The Force Takes an Inside Look at Police Misconduct in Oakland

Courtesy of ITVS / Cinetic Media

“We didn’t plan it, by the way,” director Peter Nicks jokes by phone about the major plot twist that goes down roughly halfway through his new documentary, The Force. “If you think it’s too abrupt, that’s what really happened.”

The Force is a cleverly titled film about the police force, its use of force, and the mysterious forces that sway us to toward impulsive and sometimes monumentally dumb decisions. More specifically, it’s the story of the Oakland Police Department during a particularly heady period in the institution’s long, troubled history of misconduct toward the community it exists to serve (in conversation, Nicks traces that conflict back to the ’60s, when the Black Panthers rose up in opposition to the predominantly white Bay Area police, whom they saw as “occupiers, rather than protectors”).

In 2003, in the wake of a major civil rights lawsuit against veteran officers who were running a campaign of vigilante injustice, the Oakland Police Department came under federal supervision. Ten years later, when the film opens, the OPD has made little headway toward reclaiming its independence. A new chief of police, Sean Whent, has just been brought on in hopes that he can finally usher through the necessary reforms. The film tracks Whent’s very promising progress as he attempts to root out a culture of toxicity and instill one of respect and accountability. (“We give you tremendous authority and a gun,” he tells a classful of outgoing police academy trainees. “It’s not unreasonable for people to expect you to explain why you do the things you do.”)

Nicks sits in on the occasional community meeting, but mostly this is a story told from inside the ranks of law enforcement. His crew receives remarkable access to all corners of the police force. “The city and the department itself, I think they just recognized the health of transparency at this moment when we had so many questions about relationships between community and police,” he surmises. His cameras capture cadets undergoing gas-mask training, confronting the ethical implications of grisly body-cam footage, and sitting in on lectures about the history of racist policing in America. Nicks rides along with rookie cops as they put their training to the test, navigating complex altercations on the street, attempting to keep the peace during a heated Black Lives Matter protest (in Oakland the uprising over Michael Brown’s 2014 shooting went on longer than it did in Ferguson, Missouri), and, more often than not, diligently trying to follow procedure.

For about an hour The Force unfolds as a somewhat dutiful ode: to the grueling, sometimes impossible challenge of being a police officer of conscience, a self-fashioned good guy, at a moment when communities of color are rightfully wary—and sometimes outright hostile—toward law enforcement; to the tough but fair leadership of Chief Whent, whose thoughtful, incremental reform efforts seem to be paying off. But then the shit hits the fan. Zero officer-involved shootings in nearly two years—a feat that sent Whent on a nationwide publicity tour—turns suddenly into four in two months, all involving black suspects. And the big twist: Several OPD officers are fingered in a sex trafficking operation involving an underage prostitute. Chief Whent steps down amid rumors that he’d participated in a cover-up, fearing that the scandal’s taint would undermine his department’s ability to wiggle out from under federal control. The OPD goes back to square one, and there it remains, 14 years in, still under the supervision of Washington.

The sudden turn is useful. Is Whent a good cop or a bad cop? Can he be both? What happens when police reform happens alongside police misconduct? Nicks has made a film that strains to see both sides and hopes to offer a template to viewers in how to do so more generally in often murky matters of law enforcement. For some, that would be a tall order at any point in the past few years; it’s even taller given the current climate. As The Force hits theaters, St. Louis roils in protest over the latest acquittal of a white former police officer in the shooting of a black man; the dust hasn’t yet settled from the violence in Charlottesville; and President Trump’s equivocating response to those events still rings in our ears. “One of the things we learned in the making of this project,” says Nicks, “is that there’s a lot of emotion that really makes it difficult for people to look at the nuance of this story. People tend to get pushed into camps: The all-lives-matter, blue-lives-matter, people-don’t-understand-that-cops-are-trying-to-protect-them [side]. Or the Black Lives Matter side, where people are like: Cops are murdering our young black men; every shooting is unjust. It’s a very difficult environment in which to step and try to speak to the complexity of this issue. But that’s fundamentally what we tried to do.”

Nicks, who won the top documentary-directing honors at the Sundance Film Festival for his efforts, spoke more with me about the difficulty of making The Force and the harrowing personal experiences that came to bear on this film.

Before the prostitution scandal hit the Oakland Police Department, were you surprised by what you observed there?

You know, we stepped into the project understanding the history of the community. I was stepping in as an African-American filmmaker with a huge responsibility on my shoulders to reflect the truth of what was happening. I approach my work with what I call an aggressive open-mindedness. I understand there’s so much emotion around the film: How people feel about the police really has to do with their personal experience, the narratives they’ve heard. What we found immediately was a surprisingly progressive department. It had been forced to reform because of that mandate. It didn’t come from altruistic reasons. It wasn’t like the OPD woke up one morning and said: Let’s reform. But in that federally mandated process came a number of positive changes.

Did you have personal associations with the police you had to shed to maintain an open mind?

I attribute my approach to storytelling to the DNA of who I am as a person. I’m mixed race. I’m lighter-skinned. My birth mother was white; my birth father was black. I was adopted by a black family because my birth mother’s family threatened to disown her if she kept me. So she made the difficult decision in 1968 to give me up for adoption. And I was adopted by an African-American family and grew up in the black church, went to Howard University. But I also went to private school and knew a lot of wealthy white kids. Then when I was in college I got in trouble. This was at the height of the war on drugs. I got arrested and served a year in federal prison on a drug charge. I had a serious drug problem. That led me to be exposed to a whole other world. For me, ironically, the police and law enforcement really played a role in saving my life, because when I was arrested in ’89, I was really heading down a road that could have resulted in death. The way I was treated by the cops who arrested me was respectful. I never had experiences like you hear, of being thrown on the hood of a car, being profiled, being stopped and searched. But I heard the stories. My dad went to school with Martin Luther King. He’s from the South. He would tell me stories about how the police treated him and his family. I was able to carry both of these [points of view] into making this film. This was a time when everybody was being flattened into two-dimensional narratives. On both sides: cops, protestors. I wanted to break that open into its full three dimensions.

The tone of the first half of the film suggests you really believed Chief Whent was making a good-faith effort at reform.

The way that we presented the chief in the film is how we believed him to be: an earnest reformer. He was handpicked by the federal monitor to bring the department over the finish line. They were very close to satisfying the final requirements for this federal oversight, which had been going on for 12 or 13 years when we started. There’s a lot of evidence that they were making progress. Officer-involved shootings were way down. When we started they had gone a whole year with none. That’s really remarkable for a city like Oakland. They were the first to implement department-wide body-worn cameras, which is now becoming a national model. They had brought in Jennifer Eberhardt from Stanford to study implicit bias. They were doing procedural justice training. These were all really remarkable progressive reforms.

Then this prostitution scandal emerges and the revelation that Chief Whent participated in a cover-up. What are we to make of the moment early on when he tells a classroom full of police academy cadets: “We don’t have a blue wall of silence here”? It seems in retrospect deeply disingenuous.

It’s very difficult to communicate what the blue wall of silence really is. It’s not just a bunch of cops deciding we’re going to lie all the time. It really encapsulates the idea of the distrust between community and police, that police are out there risking their lives, trying to protect the community, trying to deal with violent crime, and they are seen as villains. So they retreat, they circle the wagons, they protect their own.

With Whent, it’s interesting. You could say in the moment he was being honest. In his mind he was trying to root out this culture of dishonesty, bring transparency to this department. But when he was faced with the decision to shine a light on this scandal that occurred just as they were able to sign the paperwork to lift the federal oversight, he blinked and went the other way. That was his ultimate sin. It’s a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion.

There’s some extra resonance to the fact that this film centers around protests over Ferguson and is being released at a moment when St. Louis is rising up again over the acquittal of a white police officer in the shooting of a black man. What are the takeaways from The Force for other cities, other police departments?

At a moment when the Justice Department and Jeff Sessions want to scale it back, our film really ends as a very clear argument for continued federal oversight. If it were not for federal oversight, the scandal at the OPD would never have come to light. Finding new models for community safety—what does that look like? These civilian police commissions are starting to pop up, and the one that was voted in in Oakland in November has the most authority of any civilian commission in the history of the city.

It’s not just about reform. We need mechanisms and accountability at the local level. And, of course, in the broader justice system, that’s something we’re struggling with, as well. How is our justice system equipped to handle officers who go above the law? The law gives them wide latitude to use force. And that’s a very difficult framework of which to hold officers accountable. So these are big questions that are going to take multiple steps to address. Our film articulates a couple of them. It also asks them to understand that there are cops trying to do the right thing; that there are leaders within our police departments trying to reform. This is not just a lost cause.

You just signed on next to direct a scripted film called The Fence, about police brutality and a cover-up in Boston. Is this a subject that you’re really obsessed with?

Well, part of it is that I’m from Boston, and this particular story intersects with my family’s story, and my personal story, in kind of coincidental and profound ways. This story carries all the complexity that I love, that can be at times really hard to articulate in a documentary, because you’re limited to the pieces you have. We’ve seen a lot of scripted series and films starting to emerge that are exploring some of these questions. It really speaks to what we have not yet reconciled as a nation. In America in this supposedly postracial environment after Obama, we find ourselves in a state where the urgency around this seems to be increasing. I think in history we’re going to look back and see this as a moment similar to the ’60s. This is a young country, and people forget that we’re still trying to define our values. The only way we can do that is by telling our stories.

Is there anything particularly important that I haven’t touched on?

Being a black filmmaker, trying to reconcile whose story am I telling, has been a profound experience. This has been the most difficult professional project I’ve encountered. It’s been both satisfying and incredibly challenging to face some of the pain and damage that has been done to the psyche of many in this country. I really believe it’s on both sides: It’s the people who carry the weight of oppression, and it’s also from the cops’ point of view. They see and are exposed to the failures of all our social systems. This film is the second in a trilogy looking at public institutions in one American city. Cops are dealing every day with the failures of our health-care system, of our education system. They confront mental illness at rates that are shocking. The rate of suicide in our police departments is incredibly high. They are exposed to so much darkness every day. Very few people understand what it is like to be a cop. At the same time, they are woven into the fabric of this nation, what America is. We have to reconcile that. We have to understand it better. Fundamentally that’s what we were trying to do with this film, trying to reframe how people see themselves and the world around them with regards to this issue.

When you say it’s been incredibly difficult as a black filmmaker, do you mean that you’ve had pushback from the black community?

It’s been a mix. Black Lives Matter is not monolithic. Cops are not all the same. People have different shades of feeling about this. It can be difficult in different environments to articulate or hold the complex truths that are in this film. That was part of the deal, stepping into this thing. The Waiting Room, my prior film, everybody loved me and the film. It was about doctors and nurses and patients all working in a broken system and trying to heal. This is a film about people who people believe are broken. Any effort to humanize them is seen as illegitimate. But what I like to say is humanizing somebody doesn’t necessarily mean making them look good. It means unpacking them in their full three dimensions.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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