There’s a mild sense of disbelief that accompanies Craig Atkinson reflecting on the making of “Do Not Resist.” It isn’t because he and his producer Laura Hartrick were in Ferguson, Missouri in the days after the police shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown led to protests in the city in 2014 where it resembled a war zone in the Middle East than a suburb of St. Louis, dodging tear gas canisters and observing SWAT teams being deployed with abandon on the community, but rather because he thought the need to make a film might be unnecessary, given all the other media coverage there.
“For the last year-and-a-half of making the film, we thought no one would care at all about our film, about the footage or the topic because we thought there would be significant traction in reforms or a new direction in law enforcement to be suggested,” said Atkinson, five months removed from the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize for Best Documentary. “it was a very challenging thing from a production standpoint to be working as hard as you can on a project you think no one is going to care about, but here we are two years later and unfortunately, it’s as timely as ever.”
Even if its subject weren’t as pressing, “Do Not Resist” would feel urgent and immediate as Atkinson immerses audiences in a ground-up portrait of how U.S. law enforcement has steadily incorporated military tactics and weaponry into their work, redefining the job from defending citizens to aggressively seeking out ways to put their new equipment and procedures to use. By visiting a city council meeting in Concord, New Hampshire where funding for a $250,000 tank is being considered, sitting in on police training seminars where attendees are admonished by retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman to embrace “violence as your tool,” and riding along with a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms team asked to use full force on minor marijuana busts, the filmmaker illustrates how the vicious cycle of the military industrial complex has reared its ugly head inside police departments across the country, where the money to be made outweighs the public interest.
Atkinson, who is making his directorial debut after serving as a cinematographer on Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Detropia,” which was similarly provocative in its purpose and almost painterly impressionistic style, somehow fits this all into concise 72 minutes, but plants the seeds for far longer consideration and discussion, and as “Do Not Resist” begins to roll out nationally, he spoke about the inspiration of his father to pursue the film, how his time in Ferguson reconfigured what the film would be, interviewing the analyst Richard Berk, who believes he can identify future criminals based on what socioeconomic conditions they’re born into, and getting his arms around such a large and complex subject.
How did this come about?
More than anything, it was in the back of my head because my father was a police officer for 29 years outside of Detroit and a SWAT officer in that time for 13 years. He retired in 2002, so I hadn’t really thought of anything having to do with police or SWAT until the Boston Marathon bombing, but I had never seen the style of equipment that was used during that exchange and the mentality of the officers seemed to be wildly different than what I remembered my dad’s era to be. What I observed was more of an occupying force moving into homes rather than people there to protect and serve. I went to interview people in Boston who experienced that and they said police were coming in our homes without search warrants. A couple individuals said they were handcuffed, face down on their front lawn for six hours, never told why they were being detained and no charges subsequently filed. When I started hearing about all of this, I was curious about what had changed from my dad’s era of policing. Not that that era was perfect by any means – it was riddled with issues, but it seemed like a tremendous shift. This is April of 2013, and we were in production from November 2013, and all of a sudden, Ferguson happens.
Obviously, you couldn’t have predicted Ferguson, but it becomes such an organizing event for the rest of the story you’re telling. How did that redirect the film?
Originally, we thought we were going to be breaking the story [of police militarization] but when the events of Ferguson happened, a lot of the discussion of the militarization of police was flushed out, so we figured by the time we finished the film, no one would care about the [Ferguson] footage. But the discussion seemed to shift only about how the military hardware has been flowing to domestic police forces and how we’re only waking up to it now, so we were thinking if this has been going on for 30 years, when we were seeing the reforms that were coming out of Ferguson, we realized that if they change the laws, none of that equipment is coming back, so what’s coming next [in policing]?
Because we were forced to think like that, this other component [came in], which is the surveillance technology that was returning back from Iraq and Afghanistan as we wound down these wars abroad. That seemed like it was actually the future and here we are now finishing the film and that does seem to be the trend in law enforcement where you’re integrating mass surveillance tools to be, what they refer to as being a “force multiplier” because as less personnel becomes a possibility for departments [nationally] because of budgetary constraints, they’re hiring less officers and relying on technology more to be a “force multiplier.” Because [Ferguson happened when we] knew we were two years out from making the film, we wanted to see if we could future-proof the piece and make people both in the communities and the police see something we hadn’t necessarily thought about just yet.
How did the interview with Richard Berk, the professor of criminology and statistics at University of Penn, come about?
Our producer Laura Hartrick, who co-edited the film as well, really invested in looking at this technology and surveillance component. She found some TED Talks that Richard Berk had done and his research sounded fascinating. We certainly wanted to know how that was being integrated into police work and we were shocked to find it was already being introduced into police work, and so we sought him out and I think Richard Berk comes from a perspective where he thinks the technology could be used for good or it could be used for evil, but the technology itself is benign, so he’s only working on the technology in hopes that it would be used for good. However, the technology is doubling so quickly that no policy is actually keeping up fast enough in order to make sure it’s being used for good.
If you’re developing the technology at this rate and not putting in policy to make sure it’s used for good, human nature has a tendency to ensure that it’s used for nefarious purposes or to increase the power of the people who are owning the technology. We were shocked to see that they were going as far as trying to predict the likelihood of an unborn child to commit a crime by the time they were 18 — I don’t feel human behavior responds like that and Richard Berk himself says if you’re truly unique, it doesn’t work. So I’m thinking my God, aren’t we supposed to view ourselves as unique individuals who are trying to expand out? Are we just supposed to accept the fact that we’re [being viewed as] a mass averaging of a collection of thoughts? So it was fascinating to hear his philosophy, but we have to make sure that we’re putting policies in place to make sure that [the technology is] used for good because I don’t see that happening as structured and significantly as it needs to be.
It really is a shocking moment – and perhaps more chilling than even the Ferguson footage since I feel like I’ve been desensitized to a degree of images of events like Ferguson because they’ve been so omnipresent. Was that something that was a consideration in putting this together once you got into editing?
Yeah, very much so. The whole time we were trying to hopefully point both the police officers and the community to something we haven’t even considered coming down the line yet. There’s a scene in the film during the 21st Century Task Force meeting where it’s Obama’s chosen few to help reform police and Charles Ramsey, the Philadelphia Police Commissioner who’s the head of the meeting says in open forum, “License plate readers – we all have this. How long before facial recognition software gets added?” Well, we had already filmed the LAPD using that a year prior. So the president’s chosen few, here to reform police work, are totally unaware of things that we filmed a year prior.
The other troubling thing is the fact that statistical analysis of data is being [conducted with] Comstat figures, crime statistics that have been kept nationally, but are used as performance matrix for chiefs, so the chiefs have a very specific goal of making crime rates go down in their area. Sometimes they won’t get a promotion or federal funding if they don’t make crime go down. So like fancy accounting techniques, they started accounting for aggravated assaults like simple assault and that’s the data that Richard Berk is now using to run his algorithms over, so no one is considering whether or not this data’s actually accurate. If we’ve crystallized and digitized old thinking about race and why crime actually comes about, reducing it to ones and a zero, and now we’re using that to predict whether or not an unborn child is going to commit a crime, I just think that’s going to lead to more unjust policing.
Since you seem to be everywhere, how did you decide which rooms to get into when this is such a big subject?
I wanted to make something that wasn’t regionally specific because each region of the country polices differently. If we only filmed in the south, I didn’t want someone in the north to say “Well, we don’t police like that.” I wanted to do something that would be nationally relevant, so we spanned out across the country and tried to get access to as many departments as we could. We filmed in 19 states in 18 different police departments and I think 11 are represented in the film. But it was a process of wanting to put a camera in the middle of the situation because as I’m starting a year prior to the events in Ferguson, I wasn’t getting traction with anyone. Everyone thinks I’m a fringe thinker or a conspiracy theorist because I’m talking about the flow of equipment into domestic police forces, and I knew that talking heads are going to be totally ineffective at recreating the on-the-ground reality, so I said, “Okay, we need to work as hard as we can to put the camera in the situation, so we don’t have to rely on expert testimony. We can observe these scenes playing out and let the audience come to their own conclusions,” so it was constantly a process of getting those cameras in those positions and we were really following where we could get access and we spanned out as far as we could to tell a nationally relevant story.
Were people open to letting the cameras in?
Yes and no. Certainly after Ferguson, it became more difficult because police officers got nervous we were going to try and do a media hit job on them. But I kept approaching them with the only thing we really had to offer, which was an authentic portrayal of whatever we did together. We came through on that. We didn’t sensationalize the edit. We didn’t take things out of context. We fed it back exactly the way the officers showed us and I think people are shocked by what they decided to show us, but to me, that speaks to how routine these SWAT engagements actually are.
It would take a significant amount of time to gain access. There would sometimes be a layer of background checks that we would have to go through and sometimes we would get access with a police department and [when] another person would be killed, the media would kick up about it and we would lose that access, so it became very difficult. However, it’s not unprecedented for film crews to go out with police crews. “Cops” has been riding along with police departments since 1989 and in fact, the South Carolina team we were filming with actually had the TV show “Cops” filming with them at the exact same time, so I think they were just viewing us at times as another ride-along.
How did you figure out the visual style of this? It seems like the seeds might’ve been planted with “Detropia.”
I had the privilege of working with some very incredible directors early on, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who I did “Detropia” with and also their editor Enat Sidi, who I’ve been very close to over the years. She really gave me some profound advice early on when I was first learning to be a cinematographer. I was very active with the camera [because] you feel like sometimes you should be there trying to do something and not just sitting there and observing, and [Enat] got a hold of me and said, “Listen, you can’t shoot everything in the scene at the exact same time. Decide what’s important in the scene and follow that idea throughout the scene, so I have one thought I can work from. If you’re shooting all these disconnected things throughout the scene, I don’t have a sense of what actually happened.” So that’s what I started to do – to shoot it from that perspective and that’s why I feel it’s important for an individual going out and exploring a topic such as this to really study as much as they can [beforehand] so you’re bringing a valid perspective to the scenes that you’re shooting. When I’m doing any type of a project, I’m doing extensive background research so that when I’m going into the field, I have a valid perspective to share, so there’s a lot of preparation before taking the camera out into the field, so you know what you’re looking at.
How did you actually get interested in documentary filmmaking in the first place?
I didn’t really have any experience when I started. I didn’t really grow up with films. I grew up with “Top Gun” in my house as high cinematic value, and I was doing martial arts almost full-time exclusively, so if you rattle off films I should’ve seen, I probably haven’t. But I started watching documentaries – one that inspired me early on was Marc Singer’s “Dark Days” and I just thought it was incredible that you could get access to a world I personally had never heard of. He used this film in a way to help the people in that environment. I just thought that was an incredible trajectory and an effective use of this visual medium, so I was inspired by that and I did a grad program at Emerson for a couple years and went to New York [where I] just started cold-calling directors I liked, saying I’d intern for them. I happened to have the good fortune of calling Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady and they hired me as an intern. A week later, I got hired on as a staff member and started a career with them with a lot of on-the-ground, hands-on training during that time.
Was directing what you thought it would be when putting this together?
That was very challenging. Eighteen months before we hoped to finish, our film is not even close to editing and because of the experiences that we had in Ferguson and going on raids, some of which weren’t in the film, that got really intense. I didn’t intend on editing it because I wanted a fresh perspective and another set of eyes and we hired Enat Sidi, but she had a family emergency, so we realized that was not going to be a possibility, and we ended up sitting on the footage for a very long time. It was difficult to go through – sitting there, thinking about that space for 15 hours a day for months on end, really forced me to make those directorial decisions and to get serious about what I was telling in each scene. Early cuts of the film, I was trying to say five or six things within one scene and people I was consulting with said, “Listen, boil it down to one idea and tell that idea effectively because then collectively you’re going to add up to a bigger idea. You don’t have to do it all in the same scene.” And that led to a very tight and concise 72 minutes. People say [now] you could almost unpack each scene as its own film and I agree with that, but because the footage is so overwhelming, I wanted to make something that wasn’t unrelenting on people to the point of exhaustion. The shorter running time allows you to be unrelenting, but leaves people off at a space where they’re hopefully still empowered to do something.
What’s it been like taking this out on the road?
It’s been fascinating. I feel like I’ve been in a hole for three years and now to reemerge and to share [the film], it’s been very enriching. What I’m most encouraged by is that we had the opportunity to screen at police departments and academies. We did a screening at the John Jay Criminal Justice School in New York City, which is the feeder school for the NYPD [where there were] 300 students, many of which were active NYPD, and some of them got up afterwards and said, “Thank you so much for making this film — it reflects reality and areas that we need to reform.”
One of the SWAT commanders immediately got up and tried to put some distance between himself and Dave Grossman and said, “Well, we don’t police like that at the NYPD. And I said, “That’s a great point, but if you go on to Dave Grossman’s calendar, he’s still booked 200 days this year and he’s still required reading at the FBI Academy.” But I think off the strength of screenings like that, I’m hoping to bring this film to more departments and academies [since] I think many people recognize that police are often trapped in the middle. I’m hoping that we don’t condemn the officers, but we condemn the style of policing we see in this film and we use it as a teaching tool because I think that will actually serve a greater good. Making a film that would’ve further pitted citizens against police obviously wouldn’t solve any issues and we need to bring this film to people who can actually change these things and reform these policies and the way we’re training officers to approach to community, which is the police themselves.
“Do Not Resist” is currently open in limited release. A full schedule of screenings and dates is here.