When Do Not Resist director Craig Atkinson turned his camera toward the Ferguson protests in August 2014, he figured by the time his film was made, the footage would be outdated, and the story dead. How wrong he was. What he filmed in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown could have been shot last week in Charlotte, North Carolina, or in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Or any number of other cities that have erupted after police shooting deaths of black men.
Images of the military-grade equipment—from body armor and night-vision goggles to armored vehicles and automatic rifles—used to quell these protests are loud, bright, and all over the news. But Do Not Resist also shows something less visible: a growing number of SWAT teams flooding the grounds of modest family homes to conduct drug raids that yield almost nothing except a whole lot of fear, and maybe a gram of weed.
Atkinson's directorial debut, which took home best documentary prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, shows jurisdictions of all sizes jumping at the opportunity to acquire the military-grade equipment from a grab bag of Department of Homeland Security grants, topping $34 billion since 9/11. The Department of Defense has issued billions more through a gifting program. In one scene, a senator grills the DoD about why a city with "one full-time sworn officer" has acquired two MRAPs since 2011 through the giveaway. Senator Rand Paul inquires as to why the DoD are handing out bayonets. The DoD's responses are limp. In another scene, the town of Concord, New Hampshire (where two murders have occurred since 2004), holds a Council meeting on whether it should accept a federal grant to purchase a BEARCAT armored vehicle, a 20-foot, 17,000-pound "Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck" that resembles a Hummer crossed with the Batmobile. (The council voted in favor 11–4 on getting the BEARCAT.)
The windfall of military equipment is the perfect accompaniment to the attitude promoted by Dave Grossman, the country's top military and local law enforcement trainer. His books are required reading at FBI and police training academies across the country.
Related: Watch an exclusive clip of Dave Grossman telling trainees that after a gun battle, officers often go home to have their "best sex in months":
Though his influence is clear, Grossman's intensity clashes with the ambivalence and concern seen in the eyes of some on-the-ground officers and officials who don't quite know what to make of it all. While Grossman's views and small towns with BEARCATs clearly come across as absurd, the other issues Atkinson raises are more nuanced, like what to do with the seemingly endless advancement in surveillance technology? In that sense the film presents an almost philosophical question: Must we always bring the full force of what we are capable of? The film's subtle vérité style doesn't provide an answer so much as illustrate a reality.
VICE: What was your first inspiration for this film? Did that evolve over time?
Craig Atkinson: The jump-off point for me was the Boston Marathon bombing. I had never seen the level of weaponry that the police had. They had it because it was a terrorist event, but it wasn't so much that, it was the mentality with which they approached the community. I just felt like it was more of an occupying force. I saw so many different people that were there during that time and said, "Listen the cops came in our house, no search warrant, put us on the ground." I felt like because we were all in a state of fear, we abandoned all of our protections and our freedoms.
Speaking of which: The surveillance issues you touch on in the film present some difficult questions about weighing privacy rights with maximizing our ability to solve crimes and take advantage of advancing policing technology. What's your take on weighing that balance?
Obviously, if this equipment is being used for surveillance then that's the intended usage, to fight terrorism. The problem is it's no different than the SWAT equipment and military hardware, where it was supposed to be used for domestic terrorism and it was being used for low-level drug offenses.
Certainly through the course of the film we see that, well, if $39 billion has been given to domestic law enforcement, we've invested in equipment and we're getting those returns on the use of that equipment. One can see how if you took even a portion of that money and allocated it to de-escalation training, how much more effective that would have been as a way to prepare officers for what they're seeing on a daily basis.
This Dave Grossman character, how did he enter the picture?
We wanted to know how police were being trained so we sought out someone that was revered almost universally in law enforcement. The FBI requires his books to be read by all of their personnel, and we wanted to see what that looked like. We were surprised to hear the philosophy that he was bringing toward the officers. He promotes this idea that "you are men and women of violence" and you use violence to solve your issues. He talks about how you're gonna get a good drunk buzz, you're gonna go home, and have the best sex you've ever had in your life—which may be the case! I just didn't think that you should be incentivizing domestic law enforcement with the thought of going home and having amazing sex. We were just appalled that this is the messaging coming down to domestic law enforcement.
"We do need to hold individual officers accountable without question. People always say, 'Well, it's a few bad apples.' I think there might also be some bad orchards."
But is there pushback against his ideas?
Sheriff Laurie Smith in Santa Clara, California, recently cancelled a Dave Grossman training because she went through the materials and she was like, "You know this might lead to more use of force, just the way that you're communicating to people." It was encouraging to me that there's members within law enforcement that are starting to see that the Dave Grossman philosophy isn't lining up to what the community is asking of our police in this day and age.
Your portrayal of individual officers was pretty empathetic. Some look like people who are just doing their jobs; others seem quite sensitive and genuinely conflicted. How do you reconcile Dave Grossman's super aggressive training with the people on the ground?
I hope that when people look at the film they see that we don't condemn the individual officers. Often times people who are charged with brokering the service—the police officers—are caught in the middle. In Ferguson, where a huge portion of operating revenue from police departments are derived from ticketing citizens, I talked to plenty of officers that were like, "Listen, we don't have to be the tax collectors for a city, we don't want to treat community members like ATMs." But guess what? If they don't, a huge portion of their operating revenue will not be there and they won't have jobs next year. But we do need to hold individual officers accountable without question. People always say, "Well, it's a few bad apples." I think there might also be some bad orchards. I've seen departments, which have top-down leadership that was just totally insensitive to what modern policing actually should be.
I think it's important to define that—what should modern policing look like?
There seems to be a massive disconnect between what we're training officers to do and what they're responding to on a day-to-day basis. When we were doing ride-alongs over the course of three years, everyone kept saying that all the officers are preparing for ISIS. We would go out and, almost ten times out of ten, it was officers responding to people in mental health crisis, or domestic violence situations. Both of those required officers to de-escalate the situation, and I observed them grossly unprepared to do that. However, if the situation got violent they were very prepared to stop a situation that turned violent, by the use of violence.
And the use of military equipment for everyday policing has escalated that...
You have this huge range of what SWAT is being used for. A lot of times the individual officers are in the middle and that's why it's ever more important to train them properly because I think that, if you take a young officer and say, "You are men and women of peace, you are a person that is a guardian, and you're there to protect and serve." In contrast you tell them the Dave Grossman philosophy—you are men and women of violence.
In some additional footage, which I wasn't able to fit into the film, he says he talks to guys all the time that come back from overseas and become law enforcement officers and they say they start to enjoy the killing. Enjoy the killing! I'm just thinking to myself, how is that not crossing a line to becoming what we're fighting against? His philosophy is no, you enjoy the killing, you go back and you train to get ready for more killing and guess what? It's fun. And guess what you're gonna go fuck your wife at the end of the night, too. How far away is that from promising 20 virgins?
What's being done at the highest level to temper this attitude, if anything?
Obama's 21st Century Task Force on Policing, overall in my opinion was very ineffective. For example, you have police commissioner Ramsey, who was a head of the 21st Century Task Force, and on the panel he asks how long it will be until facial recognition is available. We had already filmed the LAPD using facial recognition scanner a year prior! And here are President Obama's best men, if you will, didn't even know that they were using that. How can you create effective change if you aren't even aware of the surveillance technology that police are already using?
I'm surprised talking to you that your views are so clear and impassioned, because I felt that the film was pretty restrained. I came out of it with more philosophical questions than a vivid sense of your opinion...
My dad was a police officer for 29 years outside of Detroit and a SWAT officer for 13 of those years. I had some background information that was causing me to look out into the world of policing and seeing that something had changed. People asked, "Why didn't you put your own story into the film?" That's not really indicative of the whole if one person had some sort of personal story. I don't really care about any of that. I want people to see actual events to give context to many of these headlines that we keep hearing about since Ferguson. I wanted to know what a SWAT raid looks like when you're not shooting it like COPS or Dallas SWAT, which is only to glorify the police. I said instead, "Let's go back the next day and talk to the family and see what it was like."
But you reveal a point of view in how you edit these events...
If the cops had taken me on SWAT raids and pulled an Al Qaeda member out of a sewer, I would have shown that. We went on a half a dozen raids during the course of the film, and we didn't find anything. It was either a bowl of weed, or a gram of weed, or we see someone's computer for child pornography but at three o'clock in the morning when he wasn't even there, they busted in the house and the guy's parents are there, totally shaken.
Find information on screenings of Do Not Resist on the film's website.
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