From the outset, "Do Not Resist" director Craig Atkinson's exploration of police militarization doesn't much feel like a typical documentary. The film begins in media res, with intimate shots of idle officers in body armor during the 2014 Ferguson unrest. As protesters calmly organize in the streets, handheld shots of cops in armored vehicles intrude, looming over the proceedings with near sci-fi levels of post-apocalyptic dread. What the viewer sees is more dramatic than the images we've come to expect plastered in the media.
The audience is placed directly inside a cinematic military occupation, shot with an attention to detail that suggests carefully-composed fiction and off-hand documentation: An officer repeats a curious refrain—"If you are standing still you may be subject to arrest"—and we cut from the weaponry various cops have slung around their torsos like unlockable items in "Halo" to a woman on the sidewalk. "They need to stop giving these boys these toys," she says. "They don't know how to handle it." A young man gets onto a megaphone and reiterates what is already clear to the viewer, that there is no looting, no violence, no real threat. Just people peacefully protesting.
At that exact moment, as if scripted, tear gas is shot into the crowd and the camera scatters. The footage feels more like "Cloverfield" than a moving picture document of real events.
Once the scene is set, the film wisely spreads outward from this harrowing moment, stopping along the way at various points in the larger picture of modern American law enforcement. Instead of relying on talking head interviews or overbearing narration, Atkinson has stitched together a series of illuminating vignettes aided by the sporadic intrusion of contextual chyrons placing facts and figures into the blank spaces between settings. The result is a spartan approach to polemic filmmaking, one light on passionate editorializing but heavy on forceful implication. The nucleus is obviously police brutality and systemic racism, but in populating the surrounding screen real estate with fascinating anecdotes about the state of policing in the post-9/11 landscape, "Do Not Resist" winds up a more robust statement on the status quo.
Each step in this exploratory journey, while enlightening, becomes more depressing than the last. First, there's Dave Grossman, a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army best known for his many books on "killology." At one of his many seminars for police and other law enforcement workers, he spouts inspirational rhetoric about a cop's place in society. Grossman comes off like Tony Robbins for people who get spontaneous erections during re-runs of "The Shield." He conflates surviving a physical altercation on the job with the life altering sex an officer of the law is likely to be rewarded with back at the homestead. All this is delivered with a straight face. This little interlude provides necessary psychological background, as his work is required reading for many budding officers.
From there, Atkinson spends a good chunk of the film's lean run time dealing with the 1033 program, where demilitarized vehicles and weapons are gifted down to police departments like an older brother's ill fitting clothes. Only here, a third of the old rags handed down are brand new, barely having seen use overseas. At a congressional hearing, senators like Rand Paul grill representatives from the Department of Defense about the logistics of this program, citing a small town that was granted two MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles, typically used by police departments for their SWAT teams. The town in question only has one full time officer.
These MRAPs pop up in small communities all over the country. In Juneau County, Wisconsin. In Concord, New Hampshire. In each new setting, patterns emerge. On one hand, there's the ex-soldier residents at town hall meetings decrying the slow and steady metamorphosis of police departments into unwitting annexes for the military industrial complex and concerned citizens struggling to understand why their seemingly peaceful homes are transforming into the set of a Michael Bay movie. On the other, there's the excited law enforcement agents who get to toy with all these wonderful new playthings. There's a disquieting glee on many of their faces as they get behind the wheel of new vehicles or cock back new comically large guns. As evidenced in Grossman's talks, cops are already trained to feel like heroes on a quest, so why shouldn't they be stoked that their paladins can finally afford new chain mail and swords?
The problem is in how many police departments employ this military grade gear on simple drug busts. In one notable scene, a SWAT team raids the home of a black family, causing absurd levels of damage to the property. When all's said and done, they arrest the son for possession of marijuana on the basis of a few grams found in the bottom of his backpack. But these paltry victories are the best case scenario we're shown. In the absence of raids, all of this machismo is employed at SWAT competitions for cops to meet up and play in their off time. Once the door busting, both recreational or otherwise, is over, they're left as we met them in the film's opening moments, directing an overpowered force at civil disturbance, treating riot suppression with the same prescription we've reserved for stopping ISIS.
The final act concerns itself primarily with new technology trickling down into the police level, from facial recognition software and advanced surveillance techniques all the way up to precognitive algorithms for determining criminal potentiality. Criminologist Richard Berk speaks at length about the various factors used in his crime forecasting research. He reduces the two ends of his forecasting spectrum to Darth Vaders and Luke Skywalkers. Berk explains that it's so important to stop the Vaders that it's worth risking a few Skywalkers getting caught in the net.
The film's greatest strength lies not in what is shown, but what is conspicuously omitted. While so many within the law enforcement community draw these clear black and white lines of good and evil, they only seem interested in stopping crime as an offensive battle against an ever present boogeyman. It's an easy narrative to buy into because it reduces a complex web of systemic issues into an irreconcilable certainty that there will always be bad people and those bad people need to be put down. There's a giant blind spot ignored throughout the film, but briefly touched upon when President Obama visits a federal prison and speaks on youth and mistakes and second chances.
Richard Berk must not have watched the entire "Star Wars" saga. Darth Vader wasn't an unimpeachably evil individual. At one point he was an innocent little boy who grew up in some dire circumstances. At the end of his life, being exposed to the love of his only son gave him the opportunity to atone for his sins. For all their military hardware and new technology, none of the cops depicted in "Do Not Resist" are encouraged to see criminals as people with pasts or futures, just an ever present now. They spend so much time and resources on treating symptoms with fancy medicine and blunt force diagnostics that they fail to engage any of the cyclical root causes.
"Do Not Resist," directed by Craig Atkinson, is now playing at the Charles Theater.