-said/she-said exercises that infrequently sway opinions. Nor is this the first time these and others here have aired their charges, nor the first time the police establishment has publicly responded to them and similar allegations with dismay. But the camera powers up the conflict dramatically, to the extent that the federal monitoring program appears to be a sound plan.

A rapper who spends his days running a computer in a bank complains, as many African Americans have for years, that cops see him and other blacks through racist eyes: "Black man on the corner--criminal. Black man in a nice car--drug dealer."

You won't learn from this program whether he's right, but you will be persuaded that he believes it.

*

GRADING THE TEACHER: The U.S. Army's long-controversial School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Ga., is assassinated in a highly arresting and opinionated documentary airing at 11 p.m. Sunday on KCET-TV.

Narrated by Susan Sarandon, the hourlong Robert Richter film from the Independent Television Service builds on his 17-minute work that was a 1994 Oscar nominee for best documentary short. This newer, expanded message comes from the perspective of tireless human rights activist and protest leader Father Roy Bourgeois. And its title, "Father Roy: Inside the School of Assassins," states what that perspective is.

After being opened by the Pentagon in Panama in 1946, the Spanish-language school for Latin American military personnel moved to its present location in 1984. Father Roy and numerous other critics, including Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has fought unsuccessfully to slash the school's funding, charge here that it's been a veiled training program for human rights abusers south of the U.S. border.

Its 60,000 alumni include jailed former Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega and Robert D'Aubuisson, who is widely believed to have run death squads in El Salvador. In addition, a congressional task force concluded that graduates of the school were among the murderers of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989, and a Pentagon probe found that one instructor had distributed torture and execution manuals.

The school's supporters are granted scant time to respond. Nonetheless, it's encouraging that this point of view is getting space on stations affiliated with PBS, which for some years now has been in the throes of a discernible rightward swing.

*

NOW . . . THIS MESSAGE: The cable channel Bravo--which for years has been one of TV's greatest pleasures--is now much less so.

That's because it's now spewing commercial breaks during programs, intrusive ones of up to three minutes that are filled with advertising spots and Bravo promos that often appear arbitrarily and without any apparent thought to content or continuity.

"Oui, oui, oui," a prone Catherine Deneuve urged from beneath her soon-to-be lover Gerard Depardieu near the close of Francois Trauffaut's "The Last Metro," for example. Then, abruptly, the next voice heard on Bravo was . . . Michael Jordan's, in a slam dunk for AT&T. After the commercial break, Bravo ran the last seven minutes of the film.

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