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Compliance: How far would you go for fake cops?

If someone called you and claimed to be a cop, how much would you comply with what they ask? It’s the premise for the controversial film “Compliance”, opening this week in Seattle. What’s disturbing about this fictional film is that it’s based on a very disturbing actual event.

The film takes place on a busy Friday night dinner rush at a fast food restaurant. The staff is already a bit on edge since someone had forgotten to close the freezer overnight and thousands of dollars of food had gone to waste. So when the flow of business is further interrupted by a phone call from the police, it seemed like it was just the perfect capper to an already bad day. They had no idea how bad it was going to get.

The police officer on the phone tells the harried middle-aged manager that he has a customer with him who says one of her teenage employees stole some money from her earlier that day.

The cop isn’t satisfied with the cashier Becky’s denial, so he asks Sandy, the manager, to take her into the back office and search her for him.

That the cop on the phone isn’t really a cop becomes clear to us long before the characters catch on and by the time they do, a lot of damage has been done.

“Compliance” is a tightly wound psychological thriller that ratchets up the natural tensions between authority figures, like cops and bosses, and the rest of us, whether we’re average citizens, customers, employees or teenagers.

The biggest knock against “Compliance” is its believability. Would a manager really fall for a hoax phone call like that? Most everybody who sees the movie thinks ‘no way would that happen to me. I would never do that, fall for that, put up with that.’

The fascinating thing is that people do, all the time. This movie is based on an actual incident at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky in 2004. But just the year before, something similar happened at an Applebees in Davenport, Iowa and at a Taco Bell in Juneau, Alaska. In 2002, a girl on her first day on the job at a McDonald’s in Roosevelt, Iowa, was forced to strip and worse, all at the direction of a hoax caller. And in Leitchfield, Kentucky (in the year 2000,) a caller actually persuaded the manager to remove her own clothes in front of a customer whom the caller said was a suspect in a series of sex offenses. (All supposedly a part of an undercover investigation to nab the suspect.)

It turns out this kind of sexual phone scam has occurred over 70 times in over 30 states for over a decade.

“Compliance” is a provocative movie that feels like one of those famous behavioral psychology experiments designed to test just how far outside our own moral code we’d go if commanded to do so by someone in authority. More often than not, too far.

Very disturbing indeed.

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