Craig Atkinson is a filmmaker and director whose debut documentary, Do Not Resist, explores the militarization of the police since 9/11. The documentary has received critical acclaim for its up-close portrait of law enforcement, and its accolades include the 2016 Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature from the Tribeca Film Festival and the American Bar Association’s 2017 Silver Gavel Award.
Harvard Political Review: Your Director’s Statement notes that the Boston Marathon bombing inspired this film. What did you observe?
Craig Atkinson: The Boston Marathon bombing was the first time that I had seen the armored vehicles and the weapons that police were using in SWAT work. I was comparing it to my father’s era of SWAT: the initial War on Drugs era of policing and SWAT tactics from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Clearly, the level of equipment had been updated. My father retired in 2002, and I had not thought about anything to do with police work until I saw the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.
I went up to the Boston area and started to interview people who had experienced the aftermath firsthand. They explained how SWAT units came into their homes, despite their protests that they did not want their homes searched. Some individuals reported being handcuffed on their front lawns for over four hours without being told why they were charged or detained. It seemed like the police was more of an occupying force than a force that would protect and serve. They were dealing with an unknown level of danger, but it was shocking to see some of these other elements play out.
HPR: How did you gain access to the police?
CA: It is not unprecedented for film crews to go out with police departments; the TV show Cops has been doing it since 1989. What people are responding to is our approach where we are much more observational in our style of capturing the unfolding scenes. We are placing the camera right in the middle of a search warrant without glorifying the police or condemning the suspects where a similar TV show might do.
The police can almost indict themselves. It is just a matter of being honest with our intentions. Initially, with the police departments, we kept promising them an authentic portrayal of whatever we did together. Audiences have been shocked by what the police departments chose to show us, such as a routine search warrant which only yielded one-and-a-half grams of weed but destroyed someone’s home in the process. That was one of three raids taking place that day.
HPR: That raid ended in uncompensated damage to the house, a young man’s arrest, and the forfeiture of his assets. How do officers justify these invasive raids?
CA: That I do not know. What was used to get the search warrant for that particular raid was an informant testimony. There was not a significant amount of police investigative work that was conducted prior to raiding the home, which is why the number of raids has increased from 3,000 raids per year in the ‘80s to somewhere between 50,000-80,000 per year today.
A large factor in that increase is due to the fact that they’re not doing proper investigative work. That is why the officer in the film says, “SWAT raids are 50/50,” meaning that they this level of entry leads to an arrest 50 percent of the time. You are using equipment that was designed for home entries on the battlefield of the Middle East for routine search warrants that are only yielding small personal amounts of marijuana.
HPR: How do you think the filming of that raid influenced the officer’s behavior, if at all?
CA: That particular team was very open to having us film the entirety of the raid. This was just another routine raid. In fact, Cops was filming that raid with that department while we were filming as well. I do not think that our presence influenced the raid one way or the other. I think that this was a very accurate representation of the style of raid that happens on an ongoing basis throughout the country.
HPR: You returned to interview the family that had been raided. In making the film, how did you balance the perspectives of officers against the protestors and victims of brutality?
CA: We tried to give everyone as much of a voice as they were willing to share with us. We were told initially by the police department in South Carolina that we would be raiding a drug kingpin. We were in shock to see that it was a 22-year-old college student who was home with his family. I felt awful that I had a camera on this family while they were experiencing this horrible home entry, so I felt compelled the next day to go to speak with them. If I did not have their permission to use that footage, I would not have because it seemed so invasive.
HPR: Many of those SWAT officers were white, and they raided an African American family’s home. Could you discuss the racial dimension of the film?
CA: When we were doing additional training exercises with these police departments, they said they were preparing for ISIS and terrorist events, but they would use the equipment on a routine basis. We do not raid the homes of any white people. We do not stop-and-frisk any white collar crimes. When you see $876 for civil asset forfeiture from the young man who had one-and-a-half grams of weed, they know with near certainty that he is not going to hire a lawyer. The raids are effective and wealth-harvesting tools for police departments, especially because these communities are unable to defend themselves.
HPR: As a white man and the son of a police officer, how did your background shape your interactions with SWAT team members?
CA: As the son of an officer, I was able to relate more with officers than someone who did not come from a police officer background. I am not against the equipment; I am against its improper use. We can find a perfect example of how it was used effectively during the Pulse nightclub shooting; the officers took an armored vehicle, punctured a hole in the side of the nightclub, and were able to free hostages. But those same police departments, months prior, were using SWAT teams to raid barbershops for cutting hair without a license. I can see where the overuse of SWAT has created such ill-will in the community that it is making the officers’ lives more dangerous.
That is the perspective that I also try to communicate to law enforcement officials after we would go on these engagements and have the opportunity to speak. We are bringing the film to police departments themselves because we are not saying anything new to communities that have been experiencing this for decades. We had a successful screening at the John Jay Criminal Justice College in New York, which is the New York Police Department feeder school. There were 300 students there; many were active NYPD. That is the true goal of what I am hoping to do with this film.
HPR: One professor you interviewed argued that race can and should be used to predict the likelihood that a person will commit a crime, even before that person is born. Why did you include this footage, and what are the implications of this approach?
CA: The film looks at the surveillance technology that is returning home from wars and repurposed in local police departments. In 2014, after the events in Ferguson, everyone was looking at the military hardware equipment that had been given to police departments for the last three or four decades. There was one company that was taking the exact same platform that the NSA uses to do mass data collection and was licensing it to police departments for $1,000 per year subscription. When we asked how were they going to use this, they took us to West Virginia University, where they showed us that they were using it to find people who were smoking weed in their dorm rooms.
When you look at Professor Richard Berk’s predictive policing algorithms, he is using algorithms to determine the likelihood of an individual committing a crime in the future. He is using Comstat data, a crime statistical data for a geographic region. Dave Grossman, the trainer in our films, speaks about how he knows of many police chiefs throughout the country who have been fudging the numbers on crime data. If crime is not going down in your particular city, you might not get the federal funding the following year. What some police chiefs have been doing is taking some aggravated assaults and calling them simple assaults and re-categorizing crime to make it appear that crime is going down in their city.
Here we are, all these years later, and that is the same data that Richard Berk is using to run these algorithms to determine whether someone is going to commit a crime by the age of 18. If we are not careful, we are going to crystalize and digitize our old thinkings about race and crime, rather than looking at it from a holistic level. That is going to lead to more unjust policing if we are not making sure that the data that we are using to run these algorithms is sound.
HPR: What can your viewers do to address these issues that your film raises, and could you identify the obstacles to reform?
CA: We are not going to fix policing until we address this for-profit model. It has a lot to do with asset forfeiture. In 2014, you had more money taken from American citizens through asset forfeiture than through burglary. The feds stepped in a number of years ago and created the Equitable Sharing Program. Instead of the property seized from individuals being used in a general fund for the city, the feds said, “If you include one federal agent on your task force, then your police department gets to keep 80 percent of the money and we take 20 percent.” It is a kickback system.
Dave Grossman, the police trainer in our film, talks about how he is preparing people for the next 9/11. While they are waiting for the next 9/11, we are having 63 million police-citizen interactions. If you bringing that mentality to a routine traffic stop, that is how you have people reaching for their wallets and getting killed. The officer who killed Philando Castile had attended one of Dave Grossman’s seminars only a couple of months prior. The most important area that we need to look to is the way that we are training officers.
If we are looking for police reform to change, it has to come from the state and local level. Policing is vastly different depending on the area of the country. A top-down federal approach is never going to address the individual concerns of the community. I point viewers to scenes from the film where we see local people speaking out and are eventually able to effect change. We are starting to see states come out with laws that significantly de-incentivize officers from going out and treating their citizens like ATMs, which I see as a step in the right direction.
HPR: How will the new administration influence future movements for police reform, even at the local level?
CA: It is very hard to say. When we were making this film, we knew that no matter who got into office, it was going to be significant work as far as how to move forward in the direction of policing in America. Even if we reverse the tide of the private prison industry and start to treat nonviolent drug offenders as a public health problem, we still have had one-and-a-half decades of locking these individuals up. We still have significant work to deal with the damage those policies created initially. We will wait and see.
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