Can the Documentary “Patrolman P” Free an Innocent Man?

Can the Documentary "Patrolman P" Free an Innocent Man?
Can the Documentary "Patrolman P" Free Innocent Man?

One of the great claims to fame of Errol Morrris’s landmark documentary “The Thin Blue Line”–aside from its formalistic daring–is that it helped free an innocent man. I don’t know the legal logistics it would take to reopen a more than 40-year-old double murder conviction, but Ido Mizrahy’s new documentary “Patrolman P”–premiering at DOC NYC this Saturday–may have the potential to do just that. Writing for my Docutopia column this week at SundanceNow, I singled out the film for its compelling storyline of a bad cop, William Phillips, who took part in New York City’s culture of corruption in the 1970s, ratted out his fellow policemen, and was later arrested and convicted for a murder he vows he did not commit. If it weren’t for certain stylistic choices, “The story of ‘P’,” I wrote, “would make for a great Errol Morrisian tale of the thin line between good and bad, truth and lies.”

Mizrahy and his writer-producer and narrating journalist Geoffrey Gray aren’t the first to explore Phillips case. When he was finally patrolled a few years ago, the Village Voice published a story that investigated Phillip’s claims of innocence. Michael Armstrong, the chief counsel for the Knapp Commission, in which Phillips provided damning testimony about police corruption, said he thinks that Phillips is serving time for another man’s crimes. “More than anything,” Armstrong told the Voice, “I don’t think Bill did it because I don’t think the proof adds up.”

If Phillips is still considered a stool-pigeon and a murderer among the minds of many, “Patrolman P” suggests that one of those labels may need revaluation.

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