Film Still by Craig Atkinson
A young boy observes the Michael Brown memorial site in Ferguson, Missouri, August 19, 2014.
Filmmaker Craig Atkinson has had a hand in some of the more engrossing documentary features and shorts of the 2010s, working variously as a cinematographer, producer, and editor on works such as Freakonomics, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, I’m Not Racist… Am I?, and Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. His lensing of the 2012 film Detropia, a mournful and expressive portrait of the challenges facing the Motor City and its people, garnered him significant acclaim. Now he’s moved into the director’s chair with a debut feature about the militarization of the domestic policing in America. Entitled Do Not Resist, the film clinched the Best Documentary Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, and finally arrives in St. Louis on Friday, October 28.
Craig sat down with our film critic, Andrew Wyatt, to discuss his personal connection to policing, the startling things he and his crew witnessed, and the unsettling trajectory of police work in America today.
I first saw the film as one of the so-called “Secret Screenings” at the True/False Film Festival in early March—I guess I can say that now—and it left a durable impression. How did you first become interested in the subject of police militarization?
My father was a police officer for 29 years, and then a SWAT officer for 13 of those years. I kind of grew up with War on Drugs era policing as a subject of dinner table conversation. I would hear stories trickle out while I was growing up. So I was peripherally familiar with SWAT and SWAT tactics.
And then I observed the Boston Marathon bombing, and I thought that the way that the police approached the community was something that I hadn’t seen previously. Obviously, it was the first time we saw the level of weaponry that the police had been given subsequent to 9/11. But it was also the mentality of the officers. There were reports, and I subsequently talked to people who were there, and they said, “The cops just came into our house, they searched our house. We refused them, but we didn’t have any control.” Some people were handcuffed face-down on the lawn for as long as six hours and not charged with anything, or told why they were being detained in this way. Obviously the police officers were dealing with a terrorist attack. However, the mentality of the officers, the way they approached the community, was not a “Protect and Serve” model. It was more like an “Occupy” [model]. They were treating their citizens no different than the terrorists that they were hunting.
To me, it spoke to perhaps a mentality that had shifted in domestic policing, and specifically in SWAT. I was curious to know if that had actually taken place, or what had changed. So that was the impetus of the project.
Growing up, with your father being involved in domestic policing and SWAT specifically, what was your perception of the work he was doing?
I didn’t really understand the larger cultural implications or what having the War on Drugs was actually going to do to the country. At the time, they formed a SWAT team in their department because they were responding to violent crime and to criminals with a tremendous amount of firepower. They felt out-gunned.
I’ve always had a lot of respect for law enforcement. My father was a very honest officer; other officers would remark on how much integrity he had. So I grew up with a great deal of respect, not knowing the nuances of what a SWAT drug raid meant. But I certainly saw it as something that was there to protect and serve the community. A lot of the call-outs that my father’s teams would go on would be barricaded gunman situations. Someone would be barricaded with a gun, maybe suicidal. The police wanted the extra protection or they needed the highly tactically trained officers to deal with a situation like that.
But to put it into context as to where things have gone: My father was on SWAT for 13 years, and only did 29 SWAT call-outs. They only did a few drug search warrants, because it was very difficult to get a warrant in those days. Today, the police departments that we would go out with, they were doing SWAT raids 200 times a year. There’s been just an amazing mission creep with these SWAT raids. The reason for which is not too dissimilar from what has come out regarding the municipalities in St. Louis County, which is where we’re raising revenue and treating our citizens like ATMs—using them to raise operating revenue for the department.
I think that that has been a driving force in these SWAT raids that we see take place in the film. In it, we busted into a house, expecting to find a kilo and a drug kingpin, and instead we find a 22-year old college kid with a gram and a half of weed, but somehow that still justifies taking his $800. When you look across the board, that has been the motivation of a lot of these SWAT raids: raising revenue. Getting the money for the department.
The film is quite effective at conveying that sense of escalation. What was once something to be used rarely, only in certain circumstances—the “special” in Special Weapons and Tactics—has become the routine face that is presented to the public.
If you go back and research some of the original messaging that was going out to these early SWAT teams, some of the commanders would say things like, “Make sure you do raids on low-level offenders so you can prepare for the big one.” This was the philosophy, that you practice on the little guys to get ready for the big guys. There has been such a mission creep, where, as you say, the exception has become the norm. St. Louis County has a full-time SWAT team. They have a docket of raids, almost daily, certainly weekly. SWAT has become this integral part, this staple, of many police departments.
One of the more revelatory aspects of the film—aside from the footage of the 2014 Ferguson unrest, which for St. Louis viewers will be uncomfortably familiar rather than shocking, I suspect—are the things that police and associated industry people are willing to say on camera. Things that reveal a lot about the psychology of modern domestic policing.
Someone observed that I could call this film Tone Deaf, because you have all these high-level personnel from [FBI Director James] Comey on down, saying things that most of the public would object to, but they’re saying them as a matter of fact. That was our interest in this subject to begin with: What is the messaging going out to domestic law enforcement? We started to observe things that we identified as not being in the public’s best interest, so we wanted to know how they were being trained. And when we saw that training, we were appalled.
I think that [educator and author] Dave Grossman is partially responsible. A lot of law enforcement really revere his philosophy, and it’s a warrior mentality that treats citizens like enemy combatants. And I think that provides a lot of the background philosophy that leads to these trigger-happy cops who end up shooting someone when they’re reaching for a wallet. They think that at any moment, ISIS is going to pop out of the sewer and attack. It’s not what communities are asking of their police departments, certainly not after Ferguson.
Have you talked to any veteran officers about this change in outlook over time? Is there a sense that the profession of policing is more fearful than it used to be?
I think that in this country the “Shriek-o-Meter” continues to get ratcheted up. It’s just an indication of how our society has been conditioned to accept fear, because of the media’s portrayal of absolutely everything. I think cops are more fearful because everyone is more fearful.
We had the opportunity to do a screening at the John Jay [College of Criminal Justice] Police Academy in New York. There was a veteran officer who got up and tried to put some distance between law enforcement and Dave Grossman, saying that Grossman was not the predominant philosophy in police work anymore. I had to remind the guy that if you look at Grossman’s calendar, he’s still teaching 100 days this year. His books are still required reading at the FBI Academy.
I will say that there is a group of officers that are trying to reform their departments. And the number one thing they’re looking at is the training. Should we be calling our police officers “warriors,” or should we look at them more like guardians? How do we get back to this protect and serve model? So there is a group that’s working hard to change the culture. I’m hoping that the film gives those people an example of what they’ve been saying for a very long time to their administration: “We need to actually change.” But it’s very hard to go against the pack mentality. Imagine a single officer trying to create change in New York City, where you have 35,000 police officers already within the group mentality. It’s not too different across the country. It’s very hard for an officer who sees unjust policing to go against that. They’re really marginalized, and it’s really a knock on their career if they speak up sometimes. So I’m hoping that the film not only gives community members some resources to help justify what they’ve been saying for the last three or four decades, but also gives officials who are trying to change the culture of policing within their departments some examples of the issues that are facing law enforcement.
The problems that the film flags are almost two-pronged. On the one hand, there’s a shift in the culture: an increase in fearfulness, in aggression, in a siege mentality on the part of domestic police. But also, concurrently and relatedly, an increase in the amount of military-grade and -style weaponry, vehicles, and equipment in the hands of those police. Having a fearful, aggressive person holding a nightstick is a problem, but when you have a fearful, aggressive person holding an assault rifle, it becomes a problem of an entirely different scale.
Sure, we’ve seen that across the board, where now that you have the equipment, let’s use that equipment. So it starts to be used in more creative ways. We’ve seen SWAT raids across the country for student loans. We’ve seen SWAT raids for unpaid utility bills in St. Louis County, if you’ll remember. When you have the tools of war, you use them.
And when we look at surveillance technology, that’s really the issue here. Obviously we all want to be safe, and to be protected from terrorism. And if surveillance technology is the tool to do that, let’s use that. But let’s look at how it’s actually being used. Look at, let’s say, the “sneak and peek” provision of the Patriot Act, [Section] 213, which gives the law enforcement the ability to come into your home without you being there, search it, and then serve you a search warrant after the fact. That was only supposed to be used for terrorism reconnaissance. But in 2013, the Electronic Frontier Foundation did research on the numbers and they found that 11,000 warrants were issued for sneak and peek. How many of those were for terrorism? 51. Over 9,000 were used for drug search warrants.
People will say, after a terrorist attack, “How was this not prevented? We have the largest terrorism surveillance network in the world.” Well, maybe because it was being used to find people with drugs, instead of its stated objective, to fight terrorism. So I don’t think we need more surveillance tools, but to use the surveillance tools we have for their intended purpose. And that’s not to dissimilar from the military hardware that we’ve been giving cops. Yes, we all want cops to be safe during active shooter events, so maybe let’s use the equipment for that and maybe take a different approach if we’re going to raid someone’s house for unpaid utility bills.
The film talks a little bit about civil asset forfeiture as well, and how that’s exploded in the past decade.
If we could pour resources into fixing police departments, obviously we need to immediately stop creating situations where people end up dead on a regular basis, for very low-level offenses. Beyond the loss of life issue, we need to look at the way that we’re funding our police departments. If you want to look at baseline things that would create vast changes in domestic policing: How about requiring a criminal conviction before being able to seize someone’s property, their cash and valuables? How is that compatible with the America idea, with innocent until proven guilty? How did we cross this line where your property is guilty and the burden of proof is on you?
I’m not sure how many people realize how much a sea change that is, how contrary to centuries of tradition in the philosophy of criminal justice.
Absolutely. It’s been reported that police departments took more assets from citizens than burglars did in 2014. Just imagine that.
Do Not Resist opens at the Chase Park Plaza Cinema (212 Kingshighway) on Friday, October 28. Director Craig Atkinson will be in attendance for the 7 p.m. screening on that day, and afterwards will participate in a Q&A moderated by St. Louis Magazine film critic Andrew Wyatt.