Director Craig Atkinson on policing reform: 'We've got a lot of work' to do
This week brought a surprising statement from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The head of the organization, Terrence Cunningham, apologized to minorities for "actions in the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color."
Not what one might expect to hear from a police chief.
Predictably, the apology was met with criticism by those who felt it went too far, and by others who felt it didn't go far enough. But if nothing else, Cunningham's words indicated the degree to which police bias has become a national issue. It even came up in the first presidential debate.
We must forge a path that allows us to move beyond our history and identify common solutions to better protect our communities.
Police bias leapt back onto the national agenda in August 2014 after the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager shot repeatedly by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Filmmaker Craig Atkinson was on the ground in Ferguson as protests broke out and SWAT officers responded aggressively. Footage he recorded there became the opening sequence of his new documentary Do Not Resist, a vital and timely exploration of the militarization of police and how that has led to increasing conflict between police forces and the communities they are meant to serve.
[Note: The film is playing for a limited time in Santa Monica and Pasadena, California, Columbia, South Carolina, and Portland, Oregon. It opens in the coming days in Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago, among other cities. Details here]
Atkinson, the son of a former police officer and SWAT team member outside Detroit, said he initially became aware of police militarization during the law enforcement response to the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
"That was the first time I had seen the armored vehicles, the body armor, the weapons that police had at that point," he told Nonfictionfilm.com. "But also the mentality of the officers going into those communities seemed to be -- on the outside looking in -- more of an occupying force versus people there to protect and serve... Witnessing that I was surprised to see what I perceived to be a shift in the mentality of the officers."
The Rubicon of police militarization was crossed in 1996 when President Clinton signed into law a defense appropriations bill which authorized the 1033 Program. Under that program the Department of Defense was given authority to transfer surplus military equipment to police forces around the country, including advanced weaponry and heavy-duty armored vehicles like MRAPs (Mine-resistant Ambush Protected). Since that time more than $5 billion worth of hardware has moved from the Pentagon to law enforcement agencies.
In a phenomenon that might be called "mission creep" many police forces began using that heavy equipment not to confront terrorists, militias or hostage situations but to serve routine search warrants.
"In the St. Louis County region [of Missouri] every felony search warrant is conducted by the SWAT team," Atkinson said. "Well, there's plenty of felonies that you don't need a SWAT team to serve a search warrant. It was revealed that they were using the SWAT team to serve warrants in that area for a code violation."
In one scene in the film, Atkinson's cameras capture a raid on a house in Richland County, South Carolina where a SWAT team served a search warrant to look for drugs. They bashed in a window to distract the occupants, searched the house and found a minuscule amount of marijuana. They arrested a young man for possession and confiscated almost $900 in cash he was carrying. The suspect said he was about to use the money to buy equipment for his lawn care business.
You've given them the tools of war and then you've given them a financial incentive to use those tools.
"They seized that money through civil asset forfeiture. So it's the responsibility of the young man who had the money taken from him to prove that it wasn't obtained in a drug crime. Well, how does he do that? It's almost impossible," Atkinson said. "You took this person and put him in jail and took his money -- how does that benefit society?"
The larger point, Atkinson says, is that police forces have been incentivized to take money from members of the community, leading to a further erosion of trust between law enforcement and those they police.
"You've given [police] the tools of war and then you've given them a financial incentive to use those tools," Atkinson said. "Of course that's going to create the perfect storm."
"I think a lot of the officers are trapped in the middle. I do see a lot of them signing up because they want to protect and serve, but when they're given a top-down objective that they have to go out and seize these assets, then you're completely putting those officers at odds with the community," Atkinson said. "You're disallowing them to do the style of police work that they intuitively first intended on doing."
Do Not Resist includes disturbing scenes of a police training session put on by Dave Grossman, a retired Army officer, professor of psychology and director of the Killology Research Center, which is dedicated to the study of "the reactions of healthy people in killing circumstances (such as police and military in combat) and the factors that enable and restrain killing in these situations."
Grossman uses apocalyptic language to describe a society comprised of evil men intent on doing evil deeds, telling his audience of officers they are warriors and the last line of defense between ordinary people and the forces of destruction.
Do you believe there are wolves out there who will feed on the flock without mercy? You better believe it. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep. There is no safety in denial.
Atkinson sees a downside to that ideology.
"It's having the officers view citizens like enemy combatants," he told NFF. "It's no mystery as to why that is when you look at Dave Grossman's history and the fact that he spent 25 years in the military helping the military improve their kill ratio."
Indeed, Grossman seems to equate police work with warfare. His bio states, "...In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks he is on the road almost 300 days a year, training elite military and law enforcement organizations worldwide about the reality of combat."
There are consequences to blurring the distinction between soldiers and police.
"When you take that model that was designed for wars abroad and turn around and apply it to domestic police work -- and Dave Grossman's been teaching that philosophy for 18 years in domestic police departments -- this idea that you shoot first and ask questions later, it leads to situations like the Philando Castile shooting last July in Minnesota. That man is reaching for his wallet and he gets shot six times," Atkinson said. "The officer that shot Philando Castile had attended one of Dave Grossman's seminars in the past."
Atkinson continues, "There's 63 million police-citizen interactions every single year in this country. And if you're taking that mentality into those 63 million police interactions -- many of which call for de-escalation, many of which are routine traffic stops -- then it's just putting the officers in a heightened state of anxiety all the time, They're thinking that they are moments away from getting killed... I think that's part of why we're seeing people being killed reflexively [by officers]." He added, "Clearly it speaks to me as a training issue."
Which brings us back to Ferguson. A Department of Justice investigation following Michael Brown's shooting found Ferguson Police Department "officers appear to assess threat differently depending upon the race of the suspect... Records suggest that, where a suspect or group of suspects is white, FPD [Ferguson Police Department] applies a different calculus, typically resulting in a more measured law enforcement response." [pg. 78].
Further, the DOJ investigation found:
While the DOJ report describes the prevailing atmosphere in Ferguson at the time of Brown's death, Atkinson examines the Ferguson Police Department's response to the protests that erupted after the fatal shooting.
"Even in its earliest days when the media hadn't shown up the protest community in Ferguson was met with the full force of the SWAT team on the front lines," Atkinson said. "If you're trying to de-escalate a situation that would be the opposite thing that you would want to do... The Ferguson Police Department had all these tools of war but weren't necessarily trained in how to tactically deploy these tools."
Atkinson said he is not opposed across the board to police departments possessing military-style equipment.
"Look at something like the Bearcat. At the Pulse Nightclub shooting [in Orlando] they used that armored vehicle to puncture a hole in the side of the nightclub and they freed hostages. That's a fantastic use of that equipment," he said. "I want officers to be well equipped to handle those situations. But then when I go do ride alongs with officers they're using the exact same equipment to do search warrants and it's almost always for drugs. And I did a half a dozen raids in the course of making this film and we never found anything. We found a bowl of weed one time. We found a gram and half of weed one time. There's a significant disconnect between what we're being told is the intended purpose of the equipment and what it's actually being used for."
The filmmaker said policing in the future will increasingly rely on sophisticated surveillance equipment. But he is concerned that, as with military hardware, such technology will be deployed improperly -- used to track minor crime instead of major threats.
"Maybe we don't need more surveillance technology, we just need to use this surveillance technology that we have in an effective way," he said.
Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to impose control on the community.
Last year the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a report that addressed technology in general, although not surveillance in particular. "Law enforcement agencies and leaders need to be able to identify, assess, and evaluate new technology for adoption and do so in ways that improve their effectiveness, efficiency, and evolution without infringing on individual rights." [pg 31].
The report appeared to repudiate Dave Grossman's view of the appropriate mentality for a police officer. It stated, "Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian—rather than a warrior—mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public."
In 2015 President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting the transfer of some types of military equipment to law enforcement agencies, including "Tracked Armored Vehicles, Bayonets, Grenade Launchers, Large Caliber Weapons and Ammunition." But in June Reuters reported the president may reconsider the scope of his order.
President Obama's successor will naturally have greater say going forward about police militarization and policing reform in general. Republican nominee Donald Trump has spoken in favor of "law and order" and controversial stop-and-frisk policies, which many view as discriminatory toward minorities.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's website contains a section which outlines her stance on criminal justice reform, including this goal: "Bringing law enforcement and communities together to develop national guidelines on the use of force by police officers, making it clear when deadly force is warranted and when it isn’t and emphasizing proven methods for de-escalating situations."
"As far as the reforms under a potential Clinton Administration, I think it's a step in the right direction to start to undo the policies that were established in the first Clinton presidency," Atkinson said. "But I think that even if we reverse those policies there's still a tremendous amount of damage that is laying in the wake of the policies that were created. And obviously we're going to have to deal with that... We have significant work [to do] even when we get the right policies -- or the policies more back in line with the Constitution."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.