It was in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 that documentary filmmaker Craig Atkinson knew something in American policing had changed. Although he grew up outside Detroit as the son of a longtime SWAT team officer, he didn’t recognize the heavily armored personnel he saw on the TV.
“I was shocked at what I was seeing, in terms of the equipment that police were using and how they were just going in homes, without search warrants, demanding that citizens let them in,” he said in an interview this week. “It had the optics, to me, of an occupying force.”
The unnerving images prompted him to start a project that would, in the end, become Do Not Resist, a documentary that coldly examines the state of American policing in the post-9/11 world.
“I didn’t come into this in the hopes of bashing cops,” the filmmaker said. “I was trying to get to the root of what was causing this disconnect between what communities are asking of police officers and what police officers are doing on a day-to-day basis.”
Atkinson’s dive into the subject of police militarization took him to small town city council meetings and hearings in the Senate; he filmed 18 police departments in 19 states, filming a half dozen SWAT raids and 20 ride-alongs. Altogether, he and his team gathered around 300 hours of footage.
Initially, he thought he was going to instill in viewers the same surprise he felt in the days following the Boston bombings. After all, when he started the project, people thought he was a fringe thinker, that the topic was something few cared about. He even had trouble finding funding.
But then Ferguson happened.
“I’m watching the initial nights of the unrest on TV like anyone else, and I was surprised to see our topic was catapulted to the national stage,” Atkinson said. “So, the first night that we showed up, it was the opening scene of the film that we recorded.”
Atkinson’s approach in Do Not Resist is to let the images speak for themselves. He doesn’t explain to you what’s happening, he just lets you watch, say, how protesters in Ferguson were met not with plainclothes police but with SWAT teams, or how citizens in Concord, New Hampshire — a town that’s seen two homicides in the last decade or so — try to convince their city government that a grant for an armored vehicle isn’t necessary for their quiet slice of America.
The city of Concord took the grant anyway. A similar situation plays out in small town Wisconsin, where we watch a beige behemoth armored truck roll along a sleepy main street, with local law enforcement just trying not to smile about their new, high-tech toy.
Perhaps the most disturbing moment in the film follows a SWAT team in South Carolina on a raid in what is said to be the home a drug kingpin. When they get to the house, however, the officers find a college student and his family. Among the members is a 4-year-old child.
Still, the officers bash in the windows (to create a distraction), arrest the student and collect little more than a dusting of weed from his backpack. They also seize several hundred dollars in cash from the teenager’s pockets, money he said he was using to buy lawn care equipment for a business.
“To me, in one scene, you have the full cycle, I think, of where we’ve ended up,” Atkinson said. “In my father’s era, [SWAT] was reserved for the most violent individuals or the search warrants that required heavy armament. He only did 29 search warrants in the 13 years he was on SWAT. When you compare that to the teams we were going out with, like the one in South Carolina, which was a similar-sized department, they were doing three to four raids a day, 200 times a year.”
Atkinson says his father, who served the Detroit suburb of Oak Park from 1974 to 2002, was “devastated” by the film. In particular, he was shocked to see how routine the use of SWAT had become in some police departments.
According to the film, from the late 1980s, the use of SWAT nationally has gone from 3,000 raids a year to, at least, 50,000 raids a year.
Atkinson also explores how the soldier mindset has crept into law enforcement. In particular, he highlights Dave Grossman, a 25-year military man popular on the police training circuit, whose brand of training focuses more on effectively shooting targets than engaging with the community.
The filmmaker says that just a few months before Officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul — with the bloody aftermath broadcasted live on Facebook, prompting protests in Minnesota and across the nation — Yanez had attended one of Grossman’s trainings.
“The community is rightfully upset and asking, why does this keep happening?” said Atkison, who was part of a policing discussion at the Walker Art Center in August. “How do we arrive at a point where someone reaches for their wallet and loses their life? How is that acceptable?”
Looking ahead, Do Not Resist predicts that not just military weapons and vehicles will be on American streets, but military surveillance technology will as well.
Yet, Atkinson has reason to be optimistic, particularly in light of how the issue of police militarization is one of the rare ones that isn’t hyper-partisan.
“What I’m most encouraged by is when I see citizens voting and lobbying their state legislator to actually pass laws that have a day-to-day effect on how police act in their community,” the filmmaker said. “I think that’s a change people can be a part of, and it is quite effective.”
Do Not Resist is playing at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.