Radical empathy

Stefan Forbes on policing, psychology, masculinity and making Hold Your Fire

by Jennie Kermode

Hold Your Fire
Hold Your Fire Photo: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

In Williamsburg, New York City, one day in 1973, four young men entered a sporting goods store in the hope of stealing guns with which they could defend their families. It wasn’t the smartest of plans to begin with, and when a police officer happened to see what was going on, the store was quickly surrounded. The siege which followed would change the course of US policing forever.

This thrilling and disturbing incident has been painstakingly pieced back together by filmmaker Stefan Forbes in documentary Hold Your Fire, which screened at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year and is now due to open On Demand and in cinemas across the US. Stefan and I both have hectic schedules and struggled to find a time when we could meet, but eventually managed to connect for a discussion of this fascinating event, why it called to him as a filmmaker, what making the film took out of him, and what he hopes people will learn from watching it.

“I'd been looking for a story about conflict resolution for years,” he tells me. “As a filmmaker, I travel the world. I’ve talked to people who mediate between Sunni and Shiite leaders in Iraq. I’ve travelled to the Rift Valley in Kenya, where cattle herders are carrying Kalashnikovs to ward off incursions by rival groups, just all these conflict hotspots around the world. And then I find the most incredible story right where I live in New York, you know, in this incredible man, Harvey Schlossberg. And I was shocked to discover that in this authoritarian, top down, militaristic, paramilitary organisation of the NYPD, there's this Jewish intellectual preaching radical empathy to these guys. And he's actually the inventor of hostage negotiation. I was shocked. And I was really fascinated about this incident and how it was a watershed event.”

Schlossberg is now considered to be one of the fathers of modern police psychology. He was 37 when the incident occurred and was brought in to help because he was already serving as a police officer and had a doctorate in psychology. Later he would play a pivotal role in the capture of the serial killer known as Son of Sam. He died last year, and gives one of his final interviews in the film. I ask Stefan what it took to track down so many people involved with the Williamsburg siege.

“It was so difficult to find people, you know? I travelled up to Attica. I was working on the story for years before I found out that Shuaib Raheem, who was one of the main characters, was even alive. I love that this film was like The French Connection and Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. I was fascinated to discover a lost New York Seventies story. But I was excited to tell it from multiple perspectives, to find people that you might not hear from, such as the hostages, who had been coping with 50 years of buried trauma, or the gunmen, whose story was never really told in all this time.

“I wanted to tell a Seventies story in 2020, with a 2020 approach, where we listen to a multiplicity of perspectives. I was shocked, actually, by how difficult it is to weave everyone's story into a coherent narrative, because we pay a lot of lip service to that in America, that we believe in pluralism. But I have a lot more sympathy for how hard it is to actually work to make everyone's voice heard, and to let these conflicting stories and viewpoints and races and cultural viewpoints all coexist. It was important to me to track down all these people. I found out amazing things that no one ever knew about this case.”

His interviewees have wildly different perspectives, some of which are hard to swallow. I ask him how he kept his cool when listening to some of the more outrageous statements made in the film.

“I think in America, we often have these really Pollyanna-ish discussions about cultural flashpoints like race and class, we speak in bland generalities, and we're extremely uncomfortable, and we get out of the conversation as fast as we can. And I don't think that helps anyone. I believe we need to dig in deeper and have messy, more complex and nuanced conversations, and the only way to do that is to extend other people this radical empathy that Harvey Schlossberg preached, and to really practice deep listening.

“As a documentary filmmaker, my job is to really listen deeply and reflect back to people what they're saying and to acknowledge their truths on an emotional level as well. We weren't just dealing with police with deeply problematic views on race, hostages with severe trauma who had never had any kind of treatment, and these gunmen whose story was never told for 50 years. I'm trying to dig down past the shallow conversations that the media often affords us and get to a much more nuanced and rich conversation, but really, you know, bear witness to how people feel.

“I think one of the achievements I'm really proud of with this film is hearing the the wounded pain and unaddressed grief of police officers, having them tell us in no uncertain terms how that quickly transmutes into violence in their job. You know, if my goal was to judge them, I never would have gotten down to that deeper human level, where we can see a lot of these officers as very wounded people who don't get the mental health help they need. And while some of what they say is deeply troubling, they also advance some of the most radical critiques of policing that you're going to hear. And I thought it was fascinating to hear that coming from conservative white men. That kind of call for change can't be ignored by leadership in the police departments. So I think this film will have a powerful impact on policing in America.”

One officer interviewed in the film suggests that today he would be given a lot of mental health support before he was allowed to do anything else. Has the situation got better?

“Of course things have improved since the Seventies, but it’s not enough. There's funding for tanks and military vehicles and weaponry, but there's hardly any funding for training police in conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques, which is outrageous. Dr. Harvey Schlossberg outlined his methods almost 50 years ago, and with all the killings that we've seen in the intervening years, it's shocking that his message hasn't been heeded. Every law enforcement officer who carries a gun in America should deserve this training. I do think things are better, but it's clear that officers are not getting the mental health help they need or the counselling, or the training in dealing with mentally ill people.

“We can see on many levels of society that when you respond to conflict with domination and weaponry, that often only intensifies the conflict. That's what America learned in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's what Putin is learning in the Ukraine right now. And it's what every parent learns with children. When you seek to dominate people you just create more resistance. And you know, these are elemental truths that a police psychologist studied and came up with solutions for. It's crucial that we heed Dr. Schlossberg’s message on all levels of society.”

I tell him that I’m impressed by the way he teased out the viewpoints of the young men who went into that shop in the first place looking to get hold of guns. Was it complicated to draw out what they were thinking back then when they are now adults with an adult perspective, as opposed to the people who they were when they actually did that?

“Yeah. It was fascinating to me hearing the gunmen’s side of the story and realising all the factors that went into them choosing to steal weapons, which they now acknowledge was an idiotic and tragic decision, and which has haunted them ever since. Foremost among those reasons was the total lack of safety they felt in their community, and the lack of being protected by police. That when violent incidents happened, the police didn't respond for days. That kind of anxiety and insecurity has a huge impact on our thought processes and could drive us into fear based decisions which Shuaib Raheem talks about quite eloquently in the film.

“They're also victims, like most American males, of a lack of an alternative model of masculinity. We're all taught that to be a man is to physically dominate others. Negotiation is seen as a weak and effeminate, and we're conditioned never to ask for help. And this is a cultural inheritance, which comes from our European inheritance. I’m Scotch. We inherited from our fathers a performative masculinity, where you have to show everyone you are capable of great acts of violence, so they wouldn't come and steal your sheep in the middle of the night. This stuff doesn't go away. And it's prevalent throughout American society. No matter what race you are, we all have to work to teach our sons a really different form of masculinity, which doesn’t treat negotiation as a weakness.

“To his credit, Officer Baker, in the film, says ‘Hey, this is a model of a new kind of strength. Not the explosive, violent strength we knew before, but the strength to defuse conflict and not explode. I think that's a crucial truth for all men to think about. So that we can change this attitude that to negotiate with criminals is weak and somehow unjust. Everyone can defuse conflict in our daily lives, whether it's in a marriage or in parenting, it's a skill we all need. I believe cops are a reflection of society, and it's a little myopic to only focus on the police when our whole society is in need of healing around these issues and radical consciousness raising.”

How did he find all the archive material which brings the film to life?

“It was an exhausting process,” he says. “I combed through hundreds of hours of footage, just calling up newspapers, begging them to go through their photo archives, pleading with photographers to search their basements for old negatives. It's really a brutal process, but you're uncovering stuff that's been lost to history and it's incredibly exciting to find these photographs and materials that often that bring a story to life. To discover some of this grainy, beautiful 16 millimetre footage which, as a filmmaker, you realise a camera person was out there risking their life in this shoot-out to capture. It's incredibly rewarding. It's almost sacred to me as a former cameraman to find this beautiful artefact left behind by other photographers who are often nameless, and to weave it into a narrative.

“I really love that process and in the editing, the struggle for years to weave that narrative that feels very meaningful to me. These lost stories and perspectives to be able to save them and make them a part of the national conversation after so many years. Now the film, their work, all these different snippets of film cohere into this thriller of this incredibly anxiety ridden and violent incident. It's almost like you're making a historical film, you're seeing and making sense of all these unaddressed threads in our history. It’s the same way with the footage and photographs. It all comes together into a whole new narrative with a multiplicity of viewpoints. It’s part of the work I love. It's painstaking, incredibly exhausting. And every time I make a film I say that's the last one.”

So is he making another one?

“Hell, no,” he says.

Hold Your Fire is screening in US cinemas an available On Demand from Friday.

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