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'The Force' Documentary Reframes Community Policing Narrative


In Oklahoma, neighbors of a deaf man shot to death by police Tuesday night say the officers ignored their shouted pleas that the man couldn't understand their commands. All week, protesters have gathered in and around St. Louis to mark their anger at the acquittal of a police officer charged in the shooting death of a black man back in 2011.

All across the country, citizens are demanding that the police do a better job of protecting public safety and civil rights at the same time. But what would that look like? How could and how should police departments change? A new documentary called "The Force" tries to answer that question. Filmmaker Peter Nicks and his team spent two years with the Oakland Police Department as the department tries to implement changes aimed at getting the department released from federal oversight imposed after years of civil rights abuses. Here's former chief Sean Whent.


SEAN WHENT: This police department has a history that we have to own up to. It would be a tremendous shame to have gone through all the reform tasks over a span of 12 years and then go back to the way we were before. We have to get this right. It's too important.

MARTIN: And Peter Nicks is with us now from our studios in New York. Peter Nicks, thanks so much for speaking with us.

PETER NICKS: Hey, Michel. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So to people of a certain age and people who are familiar with this history, the Oakland Police Department is notorious. So tell us a little bit about the legacy that the chief is talking about in that clip.

NICKS: You know, it's really interesting because the Black Panthers evolved and came to be because of that distrust and that friction between community and police, them seeing that they didn't have their interests in mind when it came to keeping them safe and that they would rise, not only to stand up against them, but to do something for their own community. And, you know, you flash forward to the birth of Black Lives Matter, which did also come from Oakland, and it's a pretty profound arc.

This was a time when this particular police department was under active reform there. The federal government was overseeing the department after a civil rights case in 2000, the Riders case, which resulted in officers planting drugs on people, beating people. And we picked up with the department about 12 years into that reform process. And we really wanted to understand, what does it look like on the ground level of a police department actively trying to reform in the context of this national conversation?

MARTIN: And, you know, and actually, the film starts in what seems to be a hopeful moment. The number of police-involved shootings is down. And then police chief Sean Whent who's one of the central figures in the film, seems to really be sincere when he talks about the desire to change, not just the way the department operates but the way it is seen to operate. So what was your goal in going in there?

NICKS: One of the things that I fell in love with in documentary was that process of discovery. And so I've always sort of gone into my projects with an aggressive open-mindedness. And that, you know, I recognize that comes from a particular experience that I had growing up as a black man in America. You know, I - I'm a mixed-race kid. I grew up in the suburbs of Boston.

You know, my - I was never thrown down on the roof of a car or profiled or treated in a way that would sort of make it difficult for me to say, I'm going to go inside this department and just allow them to tell me their story. The idea of trying to reframe this issue, not just from the police's point of view that, hey, are all cops racist, are all cops are morally compromised, but rather, who becomes a cop and why?

They're flattened down in our Facebook feeds into two-dimension narratives, as are, I think, a lot of the protesters. The protesters - Black Lives Matter has been marginalized in a way. Or there's been a narrative that is created from those who don't agree with what they're doing, and we wanted to explore that as well.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that the film does is that it kind of really takes you into their world. And you also go through some of the training with them. I mean, this is one of the things that the department had done. And I just want to play a clip from the film where the trainees, they're evaluating dashcam footage from an officer's car where they're trying to evaluate whether he did the right thing. Let me just play a short clip and hear them discussing it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And again, don't shoot to kill. We shoot to neutralize the threat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I mean, that's what he did.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: If he had a knife and he's on the ground gasping for air facing away from the officer, isn't that threat neutralized?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's all - that was recovered and that we know of now. At the time...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Come on. You have to give me at least that you see the difference between shooting someone once and 13 times. You know we've had classes...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I don't know if I'm right, but honestly, I don't see nothing wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You don't see a difference between one shot and 13 shots?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I felt that was necessary. I felt that was necessary.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, was it surprising to you that the officers themselves had that level of debate about whether what the officer did was right?

NICKS: The first thing that was surprising - and it's so difficult in a film like this to provide all the context - one of the scenes that we shot before this was the new mayor of Oakland, Libby Shaaf, going around that room asking each and every one of those recruits why they wanted to become a cop here in Oakland. She went around the room, and we heard all these narratives. And we discovered that the recruits were surprisingly diverse, you know, black, white, Asian, men, women, like, really speaking to this call to have a more diverse academy.

And that young officer who was advocating for the use of force, he told the story of how he lost his two brothers to gang violence. And he wanted to become a cop to make a difference in his community. And it was profound to sort of see him advocating for something that a lot of people within the community are speaking out so vocally against.

And to see that, you know, he's a person of color and then the white recruit is pushing back on him, saying, hey, man, like, how could you rationalize that? And that push and pull was fascinating to us. And we saw that happening in so many different ways, that people would see the same thing and interpret it in completely different ways.

MARTIN: You know, obviously, this film takes the approach that you're going to show what you saw and let people kind of think and feel for themselves. But I do have to ask you, at a time when the relationships between people are so fraught, after having spent all this time with these folks, did it change your view of things?

NICKS: It was a challenging process. And it met with significant contradictions in, you know, myself as a sort of member of this community stepping out of police cars amidst protests and getting treated with a lot of hostility and extreme prejudice by people within the community wondering who I was. You know, was I an agent of propaganda for the police? Whose story was I telling? Whose side was I on? And I had to constantly reconcile that.

But this was a moment in time when people wanted to pick sides and we recognized that. When we met a lot of these cops, we did believe that they were earnest about this idea of protecting black lives and protecting people's civil rights and doing the right thing, reforming. Those were the same things that the people within the community want.

We all want better, safer communities. There's just a division in how each side sees the other and the justice system's ability to hold officers accountable for some of these shootings - or inability - is really at the core of the problem.

MARTIN: That's Nicks, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. His latest film, "The Force," chronicling the troubled Oakland Police Department's efforts at reform is out this week. Peter Nicks was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York City. Peter, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NICKS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.