POV examines police militarization on ‘Do Not Resist’
Do Not Resist explores the militarization of local police departments and their Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams – in their training, tactics and acquisition of equipment – since 9/11. With unprecedented access to police conventions, equipment expos, and officers themselves, filmmaker Craig Atkinson has crafted an observational, nonpartisan look at the changing face of law enforcement in America. The documentary makes its POV broadcast premiere on Monday, February 12 at 10 pm on PBS Hawaiʻi.
Liberty Peralta, Vice President of Communications at PBS Hawaiʻi, recently spoke with Atkinson (pictured, below) by phone about the film.
PBS Hawaiʻi: Could you talk about your own personal connection to law enforcement, within your family?
Craig Atkinson: My father was a police officer for 29 years, outside of Detroit, and he was a SWAT officer for 13 of those years. Growing up, he used to take me on SWAT training exercises. When I was really young, I’d be a hostage, and when I got a little bit older, I would be an armed assailant, so it would be me vs. the SWAT team in an abandoned factory in Detroit. It was a way for him to create greater obstacles for his team, and it was very fun as a kid to go and participate in something like that. So I was relatively familiar with SWAT and tactical teams, going into this film, but I think that just allowed me to empathize with the police officers, because my dad was a very upstanding officer, and I know his heart and I know he was always trying to do it right, and I know there are a lot of cops out there trying to do it right, as well.
What was your expectation going in to make Do Not Resist, and how did that vision change as you went along?
I felt when we started making the film that we would be able to show the full range of a SWAT officer’s experience. We worked really hard to try to find teams that we thought could demonstrate an appropriate use of SWAT. I point people towards the Pulse nightclub shooting [in Miami], where they took an armored vehicle, punctured a hole in the side of the nightclub and were able to save those hostages. Showing an appropriate use of SWAT only strengthens the film in general: Here’s an appropriate use of SWAT, thus we can see an inappropriate use of SWAT.
Unfortunately, despite our efforts and despite filming in 22 states and spending three years on it and going on dozens of ride-alongs, we never came across an opportunity that demonstrated the use of SWAT that we were being told by the officers that it was actually going to be used for, which was for counter-terrorism or for really violent situations. Every single search warrant that we went out for was a proactive search warrant, and in our case, 90% of those were for drugs, and oftentimes, low-level drug offenses, which was so shocking.
Do Not Resist was completed in 2016, after three years of production. What’s changed since then?
One of the main things that I point people towards is the scene that people find to be the most shocking in the film, which is the asset forfeiture scene: Police in South Carolina retrieve a small amount of marijuana and end up not only arresting the 22-year-old college student, but they also take $800 of his money, claiming that it was drug money, although he claims that it was for a landscape business. This process of seizing someone’s assets became completely abused amongst law enforcement for decades.
There were states that were changing laws and requiring a criminal conviction before seizing assets. This was doing a lot to dissuade law enforcement from going out and just randomly seizing funds that would then go back to their departments. With the appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he reversed the Obama-era changes to asset forfeiture. Mind you, these changes weren’t doing a lot in order to really stop the abuse of asset forfeiture. They found a way to exercise federal law to circumvent the state law, and I’m not the first to point out how that, in the long term, can be completely detrimental to the fabric of our society.
What was your awareness of this asset forfeiture abuse before you set out to make the film?
My father came up in the first wave, or almost-second wave, of SWAT in the mid-’80s, responding to the crack epidemic. In my father’s era, [there were] maybe 29 search warrants total. He was a police officer for almost 30 years, but he was only a SWAT member for 13 of those years. He only did 29 search warrants total. Contrast that with these teams that we went out with while making the film, they’re doing 200 raids a year, three to four times a day.
What I observed to be a major shift is the fact that we incentivize police departments to directly benefit from the money that they take. Classically speaking, asset forfeiture – anything that you took from a member of your community – the money would have to go into a general fund for the city, so the city could then use those funds to improve the community. That’s all well and good on paper, but the federal government came in and said, “If you include one federal agent on your task force, you get to keep 80% of the funds, and we’ll only keep 20%. Not just for a general fund for the city, but for your department itself.” You started to see police departments raising their operating revenue from ticketing their citizens and from seizing their assets.
That’s what was going on in Ferguson, Missouri. You had municipalities raising up to 50% of their operating revenue from ticketing their citizens. Imagine living in that community – you pay your taxes, and your police department can’t fund itself unless it raises up to 50% of the money that it needs to operate from additional ticketing. And when you give police departments the tools of war, you give them no indication of how to use those tools, and then you financially incentivize them if you use those tools in this way to seize assets, you actually financially benefit from it. That was a major shift that I saw in SWAT from my dad’s era to the SWAT that we are seeing unfold while making the film.
How have police departments reacted to Do Not Resist?
The thing that I’m most encouraged by is the fact that police departments have used the film as a teaching tool. I was really hoping that was going to happen – that we don’t necessarily condemn the individuals or departments in the film, but more of the style of policing that’s portrayed in the film.
We actually did a police academy screening tour with the film, where we took the film and showed it in academies and police departments. There was one police department that allowed their officers to have access to the film on their squad car computers. We’ve had a really interesting response from law enforcement agencies as big as the NYPD, who showed it at the John Jay Criminal Justice College with 300 active NYPD officers. It was an amazing response. A lot of officers got up and said things like, “This film does reflect reality. It shows many of the things that we ourselves are concerned with, and are trying to work with in our department. We’re actually happy that we have this example because it allows us to go to our command staff, who often aren’t sensitive to these issues, and we have an example to show them.”
Aside from asset forfeiture, another thing that was most often pointed out is the [retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and law enforcement trainer] Dave Grossman aspect of training, which is like preparing for the next Al Qaeda attack, although you’re actually going out to write traffic tickets. A former commander of the NYPD SWAT team got up and denounced Dave Grossman in front of the class. He said, “Yes, he has been influential in various law enforcement circles for a very long time, but I assure you that we are moving away from his teaching style, and it is not indicative of what we want the NYPD or the NYPD SWAT to be going in.” I thought that was a very powerful statement to make publicly, and it was very encouraging.
The thing that I’m most encouraged by is the fact that police departments have used the film as a teaching tool.
-Craig Atkinson, Do Not Resist filmmaker
In the film, the Department of Homeland Security admits that there is no reporting procedure in place for them to track how military-grade equipment given to police departments is used.
Since we started filming [in 2013], Homeland Security gave [police departments] $34 billion of equipment, and the Department of Defense is giving people $5 billion. You’re talking about nearly $40 billion worth of equipment. There was only one state that required reporting, and that was in Maryland, because the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, had a SWAT team come to his home because they were raiding the wrong house. They shot and killed his dog, and had him on the ground handcuffed. Because it happened to someone who was in a position of power, people started to pay attention, and sure enough, he passed laws in Maryland that required reporting statistics for SWAT teams. And sure enough, SWAT teams were being used 90% of the time for drug search warrants, and oftentimes those are low-level offenses. That initiative came up on the ballot, and it was dropped, so now even Maryland doesn’t even require reporting statistics for law enforcement.
While riding along with SWAT teams, a lot of the teams who were made up from really respected, upstanding individuals wanted to know nationally what the statistics were for SWAT because they figure the ones that were doing it right would only help them do their jobs better. They said, “Reporting isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We could really hone in on what we’re doing if we had those figures, but they’re just not required to keep them,” which obviously opened the door for tremendous abuse for teams who aren’t so upstanding.
What did the ratio of “upstanding” versus “non-upstanding” officers look like?
The majority of police officers that I came in contact with were people who truly wanted to protect and serve. We did find an alarming number of people who maybe had the best intentions, but didn’t even realize themselves their implicit bias, just seeing which cars they pay attention to, and who they decide to pull over. It was almost as if even the well-intended officers weren’t fully aware of their innate bias and racism.
As a whole, I would say that the majority of officers are there to do the right thing. However, oftentimes they’re given the top-down objectives that puts them at odds with their community. And a lot of it was coming from the federal government. I think that if you left communities to their own devices, you would reach an equilibrium, where the police department realizes that it’s putting them at odds with their community when you’re requiring them to raise their operating revenue from ticketing and seizing the assets of their citizens.
Does this mean that this is a systemic issue, that individuals aren’t necessarily responsible for this current situation?
I think you can’t let individuals off the hook, because that’s where the actual change happens. And I’m really reluctant to do that because there were so many officers who were just kind of hiding behind the badge and their power, and they truly needed to be held accountable themselves. By no means am I trying to make it seem like it’s just a bunch of Boy Scouts out there and if the policies change, the fabric of policing will change. I kind of straddle both sides of the fence because I understand the law enforcement perspective, just seeing what my dad went through, but also seeing all the problems in his own department and how, when you multiply that as a whole, it really does become individuals caught in it. The individuals need to hold strong and really think about the way they’re interacting with the community.
One thing that I think we can all do is not treat everyone as a collective mass. The police department is not a collective mass. Protesters are not a collective mass. They’re made up of individuals. There’s a protest scene in Do Not Resist, and there’s an officer yelling at a protestor. He’s like, “I’ve known you since you were little. And you’re out here now and burning things down and why is this?” That officer actually got in trouble from management for engaging in conversation with the individual. We caught up with that officer after the fact, and he was just mentioning to us how obviously the police and community relations are so strained, but he uses small moments to access the community. He’s an officer that gets out of his car. He’s not bombarded by the technology in the squad car, the computer, all the scanning devices. He rolls down his window. He’ll stop at a neighborhood barbecue, he’ll talk to people.
That officer actually came to our screening in St. Louis, and he did the Q&A with me. And when he got up, a woman from the community said, “What happened to the police department? When I was growing up, all the police officers had baseball cards. We used to run up to a squad car because all the police officers would give us baseball cards.” To me, it just totally created a snapshot in my mind of a forgotten history of our police-community relationship. But wouldn’t you know, this officer, who was off-duty and in plain clothes, reaches into his leather jacket and pulls out baseball cards. He still does it. He’s the type of officer that will go out and engage the community and try to build that relationship.
What would you say to someone who sees the trailer for your film and thinks, “Oh, this isn’t happening in my community. I don’t need to worry about this”?
We had some screenings where people would come up afterwards, and it was usually older white women who would be so baffled. They were asking where the raid actually took place, the one in South Carolina, as if we were actually in South Africa or something. They couldn’t really comprehend that this was going on. And we’re like, “Oh no, that was one of four raids that day in that community.” I think that there’s such a difference between the geographical location of where someone lives, and what they’re exposed to on a day-to-day basis. This is something that’s happening three or four times in a county, usually in one specific region of a county. And you just think about the long term effect of a SWAT team coming through your neighborhood three or four times a day. We can’t wake up a decade from now and wonder why people have resentment towards police departments, when they were basically doing home invasion, Fallujah-style home invasions in their house while growing up the entire time. When we see the physical application of force and the SWAT home entries, it’s very shocking. And that may only be contained to certain areas of a city where some people can completely avoid that their entire lives.
However, when it comes to surveillance technology, this is something that is universally applied. It doesn’t matter if people are in Hawaiʻi, or no matter where they are, so long as they’re an internet user, no one is able to get away from the ubiquitous surveillance of their social media posts, of their e-mails, of all the information that we’re contributing online. That’s all now being collected and being analyzed. This is not something that people are going to be able to shy away from in the coming decades. It’s not just going to happen in the lower income communities where we can push it aside and never think about it again. Everyone is implicated in that, so long as they’re an internet user.
It seems like we’re at a crossroads between human, face-to-face interaction, and technology. How are you feeling about where law enforcement is headed?
I think it’s reflecting on the bigger picture as a whole. I think that we would benefit more in our society in general with far more interaction than what’s happening. Everything is going behind social media posts, and the amount of time people are interacting is going down, and that’s indicative of the law enforcement community relationship itself.
One thing that it comes down to is financing. We had a police chief in Dayton, Ohio, say, “I can’t hire ten more officers. I can’t afford all of that. But what I can do is hire one police officer and all of this additional surveillance technology and for the same cost, I can have one officer use this technology as a ‘force multiplier.’” And I think that this type of reliance on technology is not just restricted to law enforcement.
Am I hopeful? Yes, because I still believe in people. I am not without hope because I believe humans have the ability to adapt and to be creative, and I think that’s what we need to bring to any situation, whether it be reforming law enforcement or otherwise.
Do Not Resist premieres on POV Monday, February 12 at 10 pm on PBS Hawaiʻi.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.