“They need to stop giving these boys these toys, ’cause they don’t know how to handle it.”
These words, spoken by a young black woman on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014, set the tone for Do Not Resist, a documentary film by Craig Atkinson. The woman’s comment was recorded just after a phalanx of riot-geared officers marched through clouds of tear gas to clear demonstrators out after curfew. The shooting death of Michael Brown by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson not only sparked new debates about the use of lethal force by police, but it also led to a nationwide discussion on the increased use of military-style weapons, equipment, and tactics by law enforcement officers.
In conjunction with the Walker’s August 18 screening and panel discussion around Do Not Resist, Minnesota Public Radio reporter Brandt Williams connected with Atkinson to discuss the film and the questions it poses, in small town city councils and in the halls of Congress, about the militarization of police departments. Law enforcement officials say they need better tools to protect themselves and the communities they serve from danger. But does the police force in a town of under 30,000 people need a 24-ton, mine-resistant vehicle? Why is the federal government using the same airborne surveillance technology the military uses to spot terrorists for domestic disturbances? And what is next?
Brandt Williams: The film opens in Ferguson after Michael Brown is shot and killed. We see storm clouds brewing, and the police are armored up as protesters go by. Have you ever been in that kind of environment before?
Craig Atkinson: I’ve shot other protests and protests that turned into police exchanges, but this was our first opportunity to see the military equipment that had been given by the government.
Williams: In that first scene, you got some up close and personal video of these officers, including one scene where, after one night of activity, it’s almost like they’re athletes leaving a playing field, where they bump shields together. How did you get that video?
Atkinson: That all was taking place on the street. What we found was that the media that showed up in Ferguson would leave around 10 or 11 pm to go home and follow these stories, but we didn’t have any other deadlines, so we were able to stay out with the officers until 4 or 5 in the morning. And because not many other people were there, we just put ourselves in a very close position. By simply waiting until the end of the exchange we were able to get material that a lot of people haven’t seen before.
It was interesting to go home the next morning and watch the news, and the accuracy of what we found being portrayed was very different from what we saw waiting until the end of the night and seeing how things played out. It was an eye-opening experience to see the discrepancies between what actually took place and what was being reported.
Williams: In the film, you go from Ferguson to a scene with Dave Grossman, a well-known police trainer. Your father was a police officer, right?
Atkinson: Yes. My father was a police officer for 29 years outside of Detroit, and he was actually a SWAT officer for 13 of those years.
Williams: How did you father feel about policing, and can you compare the type of policing he did with seeing Grossman using terms like “superior and righteous violence” and saying, “You are men and women of violence.” Did your father feel like he was a “man of violence”?
Atkinson: It was quite surprising to attend a Dave Grossman seminar. We arrived at a place in our project where we thought it would be good to show how police were actually being trained. Grossman is the number-one trainer in America, not only for US Special Forces, but also for law enforcement across the country. He has taught at West Point, and his books are required reading at the FBI Academy. What we found during the six-hour seminar was language I’d never imagined our domestic police forces would be receiving. Things such as: “You’ll get sued at some point in your career. At times you can be sued for not using deadly force. If you stand by when there’s an active shooter and not use deadly force, you can be held for dereliction of duty. But don’t be afraid of being sued. Everyone gets sued; it’s just a chance for overtime.”
Things that were getting a chuckle from the crowd were really conveying a message to police officers that it’s fun to use deadly force. It’s something you might actually enjoy. It’s this whole mentality of controlling a city, rather than identifying as partners and protecting and serving a city. A young officer in a police academy, 21 or 22 years old, receiving this type of messaging, I think it’s going to have an influence. An officer could be coming into the police academy and identifying as someone who’s supposed to protect and serve, or as a peace officer, or someone who’s there to aid the community in a time of crisis, rather than coming in as “a man or woman of violence.”
Williams: I was also struck by the type of training that Grossman does. Is he affiliated with the Bulletproof Warrior training?
Atkinson: Yeah. Bulletproof Warrior training is a Dave Grossman creation. He says he teaches 300 days a year, and he’s been doing it for 18 years. Someone recently pointed out that the officer that shot Philando Castile had attended one of these Bulletproof Warrior training classes. When I went through this six-hour class and heard the rhetoric of fear that Dave Grossman communicates, it automatically signaled an area we should start looking into to find answers about why police officers are responding in violent ways to very mundane actions.
Williams: The film also touches on the Defense Department program that’s responsible for distributing military equipment to police departments. I was curious about the case in Concord, New Hampshire, where the city council was voting about the BearCat [a Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck]. Did that police chief give a reason for why he wanted this BearCat?
Atkinson: He cited the fact that there’s a growing threat of violence. He actually used language that identified a local protest group that was speaking out against the BearCat. He wrote it into the original grant proposal saying there are protest groups that we need to be cautious of and prepared for. The group protested the chief, and he took that language out of the grant proposal he submitted to DHS.
There are two major sources of funding for police equipment. One is the DOD program, the 1033 program, that’s been going on since 1997, and that’s the one that transfers surplus military equipment to law enforcement. The other one is the Department of Homeland Security grant. That’s the one that’s given $34 billion since 9/11 to local police departments to purchase equipment. In New Hampshire, you had a police chief submitting an application for a grant to Homeland Security, which then authorized a $250,000 grant to purchase a BearCat, which he took to the city council to get a vote on. It’s very hard for elected officials to not vote for something like this, because it’s ultimately proposed as something for officer safety.
Making this movie, we’d hear departments make claims time and time again that all this equipment was for officer safety or to fight terrorism, but in three years of ride-alongs we never had an opportunity to see it used on terrorism or anything like that. On a day to day basis, the equipment was used to raid houses, oftentimes for low-level drug offenses. Obviously, there are times when we need this equipment. Look no further than Orlando, where you had an active shooter situation and the BearCat was used to puncture a hole in the side of the [Pulse] nightclub to allow people to escape and eventually kill the person on the inside. Other opportunities abound where you might need the equipment. But what we kept finding was they’d say it’d be used for terrorism and they turn around and use it for drug search warrants, which were about seizing assets and where other motives seemed to be in play.
Williams: The use of MRAP [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected] vehicles: you have these massive, 24-ton pieces of military equipment built to protect people from IEDs, and in the film we see one rolling down the street of some town in Wisconsin. Was there anything that surprised you about these examples? Did you ever just shake your head at that?
Atkinson: The entire project we were shaking our heads! We repeatedly saw instances that seemed completely excessive. One can make the case that a BearCat, which was design on an F-250 truck chassis and designed for domestic roads, would make sense for a law enforcement vehicle. But the MRAP is like 45,000 pounds, and some bridges in Fallujah would crumble under the weight of them. The max speed is 45 miles an hour. There was one police department in California that had picked one up from an army depot, and they were never told that the max speed should be about 45 mph because of the weight of the vehicle. Well, an officer was taking it back to the police department on the freeway, going 75 miles an hour. All four tires blow out, and he runs off the side of the road and hits a pickup truck in the oncoming lane and nearly kills the driver. There are these situations where you think, My god, why would we need an MRAP, that is designed solely to resist an IED. Why do we need it on the streets of Wisconsin?
Williams: Another part of the film that struck me is this kind of dark turn, looking toward the future of law enforcement–using tools and technology that a lot of us feel like we only see in science fiction. I was reminded of movies like Minority Report or the Terminator movies, when they’re talking about unmanned drones that can make decisions to take out targets without a human [involved] or predicting who is going to commit crimes. Where did you start hearing about this type of technology?
Atkinson: We discovered it in about 2014, when everyone started focusing on the military hardware coming back: the tanks and the weapons. We looked at the history of the program, which had been going on for 30 years, and realized: all that equipment was already out and it wasn’t coming back. The MRAPs were not coming back in. All the other equipment that was gifted to law enforcement wasn’t coming back in.
So I was like: even if they make reform, what’s coming next? And what we saw was a lot of the surveillance technology that was returning from Iraq and Afghanistan was making its way back. What we saw was people that would retire from the military and go into the private sector and take the technology with them, essentially. We saw technology companies approaching law enforcement and suggesting tools to use, oftentimes making them sign nondisclosure agreements so police personnel couldn’t inform the community of what they were actually using. It was private companies approaching law enforcement, offering very high power tools, and law enforcement would start using them without any policy directive on how they’re going to be deployed or what rules they should be governed by. So it was very much like private companies were dictating how the police were policing in their own communities.
We saw this throughout 2014, and we realized what we really were filming was the transition between the war on drugs and the war on terror as it related to domestic law enforcement. Because the war on terror has been fought, and is being fought, with a lot of technology—surveillance technology, obviously. We know all about the vacuuming up of the email communications of the entire web for defense companies and security agencies to analyze at a future date. Well, we came across technology providers that were taking the same IBM platform that the NSA uses to gather up all our communication and offering it to law enforcement for a $1,000 a year subscription. It’s the exact same platform the NSA uses. That may be very effective in fighting terrorism, but there was no policy in place to govern how local law enforcement, which doesn’t have the oversight that the maybe NSA even has, were to use this technology on local populations.
Williams: The Philando Castile shooting here in Falcon Heights in July was very unique because we had live video streaming from the scene right after the shooting. During protests in the wake of officer-involved shootings of African Americans, there has been a lot of the use of Twitter and other social media to get the word out about the conduct of officers at these demonstrations. It seems like there’s almost a technology race between folks trying to document police and police trying to control that particular message—from social media to body cams. When you talked to law enforcement officials, did they talk about using social media and other technology to control their message and how they’re portrayed?
Atkinson: A lot of the younger officers are very technology-capable and adopt technology quickly, and older officers across the country are very slow to react.
Obviously social media has played a huge role in a lot of the protest community being able to get their message out. One thing we saw that I want the protest community to be aware of is the fact that a lot of these police officers are gathering up all the Twitter communication and analyzing it and putting algorithms on it. They’re creating sophisticated models in order to create accounts and influence the discussion that’s happening on Twitter. There are comprehensive ways to influence a Twitter discussion by botting and using your own discussion feeds to interject on a conversation that’s already happened. We saw police officers going online and interacting with protesters in a way that you would consider to be trolling, and the only goal was to keep them from doing their protest duties. The person would be consumed with having to block accounts or deal with racist posts on their accounts and having to delete posts, and they’d spend hours of their day dealing with these trolls, when in fact it was police officers on the other end trying to influence the discussion. I don’t know if it’s individual officers who are doing that or if it’s a top-down approach.
You mentioned body cameras. They have been looked to as a panacea to fix policing. But one thing we realized is that technology companies are already figuring out how you could have a body camera relay back to the squad car, which would have wifi that would relay back to the department, and you could have real-time facial recognition in all of the police cameras. This solution that was thought to give citizens police oversight, and to protect officers against wrongful claims against them, now a technology company has stepped in to provide a solution that would give a significant advantage to the police department.
Williams: There was the discussion in the film of the FBI conducting surveillance flights over Ferguson at the request of police. Most people may figure, “Well, I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I worry if the police are searching. They’re just looking for the bad guys.” Do you get a sense that people’s attitude has changed about, or do they just not realize the reach that law enforcement has these days?
Atkinson: I think that mentality is starting to shift a bit, because we’re beginning to understand the breadth of data that’s being collected. Look no further than the insurance industry. Previously, in order to be the biggest insurance company you’d have to insure the greatest number of people. But with the data that the industry has been able to collect on patients over the years, they realized that computer-modeling technology could help them figure out who’s likely or unlikely to get sick. So the idea is to insure the people who were unlikely to get sick and _not_ insure the people who were likely to get sick. Date is being collected and analyzed more and more in ways than give a significant advantage to corporations who own the data, against the very people they collected date from. But users are constantly giving data to corporations, and they’re getting some services, but the number of services that they’re getting are by no means the same value of the data that they’re contributing. Google, Facebook, they all turn around and use our data in ways that generate significant revenue for themselves, and oftentimes it can be a disadvantage for the users who are the ones that provided the data in the first place. This is happening across the board.
So think about big data entering policing. A lot of the statistics that are being analyzed are from Comstat. Dave Grossman says in footage that I didn’t include in the film, “Every police chief in the country knows that you can make the crime data say whatever you want it to say.” Police officers have known for years that they’ve been fudging the numbers on this Comstat data, because it’s an accounting technique where you account for certain crimes one way instead of another, and it makes it looks like the crime rate is going down. It’s been happening over the course of the last decade that Comstat has been used across the board to gather police statistics. My fear is that if you’re using this Comstat data, which I feel is compromised, to analyze and do significant deep studies on, and then go out and determine whether someone should be let out of prison or not or to predict if a child is likely to commit a homicide by the age of 18. Those predictive analytics may be very helpful, but if they’re based off of data that’s inaccurate, I think we’ll find ourselves in a situation where there will be more unjust predictions than just. We need to figure out whether this data we’re putting into police predictive models is sound, reliable data. Or are we just finding the answers that we’re already looking for?
Williams: In the film [FBI director] James Comey speaks to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, stating, “Monsters are real.” Do you get the sense who these monsters are? As you mentioned, a lot of the equipment isn’t being used to fight terrorists; it’s being used to serve search warrants to find weed or guns.
Atkinson: When Comey mentions that in the film, he’s referring to terrorists like ISIS. When I speak to police officers, they say they’re preparing for terrorists. The thing is, when we went out on a day to day basis, it wasn’t terrorists. It was local citizens, often in low-income neighborhoods. Police officers may have the best interests and may truly feel that monsters are lurking—and quite honestly some of these officers do have to go up against situations where things become extremely violent and there are active shooters and it can seem like that—but I think there needs to be a separate application of force standard for local communities versus having this level of equipment that you keep saying is for terrorism applied in the exact same way.
Williams: Looking at the events of last month, we saw police officers shot in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and in both cases the assailants used high-powered rifles and military training. How do shootings like this change the discussions around the militarization of police?
Atkinson: Quite simply, I think it’s a reminder that there are incidences where you absolutely need this equipment. It very clearly illustrates that police officers are oftentimes put in positions where they need to have a significant amount of protection.
Williams: In Dallas, the police used a robot with an explosive on it to kill an assailant. Had you heard about this before?
Atkinson: No, that was a first. The thing with the Dallas shooting was that in the hours before they used the robot, the police had released photos of another individual who was at home and saw his face on the news. He wasn’t a suspect; he’d been home all night. Well, he ran out of the house and found the nearest police officer and identified himself, and he was taken into custody and later released. I’m not saying the person in the Dallas shooting wasn’t the proper guy and didn’t end up getting what he deserved. I’m saying it’s a new threshold we’re crossing when we’re basically offering a summary judgment on this individual, sending in a robot with an explosive to kill a guy. What if the guy who was misidentified was the person who was accidentally killed by the robot? It’s a scary threshold to cross that we’re using summary judgment in the filed in a very new way. How many steps away is it to have a robot make a decision for itself?
Williams: What are the key questions you hope people who see the movie come away with, and do you think this should lead to a larger discussion, not only about the militarization of the police, but even their role in crime-fighting today?
Atkinson: Hopefully the film opens up the discussion about training. There are a lot of young officers who come in to do what the profession is presented as—to protect and serve. And I think these young officers are highly impressionable. I’m hoping we identify ways to give them the tools they actually need the most in the field. When I’d go on ride-alongs over the last three years, more often than not we were being called for domestic violence situations or for people having mental health crises. More often than not, they need to be able to de-escalate the situation. I saw them, often times, grossly unprepared for de-escalating the situation. However, if the situation turned into violence, they were very well equipped to handle that. One, I hope the film starts that discussion.
Two, no matter who gets elected in the next presidential election, I think the discussion is going to move toward federalizing the police force. That is something we need to be cautious of, because look at who has provided the equipment to law enforcement that has created this environment of over-militarization. The federal government. I think it would be the wrong choice to turn around and hand law enforcement to the influence that has gotten us away from the community policing model which we all thought we were operating on, before events like Ferguson woke us up to the fact that we’d gone a different direction.