Earlier this month, Comedy Central aired a special called “Jeff Ross Roasts Cops,” hosted by the Roast Master General himself, Jeff Ross. Ross is a comedian extraordinaire who is known for lowbrow, crude, sarcastic, biting humor. He’s also known to be particularly brutal during his infamous roasts, as it should be in the tradition of the Friars Club, Don Rickles, and other showbiz legends.
I like a joke as much as the next guy, and my own humor is often very crude. Among my favorites: Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Andrew Dice Clay, and George Carlin—trust me, I’m no puritanical prude. What’s not funny to me, however, is when a public institution—in this case, a city police department—essentially participates in a roast of the people it is supposed to serve. Are they laughing with you? Or at you?
As advertised, the BPD roast was chock full of good ole boy knee-slappers. A sampling:
- African-American cop, that’s never an easy thing … it’s like being a Mexican border patrol agent.
- I call my penis Rodney King because I beat it so much … And just like the LAPD… I always get off.
- Six cops starin’ at me … now I know what it feels like to be a black kid walking home from school.
- I have a theory why cops love doughnuts so much… because they look like they’ve been shot.
At first glance these may seem like predictable bush league cop jokes. However, the underlying punchlines all accept and acknowledge oppression as par for the course. Cop-meets-doughnut joke? Doughnut hole shot in it? Chocolate doughnut ? Hardy-Har-Har. This is particularly not funny in Boston, where the majority of people shot by the police are Black & Latino (unlike the national trends), combined with the fact that police are rarely, if ever found guilty of any wrongdoing or prosecuted.
There is also the ever-present BPD-as-good-guys narrative. BPD Commissioner William Evans proudly proclaims: “We got the best department in the country and they get it and they understand it is so important to earn the trust and the respect of the people that we police … I don’t think anyone does it better than the BPD … we are the model … President Obama recognized us as one of the top in the country.” Adds Ross: “I put it out there that I wanted to roast a major city police force and they all said no. Except one. Boston. Because you got balls. And you’ve got a good reputation. There has not been an unarmed person shot here in 25 years.”
Ross is correct. It does take major balls to promote such a blatant lie. I can’t blame him; after all, he’s only a comedian, not a criminologist. Rather, I blame the the City of Boston and its police department, one or both of which apparently colluded with producers from Comedy Central.
Whatever the origin, the result was that misinformation was intentionally broadcast to a significantly large cable audience. In fact, excluding all controversial cases in question, there are at least four glaring cases in the past 25 years where the victims were innocent and unarmed and killed by Boston police:
- 44-year-old Mark Joseph McMullen (2011), chased from Roxbury to Rockland against police protocol.
- 37-year-old Willie L. Murray Jr. (2002), killed after driving the wrong way down a street with no lights on.
- 25-year-old Eveline Barros-Cepeda (2002), killed 14 years ago this week after an officer fired into the trunk of a fleeing car. She was in the back seat.
- 75-year-old Rev. Accelyne Williams (1994), killed in a no-knock raid on the wrong apartment.
Too many of the jokes offer a “wink and a nod” to actual offenses committed by the BPD, and trivialize issues that are still being adjudicated in courts, like racial profiling, discrimination in hiring, and the treatment of Black officers. Ross quips, “Let’s be real, if Whitey Bulger’s name was Blacky Bulger they woulda’ caught him a lot sooner.” In a drive along scene, one cop asks, “So what do you guys wanna do?” Ross replies, “I don’t know… shoot somebody.”
Ross wasn’t alone in making cringe-worthy comments. Evans had an unfortunate slip of the tongue in proclaiming, “Cops are realizing that the good old days of the thin blue line are over.” Good old days? Really? Like when the “good” cops covered up for bad ones? Lucky for him, the commissioner’s assertion is soon after contradicted in another ride-along scene in which two rank-and-file officers, talking about bad apples, openly say, “We’re not gonna snitch you out.”
Jokes were also made about cops smoking marijuana, which is hypocritical considering the number of cannabis arrests of minorities before decriminalization, not to mention the pending federal court case regarding drug-testing of African-American officers. But the offense runs deeper than hypocrisy, and the gleeful way Ross jokes about casually shooting people. The overriding concern here is that the BPD once again proved itself masterful at misrepresenting facts, and of presenting officers in a positive media light.
Another recurring joke was the insane love affair between the BPD and the New England Patriots, and specifically Mr. America himself, Tom Brady. Ross asks what level of crime the quarterback could get away with in Boston. To which an officer gleefully replies, “I’d cover up Tom Brady’s murder!” Sounds cute, but it speaks to an unspoken rule that money and celebrity can earn you a get-out-of-jail-free card. So if Brady was accused of a rape, or involved in a murder, like his former teammate Aaron Hernandez, there may be some levels of favoritism in play, or perhaps a cover up. Especially given the fact that the Patriots help raise millions annually for the Boston Police Foundation, which is a funding mechanism for surveillance equipment and training outside of the purview of the mayor, City Council, and taxpayers.
While Ross contributes to the hero-worshipping and false narrative pushed by the BPD, he himself is a victim of it. Prior to his taping in the Hub, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association labeled the comedian a “cop hater,” and posted bulletins in all precincts and sent emails advising officers and detectives “not to engage with this gentlemen who apparently believes our profession is best suited as a punchline.” The letter continues: “Hollywood types too often inflame the passions of decent people as they seek publicity in times of tragedy. Shame on all of them.”
If a millionaire comedian working with a major cable network is thought to be a problem, and is attacked and subject to this sort of repression, what does he think happens to us plain old activists who are part of the poor, underserved communities these police are supposed to serve? Ross got but a small sampling of what police reform and criminal justice activists have been facing for decades.
Meanwhile, in his BPD performance, lines about racial profiling, police brutality, the killing of civilians, workplace discrimination, and homophobic slurs all get big laughs. One cadet reveals he is an openly gay officer, in a relationship with another officer, to which Ross retorts, “Do you go home and play cops and bottoms?” Which not only makes the young cop visibly uncomfortable, but may also violate state laws since the cadet’s employers put him in a compromising, humiliating situation. Another highpoint is when Ross and white BPD officers encounter a group of Black men, and Comedy Central has no problem casually broadcasting the word “nigger” several times—all to raucous laughter.
Laugh all you want, but also consider that while the department provides unfettered access to a comedian, Boston also fights tooth-and-nail against public scrutiny from the communities they serve. All this while the cops feign to want accountability and practice transparency. They can get berated by a comic during roll call, but they can’t receive critiques from residents in a similar manner. They can participate in a comedy set, but can’t withstand the scrutiny of a neighborhood meeting. The BPD can take a joke, sure. It should just also be noted that the department is much less tolerant of reality.