Peter Nicks’ documentary The Force examines the Oakland Police Department’s recent reform efforts to curb its history of excessive police force and systemic civil rights violations, which have warranted federal government oversight of the Department since 2003. Although it has its imperfections, The Force stands out for its uniquely equitable treatment of law enforcement as a complex organism necessitating difficult incremental changes.
The film is best viewed as a complementary work to prior Black Lives Matter documentaries, such 2017’s Whose Streets? and The Blood is at the Doorstep. Both of those films provide vital lenses into the suffering of black families and resulting activism by communities after loved ones were victimized by fatal police shootings. However, these films — effectively geared toward emotional galvanization against “broken windows” policing and excessive police force at stops and arrests — do not examine specific reform recommendations to eradicate these injustices.
The Force is a nascent step in this direction, and as such it has its sophomoric flaws. Nicks too often resorts to heavy-handed atmospherics when observing Oakland Police Department (OPD) patrol work— there’s an excess of grim stock night footage taken from helicopters and roving police cars and an overuse of an ominous synth score reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1976 cult-action thriller Assault on Precinct 13. These moody elements come across as a substitute for more straightforward and substantial coverage of police street encounters.
When the camera does get closer to police stops and investigations, the footage is comprised of mostly surface information. Homicide investigation scenes primarily convey the Oakland community’s distrust and vitriolic treatment of the OPD. Nicks also follows a new young officer’s good faith efforts at peaceable solutions during low level crime stops — a signifier of the OPD’s efforts to minimize excessive force.
But what’s missing from these patrol scenes is a psychological inspection of the job, as was the case in Police Tapes (1976), a documentary on the New York Police Department. In that film, a more participatory camera engages with NYPD officers who candidly speak about their emotional and thought processes during street encounters and custodial interrogations. The Force takes a less effective passive approach by not interviewing officers about their experiences in what is a reputably difficult city to patrol.
Instead, Nicks spends a great deal of time on OPD’s brass, particularly Police Chief Sean Whent — a bespectacled, soft-spoken man with a Gen-Mil techie vibe — who the city presents as the face of 21st Century “cultural change” in the OPD. Whent gives mostly rhetorical speeches on ethical conduct and constitutional procedure to cadet training classes and the press. Of course, the OPD’s image doesn’t necessary translate to the high pressure rigors of police work, as seen through footage of high pressure patrol work, as well as screentext indicating another rash of fatal police shootings in 2015.
But the audience never gets a sense of what Whent did differently from the five police chiefs who commanded OPD before him, which of course is vital information needed to convey the complexities of procedural change in a city that has had a relatively high incidence of violent crimes compared to the state of California (Nicks references a Politico Magazine clipping on this topic).
Nevertheless, The Force excels when it occasionally delves into the mental dynamics of police work. In one illuminating multiple point of view sequence, a swarm of lively Black Lives Matter protestors block a congested Oakland highway in November, 2014 (although the film doesn’t indicate as much, the protest was sparked by the St. Louis Grand Jury’s failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson for his fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2013).
Here, the camera is full of life and perspective. Nicks portrays a broad cross-section of protestors — some are peacefully vocal, but others hostilely confront and provoke officers. Nicks affords the officers equal treatment, closing up on their faces which portray frustration, strain, and fear. Both parties could use a solution to this unrest.
A cutaway to Whent from his patrol car adds another layer to the scene. Whent confusedly asks “are we going to cite them or arrest them?” It seems he’s leaning toward citations, but he acknowledges that would be a “mess”. It’s easy to infer the complex logistics of this strategy, which would not only be hard to implement during a protest, but would also clog the courthouse. Perhaps a third action is the best course? Problematically, the answer is not provided because a moment later, another police call comes through about a murder investigation.
The sequence is a mature, objective portrayal of the instantaneous demands of police work, which can quickly delay the also necessary contemplation of a more community-friendly OPD. Conclusions can be readily drawn that the OPD is understaffed to address this situation; from there, more questions mushroom as to whether the city of Oakland is properly funding its justice system for the cultural changes it covets.
The Force‘s masterful centerpiece is found later in the film, during a classroom exercise where cadets examine footage of a fatal police shooting when an officer discharged 13 bullets at the suspect who was reaching into the backseat of his car for an unknown object (later revealed to be a knife). A disturbingly stark, polarized debate ensues where officers talk over one another, to the point where some struggle to complete their thoughts. “You have to give me at least that you see the difference between shooting once and thirteen times,” one cadet implores of an advocate for the discharge of multiple bullets. The supporter of the 13 bullet discharge is not swayed.
As harrowing as this debate is, Nicks refrains from judging either party. Rather, he gravely acknowledges the continued influx of new officers who support multiple-bullet discharges at police stops, even those where a suspect is not yet known to have a weapon. The scene, which lasts about three minutes, needs to be expanded into a film itself where multiple perspectives on the issue are candidly discussed and greater efforts toward non-fatal stop and arrest procedures are further explored.
The Force is particularly noteworthy when compared to an earlier 2017 film, the historic based crime drama Detroit. In Detroit, a nightmarish deluge of horror scenes unfold in which a handful of racist police officers sadistically brutalize and murder unarmed black men at the Algiers Motel during the Detroit riots of 1967. Indeed, police brutality is a horror which warrants extensive coverage.
But The Force’s subject matter is equally important. At its best, The Force offers the perspective that even when police officers earnestly believe they are abiding by ethical and constitutional constraints, there are still unresolved issues in law enforcement that adversely affect the daily lives of inner-city communities. The Force‘s greatest accomplishment is as a signal that these issues deserve careful consideration, as well as the community-based reform efforts which the film begins to cover in its final minutes.
The Force premieres on PBS (US) 22 Jan 2018.