New documentary shows militarization of US police from the inside
The documentary “Do Not Resist” provides a timely look at the state of policing in the United States, from the escalation of SWAT raids to the unregulated technology police departments are using.
Director Craig Atkinson for over two years traveled around the country shadowing various police departments in their everyday activities. The film is now playing in limited release, with weeklong runs launching in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles on Friday, and expanding throughout Oct. and Nov .
Atkinson, the cinematographer on the documentary “Detropia,” was first intrigued to pursue the issue of police militarization after seeing the police response to the Boston Marathon bombing and the military grade equipment they used. He was struck by how police acted more like an “occupying force,” he said.
“I was seeing reports coming out later where people were handcuffed face down on their front lawn detained, no charges filed, no questions, police officers entering homes without search warrants,” Atkinson said.
It was just different from what he’d known. Atkinson has in some ways been observing the police his entire life. His father was an officer for 29 years outside of Detroit and a SWAT member from 1989 to 2002. As a boy, Atkinson would tag along to training exercises and play hostage. When he got a little older he would play the role of armed assailant.
“I always had a great deal of respect for the work he was doing,” Atkinson said. “He was a very upstanding officer.”
He knew, too, in the War on Terror era that police, and SWAT, were getting a bad rap and thought it would be a good idea to go behind the scenes and show it as it really happens— “the full breadth of the SWAT experience.”
What he found, however, was not what he expected. In one department, SWAT was being used for raids over 200 times a year. It was a striking difference to the experience of his father, who, in a similarly sized department, did 29 search warrants in 13 years.
“We never found an opportunity where you see the equipment being used in a situation where you would actually want it used,” he said. He thinks something like the Florida nightclub shooting was one instance where SWAT was in fact used appropriately.
The issue of the militarization of police in the United States has been vexing the country for years, most pointedly during the policeshooting protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where police wore riot gear and deployed tear gas, dogs and armored vehicles, sometimes pointing assault rifles at protesters.
The ACLU has spoken out against it, and the Obama administration, which defended the use of military vehicles during the Boston Marathon bombing, subsequently issued stricter controls over weapons and gear distributed to law enforcement. But it remains a hot button issue in the country, with some passionately defending the necessity of riot gear for the protection of officers in dangerous situations.
In the tense aftermath of a police shooting death in Louisiana, for instance, Gov. John Bel Edwards said a Baton Rouge police officer had teeth knocked out with a rock thrown by a protester. He said if officers don’t use riot gear, “you have no defense against that sort of thing.”
For his part, Atkinson started filming about a year before the events in Ferguson. Once that happened, he knew his footage would be timestamped around that, and there became an urgency to finish.
He chose to present the footage in a verite style. Thus, we hear only from those either involved in policing or public events like congressional hearings or community meetings.
People encouraged him to include his father’s story (he didn’t) or a “voice of god” narration to guide the audience (also absent). Atkinson says his personal interjections are not the point.
“Everybody already has an opinion about these issues,” Atkinson said. “We’re just showing things, we’re letting things unfold.”
As the film continues its run throughout the country, he’s mainly surprised and “disheartened” that it remains relevant.
“Here we are years later and it’s as timely as it ever could be,” he said.