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Denzel Washington on preparing for his 13th role as a cop: ‘I have the utmost respect for what they do’

Washington says he carried lessons learned from Detroit’s chief of police into his new crime thriller “The Little Things”

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Warner Bros.

By George Hunter
The Detroit News

DETROIT — Denzel Washington plays a police officer for the 13th time in the new crime thriller “The Little Things,” a role he said he began researching more than 30 years ago during a ride-along with a former Los Angeles police sergeant who defused a situation involving a mentally ill man with a gun.

Although Washington didn’t mention the sergeant by name during a recent interview, Detroit police chief James Craig said he was the LAPD officer who provided an insight into police work as the actor prepared for one of his earliest cop roles.

In his new film, set in the early 1990s, Washington plays a disgraced Los Angeles County sheriff’s detective who is rejuvenated when he reinvestigates a serial killer who’d eluded him years earlier. The actor discussed his latest role — and his opinion of cops, soldiers and those who criticize them — with Yahoo Entertainment reporter Kevin Polowy in a video clip posted to Yahoo on Thursday.

“You’ve played good cops in the past; you’ve played bad cops,” Polowy said. “It feels like a really interesting time to play law enforcement, given the recent events and conversations we’re having about policing. How much thought do you put into a role like this?”

Washington, 66, replied that his opinion of police was shaped during the ride-along with a LAPD sergeant while preparing for the 1991’s “Ricochet,” as an LA cop who falls in love with a woman he meets on the job.

Washington said he learned a lot by how the sergeant he was riding with handled an emergency run.

“We got a call of a man outside his house with a rifle that was distraught,” Washington recalled. “We pulled up and did a U-turn past the house, and we came up short of the house, and he told me to sit in the car, which I was going to do — I wasn’t getting out.

“He got out, and as he got out, another car came screaming up, and two young people jumped out screaming. As it turned out, it was their grandfather (with the rifle). This policeman defused the entire situation by just remaining calm, but it showed me in an instant how they can lose their life.

“He didn’t overreact; he could’ve pulled his gun out and shot the people who drove up fast; he could’ve shot the old man that was just distraught and a bit confused; I think he was suffering a little bit from dementia,” Washington said.

Craig said the ride-along was arranged through a mutual church acquaintance.

“Denzel and I went to the same church, West Angeles, which is a megachurch, so I didn’t know him personally,” Craig said. “One of the deacons, also an LAPD officer, connected me to Denzel; he wanted to ride with an LAPD officer to get some background for the film ‘Ricochet.’

“In the movie, he’s an LA cop who meets his future wife on the job, so he wanted to know how that goes, when you’re a police officer and you get romantically involved with someone you meet while you’re on duty,” Craig said. “That happens a lot. He also wanted to know about other parts of the job. He asked a lot of questions.

“When we were on patrol, Denzel wore a baseball cap because he didn’t want people recognizing him,” Craig said. “We brought him into the precinct at first, but we had to get him out of there because the women were all going crazy.”

Craig said Washington had a more vivid recollection than he did of the incident involving the armed man.

“This was a unique experience for him, and he has more memory of it,” Craig said. “There was a gun call; I got there first and told him to stay in the car. As I’m getting out of my car, another car pulls up and some people started yelling. The situation was resolved peacefully.”

Washington said of the incident: “I’ll never forget it, what our law enforcement people have to deal with moment to moment, and second to second. And I have the utmost respect for what they do, for what our soldiers do; they sacrifice their lives.

“I’m directing a movie now about a soldier that makes the ultimate sacrifice, and I just don’t care for people that put those kinds of people down,” Washington said. “If it weren’t for them, we would not have the freedom to complain about what they do.”

Craig said he was “honored” that the 30-year-old encounter had such an effect on Washington.

“He was a real humble guy, who really wanted to understand his role,” Craig said. “He just seemed like a really nice person. I was in southern California for 28 years, and I met a lot of celebrities, and I can’t say the same thing about all of them.

“But to have Denzel Washington say I helped shape his positive opinion about police officers ... I’m really honored by that,” Craig said.

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