The son of a SWAT team member in Detroit, Craig Atkinson thought he knew what he was getting into when he started a new documentary project on American policing. But after three years of filming, what he discovered was an unprecedented lurch toward militarization for local police forces since 9/11.
With his award-winning debut documentary Do Not Resist, Craig Atkinson gives viewers a boots-on-the-ground look at American policing, bringing in perspectives from criminal justice reformers, policymakers and law enforcement leaders in this comprehensive look at a chilling new trend.
Since 9/11 the federal government has given police departments more than $40 billion in military-grade equipment. Most grants include no stipulations on how that equipment should be deployed or any reporting requirements. Throughout 2014 and 2015, Atkinson and his crew watched as departments throughout the county adapted the technologies under the pretense of fighting domestic terrorism. However, as Do Not Resist reveals, this military surplus equipment and surveillance technology is often used on a day-to-day basis to serve search warrants--almost always in searches for drugs.
"As we begin to share the film, the overwhelming response from audiences has been shock and disbelief. I can say that we were just as shocked while filming the material," said Atkinson.
"Going in, we had no idea what we were going to find. We kept thinking we were creating opportunities to film with departments that would show the full spectrum of the SWAT experience, but time and time again, we found ourselves inside homes searching for things that we never found. It's my hope that both community members and officers working hard to challenge the culture of policing within their departments use this film to illustrate the dire need for change."
Do Not Resist opens with riveting footage of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, facing tear gas and cops wearing riot gear and riding in imposing military vehicles. Other engrossing moments in the film include now-familiar faces.
"We are seeing a growing debate about so-called warrior cops and the militarization of police," then FBI director James Comey says during a speech at a conference. "I think it's very important to remind our fellow citizens that we need a range of weapons and equipment to respond and protect our fellow citizens and to protect ourselves."
Some policymakers, however, vigorously disagree. In one hearing on U.S. military equipment "donated" to municipal police departments, Senator Rand Paul insists such equipment is "not supposed to be used for riot suppression."
Many at the community level are also displeased. In a municipal meeting in Concord, New Hampshire, the city council debates whether the police department may accept a $250,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security for the purchase of an armored vehicle.
"You don't need this...I'm a retired colonel in the Marine Corps. I saw a sign back there that said, 'We need more Mayberry and less Fallujah,' and I spent a year in Fallujah...What's happening is we're building a domestic military because it's unlawful and unconstitutional to use American troops on American soil...We're building an army over here, and I can't believe people aren't seeing it."
The debate is as much an internal one among law enforcement leaders as it is a discussion between policymakers and the public.
"You fight violence. What do you fight it with? Superior violence. Righteous violence, eh?" Dave Grossman, an American author who has specialized in the study of the psychology of killing and a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, tells an audience of law enforcement professionals with a grin. "You are men and women of violence. You must master it, or it will destroy you."
Yet at a different conference, then Chicago police chief Garry McCarthy implores restraint on the use of force in law enforcement. "What happened in Ferguson--the actual practice of how the demonstrations were handled--I think we're all embarrassed by it, quite frankly, in law enforcement. I sat there aghast watching it. The simplest issue of the use of tear gas: in my book, if you fire tear gas, you've got a riot now."