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Officer Quintin Peterson gets ready for prime time.
Harrison Ford’s badge is all wrong. “It’s supposed to be small and gold,” asserts Officer Quintin Peterson.
In a scene from last year’s box-office dud Random Hearts, Ford sits at the witness stand, his face immovable, his skin weather-beaten—just as a good movie cop’s should be. Ford, in fact, plays a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) cop, a sergeant with Internal Affairs. But the badge pinned to his blazer is a big saucer of shiny tin, the kind bottom-feeder patrol officers wear. Peterson says it should be small and gold, per regulation.
That’s not the only thing that’s off. Take police headquarters. “That’s the Ronald Reagan Building,” Peterson says, hitting Pause with a bemused smile. The glass-and-concrete downtown government building plays stand-in for the real headquarters, on Indiana Avenue NW. Inside, Ford struts down marble hallways through soft lighting that suggests an Italian restaurant on Valentine’s Day. “That’s like he’s coming to 300 Indiana Avenue,” the officer jokes.
Headquarters, it turns out, received the Hollywood treatment—the same formula that tried to convince audiences that Ford can play a squishy romantic (instead he just squints a lot) and that Brit Kristin Scott Thomas can star as a Maine politico (forget that her English accent slips in and out of the dialogue). Hearts’ headquarters building features no mint-green walls, no soot-colored tiles, and no achingly slow elevators. There aren’t even bored cops.
As the police department’s media liaison officer for film and television, Peterson, 44, has served as a consultant to the stars—or at least to their production crews—for 12 years. When Hollywood producers call asking for specifics on District police uniforms or procedure, they call Peterson to make it all seem believable. He’s the prop man. He puts the clothes on the cliches. He puts the right-looking cops in the right-looking cruisers.
And, now, after slogging through work on The Jackal, Absolute Power, Millennium, and Universal Soldier II, Peterson is about to land his greatest consulting gig yet. This summer, The District will begin production. The new CBS series about a newly minted D.C. police chief stars Craig T. Nelson—of Coach fame—as an ex-Newark cop who is charged with reforming D.C.’s finest. The show will feature only location shots from the District; everything else will be filmed on a Hollywood sound stage.
Once production starts, Peterson expects to see a lot of behind-the-scenes action. He says the show’s producers have already started calling. He recently sent them his usual package of uniform specs and information on where to get the best decals to make prop cars look like MPD cop cruisers. But, even though this will be a test of Peterson’s persuasive powers—can he teach the producers to make The District look like the District?—he says he isn’t too juiced about the series in general. At least, that’s the front he’s putting on. Hell, he thinks that serializing police reform is a lame idea. Besides, he understands Hollywood well enough to know that Nelson’s story lines are going to be a lot less complicated than, say, real Chief Charles Ramsey’s real efforts to right a department.
On a Friday afternoon inside the real MPD headquarters, Peterson and I are watching Random Hearts and another movie about D.C. cops in the fourth-floor Public Information Office. He’s scanning for the good parts—that is, the ones where MPD makes cameos.
Unfortunately, though, the scenes only highlight the fact that when Peterson talks, Tinseltown rarely listens. The scene: an interrogation room. “It’s a nice room,” Peterson says. “It’s bigger than an ordinary one.” The officer starts to chuckle. “I think I’d go for better, too.”
Cut to an outdoor scene: The streets seem too wide for D.C. “What is it, Baltimore?” Peterson asks, adding that a colleague once worked a movie that had a similar take on the District. “They took him to Baltimore. They think Baltimore looks more like D.C. than D.C.”
The action eventually has Ford collaring some bad cop he calls Asshole. There are uniforms and cruisers parked along a seedy street. The film does get the uniforms and cruisers right,
Peterson observes. “They followed the guidelines,” Peterson says proudly, “all the specs I gave them.” And as the guy responsible only for making city cops look realistic, Peterson doesn’t mind that the movie turns Union Station into an airport.
Because Peterson is the MPD’s Hollywood guy, it’s only appropriate that a reporter covering him include a description of our restaurant lunch. Unfortunately, the area around 300 Indiana Ave. isn’t so big on celebrity hangouts. So we settle for the leather booths at the District Chophouse, located on 7th Street NW, near the MCI Center. Inside, old-style swing toots from hidden speakers and waiters hustle jumbo salads and heart-attack-inducing mounds of ranch fries to both tourists and suits who’ve walked up from the city’s courthouse complex.
The joint couldn’t be confused with a Hollywood eatery. But that doesn’t stop the prop man—clad today in an orange work shirt worn over his uniform and a black Sopranos ball cap—from dreaming about a film set in the restaurant.
“I’d go back in the day,” Peterson says, his eyes working the room. “Maybe like ’30s Chicago. Come up with some mobster having a meeting here, talking about rubbing somebody out. He would be meeting with someone that you’d find out later was some high-ranking police official—to make it extra-juicy.”
Alas, instead of Kevin Spacey, an overly eager waiter appears. Peterson will settle for the honey-dijon-chicken sandwich, fries, and a Pepsi. When the food comes, the officer proclaims, “This is the biggest chicken sandwich I’ve ever seen.”
Growing up an Army brat, Peterson never spent too long in any one place. There were stints in Japan, Virginia, D.C., Texas, and Missouri. He can’t remember any of his old teachers’ names. But he can remember the comic books and sci-fi films he studied religiously. He can recall being enthralled by The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet.
Peterson eventually started working on his own fiction. As a junior in high school, he attended a summer session at the Corcoran School of Art on a scholarship. Later, when he was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, he wrote and performed in plays. Dropping out after his junior year in the late ’70s, he moved back to the District, where he received a National Endowment for the Arts playwriting fellowship and a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He read two of his works on the air at radio station WPFW (89.3) in productions of the Minority Art Ensemble.
But Peterson’s writing career stalled at the regional level; he couldn’t secure an agent. “I had written some screenplays,” he says. “Nobody looks at them without an agent. I did teleplays, lots of contests—’Write a teleplay for this TV show.’ None of that ever panned out.” So, 18 years ago, he joined the MPD. He worked patrols and eventually moved to the press office. He says he was tasked to Hollywood precisely because he’s one of the few officers ever to receive an NEA grant.
A steady police job, however, didn’t mean that Peterson quit writing. And, although his 9-to-5 assignment involves ensuring accuracy in Hollywood’s portrayal of D.C. police officers, he has allowed himself a little more room for make-believe with his own literary efforts, a trilogy he calls the SIN series.
SIN, Peterson says, stands for Special Investigations Network, a fictional federal agency task force assigned to place District police officers in deep, deep cover. His first book centers on Rick “the Brick” Jones, aka Jacob “Doc” Holloway, a cop out to infiltrate a narcotics ring. Of course, there’s a lot of tough talk thrown in:
“Perhaps Jack was right,” Doc Holloway thought. “I am some kind of monster.” So be it. No matter what the price, he was going to take down Colombian drug lord Santos Tudor and his crew…#even if it cost him his soul.
One day, in fact, some future MPD public-information officer may wind up helping Peterson’s producers get the details on D.C. right. He says that he has an agent and that his book is scheduled to be published by First Books Library, an online company; Ingram will handle distribution of the print version. He says he’s almost done with the second novel. Of course, he’s written a treatment for six episodes of SIN, the TV show. He thinks his books would be perfect for HBO. Taking a glance, it’s hard not to agree:
There could be no love for Jacob Holloway…But that was OK. He could live without love…but not without sex.
Peterson insists that he’s not going to use his connections in the business to make any deals. “I don’t fool myself,” he says. “I don’t want to sound like some jerkoff. They hear [pitches] all the time.”
In the meantime, with his chicken sandwich half-eaten and his Pepsi downed, he’ll settle on sending uniform specs to the costume people working on the Silence of the Lambs sequel, Hannibal, this week. He knows the MPD will have a very, very small part. “MPD isn’t actually involved in tracking Hannibal or catching Hannibal,” he says. “Hannibal is in Europe, chillin’.”
As for The District, Peterson remains dubious. “I’d have to see a pilot,” he insists. “A sexy idea? No. Well, you know…” He stops himself just short of criticism. But the implication’s pretty clear: Doc Holloway’s guns could outsell Craig T. Nelson’s pie charts and procurement stats any day. CP