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Hollywood Examines Its Working Relationship With Law Enforcement as Stars Call to Defund the Police

The Police and Hollywood
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Of the many calls to action that have emerged from the outrage over the death of George Floyd, a movement to “defund the police” has sprung up fast as Americans seek to scrutinize law enforcement.

An influential industry like Hollywood is not immune to pressure to join that fight — one that organizers from coalitions like #BlackLivesMatter are hoping will dismantle police autonomy and replace racial inequality with justice while specifically reallocating police resources to social workers who deal with issues like domestic violence and the homeless.

But what exactly is the relationship between Hollywood and the police?

Numerous industry players described to Variety a symbiotic bond between the two institutions, one born of practicality and, often, necessity. Police assist in nearly all film and television shoots outside of studio sets. They provide security for top talent at home and in public, serve as backup for glitzy red carpets and look on when the town parties during awards season. #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Patrisse Cullors tells Variety that she sees leverage in that.

“A major way these businesses can help is in having conversations around their relationship to policing and imprisonment,” says Cullors. “Are you invested in private prisons? Are you investing in policing? If you are, think about how you can divert or discontinue participating in an economy of punishment.”

From a production standpoint, uniformed police both on and off duty are fixtures on set, one top production coordinator says, speaking on the condition of anonymity. From basic safeguarding to street closures, cooperation with the LAPD and forces including the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Office and the Beverly Hills Police Department is mandatory. Those agencies also issue basic permits for shooting, and coordinate efforts to inform businesses and residences about movie and TV stars invading the block. Officers are compensated out of production budgets for their time and are said by many people Variety spoke with to enjoy the work as a perk of living in an industry town.

Law enforcement professionals are also often used as consultants on a creative range of projects, from true crime dramas to soap operas. This arrangement has been identified by #BlackLivesMatter and other groups as an immediate tie to cut. Shows like the long-running reality series “Cops” have been canceled in the past week, sending a message about removing a platform for police-centered storytelling.

Top talent, including actors America Ferrera, Jane Fonda and Natalie Portman, has endorsed the call to defund police. On June 7, actor and producer Michael B. Jordan spoke at a protest for #BlackLivesMatter in Century City, on the doorstep of some of Hollywood’s most prominent talent agencies.

“To the brands that support me, to all the productions, to the studios, if you have any financial ties to the police, we have to relook at our business. We have to stop hiring police. We have to cut off their support. That’s why I’m committing to hiring private security at all my events — private security only,” Jordan said.

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Michael B. Jordan participates in a Black Lives Matter protest in Century City earlier this month. London Entertainment/Shutterstock

Deploying private security for sets, preferably unarmed security, according to Cullors, would likely result in budget increases for larger productions, which presents another curious catch — many of the largest private security agencies on both coasts are staffed by retired police, honorably discharged military or active cops. These are the same agencies that offer fortress-level protection to some of the most famous people in the world, residing in enclaves all around Los Angeles County.

“Get the police off our sets and events,” says “Insecure” star Kendrick Sampson, who was hit by seven rubber bullets at a Los Angeles protest this month. “Coming to set after experiencing police brutality — I’ve been pulled out of my car at gunpoint — there’s trauma there. I’ve also seen certain celebrities, even performers, profiled and blocked from entering Emmy parties by police.”

In a social context, Hollywood’s power circles do not seem overly friendly with law enforcement chiefs, though one movie executive noted that more than a few studio heads have license-plate guards stamped by the 11-99 Foundation, a charity for California Highway Patrol employees that is said to curry favor when one is caught speeding down the 101.

As an industry town fond of celebrating itself, Los Angeles is more than dependent on law enforcement and other agencies in mounting awards shows, after-parties and similar live events, numerous sources say.

“If you’re an event planner in this town, the fire marshal is your best friend — because if he wants it shut down? That shit is going down,” says one top events guru, speaking on condition of anonymity, who throws one of the most hallowed awards celebrations of the year. Another prominent dealmaker puts it plainly: “You can’t host the Oscars in Los Angeles without the LAPD.”

Using the Academy Awards as an example, the LAPD, including its SWAT team and, in some cases, the FBI and Homeland Security are all on the ground in Hollywood proper at the Dolby Theatre when the annual broadcast is held.

Moving west, the Sheriff’s Department in West Hollywood handles big celebrations thrown by the talent agencies, as well as Elton John’s annual fete held under a tent at West Hollywood Park, a stone’s throw from the Pacific Design Center. In Beverly Hills, Vanity Fair has for several years constructed a miniature city to house its annual viewing and after-party on the grounds of the Beverly Hills Post Office.

“All of these jurisdictions need people setting perimeters, Department of Transportation workers directing traffic, on- and off-duty police officers crowd-controlling and patrolling, and of course the bomb sweepers,” says the event planner. “It’s not like we’re all best friends, but I have sheriffs on speed dial. It’s good to be able to reach them at 7 a.m. on Oscar Sunday because you’re in a jam.”

Sampson suggests full privatization of security for shoots and events, and employing veterans or non-police; he notes that there are several Black-owned firms in Los Angeles alone. He also thinks permit oversight should move to city and state officials, out of the hands of police. “This is another blind spot for Hollywood and how Black people are affected. This would be a step for inclusion,” he says.

The call to defund police has drawn mixed reactions in entertainment. In a recent Instagram post, Portman admitted that supporting the movement scared her at first. “My whole life, police have made me feel safe. But that’s exactly the center of my white privilege: the police make me as a white woman feel safe, while my black friends, family and neighbors feel the opposite: police make them feel terror,” she wrote.

Sen. Cory Booker, whose partner is actor and producer Rosario Dawson, said in a recent PBS appearance that defunding the police was “not a conversation that we need right now,” and that larger systemic racism should be at the center of efforts. Booker also accused President Trump of misappropriating the campaign and setting up a “false political argument.”

The New Jersey politician pictured a conversation more aligned with a Hollywood ending.

“How do we create a more beloved community in our nation?” he posited. “When we care for those people who are hurt and in pain and struggling, and help them to avoid the need for police in the first place.”

Angelique Jackson contributed to this report.