In January 2018 I spoke with the Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Pete Nicks about The Force, the second film in his acclaimed trilogy set in Oakland, California, exploring the interconnected narratives of health care, criminal justice, and education in America.
The Force focuses on Oakland’s deeply troubled police department and its history of violence. It won Nicks the Documentary Directing Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, was released theatrically by Kino Lorber, and aired nationwide on PBS’s Independent Lens. (The previous film in the series, The Waiting Room, was set in Oakland’s Highland Hospital, and won the Truer Than Fiction Independent Spirit award in 2012. Pete is currently at work on the final segment, Homeroom, set in Oakland’s public schools.)
To cite just one example, consider this quote from the film, from an Oakland police captain speaking to a new class of police recruits, telling them:
“One bad cop can destroy a department, can destroy a city, can destroy a country.”
That was certainly prescient in light of the Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd—I won’t say his name. But it’s clear that that captain is not promoting the “one bad apple” theory. He’s talking about a whole poisoned orchard that is reflected not only in our criminal justice system, but also in health care, and education, and on down the line.
A new interview with Pete Nicks will appear in these pages next week.
January 22, 2018
If there is one city in the United States that embodies the current crisis in American law enforcement—and in particular, the outrage over the epidemic of racially-based, often lethal police brutality against people of color—it is Oakland, California.
It is the place from which the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was spawned in 1966 in response to the repeated police killings of young African-American citizens….a city whose police department has been under federal oversight for 13 years due to systemic abuses, longer than any other in the country….and one that five years ago saw two police chiefs resign in three days, then last year lost three more chiefs in the space of eight.
At this moment in the history of American policing—amid Ferguson, Freddie Gray, and Colin Kaepernick vs. Trump Nation, to name just a few in a grim parade of flashpoints—there is no more fraught place than Oakland.
For two years, Bay Area filmmaker Pete Nicks, producer Linda Davis, and editor/soundman Lawrence Lerew embedded themselves with the Oakland Police Department to document this story from the inside. Operating in a lean, unobtrusive style that has drawn favorable comparisons to the great cinema vérité pioneer Fred Wiseman, Nicks (who was also the film’s cinematographer) immerses the audience in intense environments that would otherwise be opaque to most of the public.
Nicks’s work at once offers us fly-on-the wall entrée to some of the most cloistered realms of our society without delivering easy, pat answers to complex questions or forcing an agenda on the audience. Of such thought-provoking, challenging stuff is a healthy, informed, and engaged democracy made.
THE KING’S NECKTIE: Thanks for sitting down with me, Pete. Can you start by talking about how you got this kind of access to the OPD?
PETE NICKS: Well, The Waiting Room opened up the possibility of a trilogy, because we saw all these really fascinating intersections. In the hospital we’d meet all these cops, and a lot of the nurses dated teachers, and a lot of the teachers dated cops, and a lot of the cops dated nurses….so there was this really interesting lens onto a community through the perspective of public institutions that are often at the center of very divisive and caustic national conversations. Public institutions that are made up of (smiling) human beings….
It started with health care, and our goal there was to unpack that issue through the perspective of these people on the front lines of this public hospital and try to reframe how people engage the issue in human terms.
When we finished that film and were thinking about what’s next, obviously the relationship between the police and the community was resonating. Things were happening, and race was entering our discourse in a new way, and the police became sort of the face of that as a mechanism aligned with racism, or aspects of racism or bias that were driving injustice in our country and had been doing so for generations. So it was an intriguing challenge. How do you enter that institution and tell their story at this moment when people have a lot of very complicated views of the police…..or views of that aren’t very complicated at all, in other words, that they’re just straight up evil or corrupt full stop. So that was our challenge, to take this next step in what we wanted to be a trilogy.
And I say “we”—I collaborated on this with my producer Linda Davis and my editor Lawrence Lerew, who I had done The Waiting Room with. And then Jon Else came onboard to be the executive producer, and Jon actually was the one who pushed me towards examining the OPD. You know, he’s the guy, the legend, who’s been on the front lines of the civil rights movement and films about it from the beginning. So we took the challenge.
(NB: Legendary Bay Area documentary director and cinematographer Jon Else is head of the UC Berkeley graduate program in documentary film. A 1988 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow, Else’s social justice bonafides stretch back to his undergraduate days as a Freedom Rider, producer on Eyes on the Prize, and his Oscar-nominated 1980 documentary about Robert Oppenheimer, The Day After Trinity, among many other achievements and accolades.)
So then we began the process of trying to get access to the department, which was the first trick, and that took about a year. Then we found ourselves beginning filming right at a volatile moment, which was when the grand jury in St. Louis chose not to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, which touched off weeks of protest. That’s actually when we began our film.
TKN: That was some fortuitous timing, to say the least. But especially in the wake of that volatile situation, how did you manage to convince the OPD that this would be in their best interest, or the community’s best interest?
PN: The Waiting Room really resonated with people in terms of how we were able to reframe what had become a very divisive dialogue around access to health care. So when we approached the city they had heard of the film, and had a sense of what sort of storyteller our team was and what kind of sensibility we bring, that it’s an observational approach. Our pitch was that we’re not going to promise you anything other than that we’re going to tell your story as we see it. Our process is to embed for multiple years so we can get to as deep an authenticity as possible, understanding that storytellers always carry bias with them and bring that bias into their telling.
We told that we were coming in with no judgments, and I felt for me that was true. And the only way I was really able to do that was because I hadn’t had some of the visceral, violent personal experiences that a lot of black people have had. I grew up in the black church, and I went to Howard, but I’m mixed race, I can navigate, I can live my life in ways where I’m not necessarily being profiled, or thrown on the hood of a car, or having epithets thrown at me. At the same time I understand the narratives and the stories of people who have, so I’m very uniquely positioned to both go in with an open mind toward the police, but also an understanding of the damage that has been done to our communities—particularly of color—and how those stories have been carried from generation to generation.
So the intent of the film was to try to reframe how each side saw each other. I intuitively felt that the police—the institution of the police, but also the individuals within the police—probably didn’t have a firm understanding of those narratives and the impact that those narratives had had, and likewise that the community didn’t really understand what it’s like to be a cop and what they’re facing on a day to day basis. People on both sides often perceive the other through two-dimensional narratives, and we wanted to try to upend that. I thought that was a pretty good starting point.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF POVERTY
TKN: Did you have any kind of structure in mind going in? Because the structure of the film is pretty bold.
PN: Initially we wanted to film in the dispatch center to replicate the device that we discovered in The Waiting Room, which was the waiting room as a fulcrum or a nexus, a place where you could discover so much about the diversity of the community, and about how the institution operated, about the challenges that the institution was facing. So we felt that the dispatch center would be a fascinating stage to understand how the police operated and the nature of the struggles that they face every day.
We had to shift focus once the protests started. From the point forward it slowly became clear that we were documenting two years in the life of a department attempting to reform, at this very specific moment in time, when these protests were erupting, and trust had degraded to almost nothing, and accountability was being demanded. What does it look like inside a department to navigate that? It was a department trying to respond to those calls for change, but also trying to keep the city safe at the same time, and we were asking how those two goals related to each other.
TKN: And in the movie, it seems that the department is doing a very good job—or an admirable job, anyway—of tackling that challenge and making real reforms, especially in light of its history. Is that how it felt on the ground?
PN: Initially we got the sense of what the challenges were. They’re underfunded, as many public institutions are. We got a sense of the dynamic nature of what departments face, not just in terms of crime but in terms of the consequences of poverty. And that’s a sort of underlying theme in all my work: what are the consequences of poverty in communities, in terms of access to health care, criminal justice, and education? And it was surprising the openness that we were received with.
But this was a department that was actively being forced to reform. A federal monitor was overseeing it. It wasn’t like the department woke up one morning and said, (cheery) “Let’s change!” People were putting pressure on it in a lot of ways. John Burris and Jim Chanin were the two civil rights attorneys locally that have really pushed this oversight of the department through legal action. And also the people. Oakland is an incredibly activist city, and has been all the way back to the Black Panthers. Very specific kind of DNA to it.
But we were surprised. They were actually making some progress, they were open, and we assumed it was because they felt that allowing us access would allow that story to be told. And that’s what you see at the beginning of the film: a lot of these changes taking root and making a difference and changing the culture, and leading to statistical improvements in certain areas, whether it was racial profiling, or officer-involved shootings, etc.
SHAKESPEARE IN THE EAST BAY
TKN: Considering where the film ends up, to what do you attribute that success—that limited success—that they had? Was it Chief Whent, was it the pressure from outside, was it a combination of things? Because just statistically, things got better, or at least they appeared to be getting better in the portrait that you painted.
PN: It’s an incredibly complex idea that we’re asking the audience to grapple with, and that we’re asking critics to grapple with, and I think a lot of the critique of the film kind of missed the mark. Critique kind of needs to understand the intent. What was the intent of the author and was that intent realized? And our intent was to ask the audience to go into a very complex environment at a moment when we’re all asking ourselves, “Which side are we on?” Where activists are asking—demanding—that we choose a side, where cops don’t have a choice but to choose the side that they’re on.
SPOILER ALERT: key plot points are given away below.
(While Pete and his team were filming THE FORCE, the Oakland Police Department was rocked by a massive sex scandal arising from an officer’s illicit relationship with an underage prostitute. The scandal ultimately forced the resignation of Chief Sean Whent for his part in allegedly covering it up, as well as a raft of other stunning setbacks for the department.)
PN: We’re asking the audience to try to hold multiple, conflicting truths simultaneously, and one of the most profound truths that the audience is left with—and some audiences aren’t willing to accept it—is that this was a department that made tremendous progress and is arguably one of the most progressive departments….but on the other hand, was also a department that suffered from a moral failure of profound proportions. It leaves you with a very troubling feeling of “Can change ever take root?”
I think there are different types of change, and I think the type of failure that you see at the end of this movie is more akin to what we’re seeing now in Hollywood, or that we saw in the Catholic church: a sort of human, moral failure that has a Shakespearean quality and speaks to the constant cycle of reform and failure that the human race has been engaging in forever.
TKN: I certainly had that reaction. At that point in the film, as a viewer and as a filmmaker, my heart went out to you, because it’s such a huge shift, both editorially, and in terms of what it says about what’s going on in the OPD. By then I’m so invested in the success of this department, and sympathetic to what they’re trying to do despite their problems, and then this thing comes seemingly out of left field and just changes everything.
I presume you were cutting as you went along, as you were shooting?
PN: Yeah. But even that process kind of got upended when the scandal happened. We actually were about to head off to the Sundance edit lab when the scandal was breaking out and we had to call them and say we can’t make it, because shit’s going down (laughs).
We had to recut the entire film after the scandal broke out. Originally we were much more examining the presence of implicit bias, the presence of racism, not just in the human heart but institutionally, how that had taken root and what was being done to change that. Ironically, that kind of got pushed aside.
The OPD had this researcher from Stanford, Jennifer Eberhardt, who is a MacArthur “Genius” grantee who had been working with them, and studying all their body-worn camera footage, and done a lot of work on implicit bias. So we had scenes of her, scenes in the academy…..all that material got pushed aside in the interest of sparing the audience a four-hour film. Maybe it will be in a sequel, I don’t know. But that made it very difficult for some audiences—and for some critics—to understand, “What is the takeaway?” Are we doomed, or are we hopeful? And I actually think there is quite a lot of hope, given some of the successes that they did have. The fact that the scandal happened amid that success is a paradox that I’m still trying to understand.
TKN: There’s that powerful scene with the community organizers where one woman says, “There are no good cops.” She’s arguing that it’s not just the system that’s fucked up; all these cops are bad. And then there’s pushback immediately from other activists in the room. But the extent of that scandal lends her argument credence, not necessarily in terms of a blanket indictment of all cops, but in terms of the illness of that particular organization.
PN: Yeah, it’s not unlike the illness that affects a community that has few resources when you talk about crime, or about gun violence, or any of these things. That’s what’s so ironic. Some of the activists are what we call abolitionists: they’re advocating that we abolish the police. But that’s really an idea that’s rooted in the notion of finding new models for community safety, which is fundamentally what we’re trying to.
But we’re disconnected now from—whatever you want to call it—the “original sin.” We just celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday and this notion of “the arc of justice” and where we’ve been, not just going back to the civil rights movement but going back to the days of sharecropping and slavery. We’re so disconnected now from those origins. How do you reconcile that with the responsibility that a cop has, or that we have as a society, for restitution, or the notion of affirmative action? The young men and women who are committing crimes are also the victims of generational, institutional injustice that has left them with fewer options. So they then make these decisions that lead them to interactions with the police, some of which result in justified use of force and some of which result in unjustified use of force. But how do we distinguish between the two? Or is every shooting a modern day lynching? And there are a significant number of people who see it in very stark black and white terms, that these actions are never justified.
The film also was trying to sort through that. After a police shooting the community would come and protest, and they’d have their narrative and the police would have their narrative, and those narratives were in conflict with each other. So what does the “neutral observer” take away from that? That moment can only be understood in the context of the history that came before it. Some of the officers understand that history and some of the officers have no idea.
TKN: You see the department trying to inculcate the officers and the recruits with a sense of that history.
PN: Right, and that conversation is ongoing, and it’s also changed dramatically. You know, I was born in ‘68, and the conversation around race in the ‘80s, when I was growing up, was radically different than it is today. I think it’s summed up by this clash recently between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West.
TKN: And then there’s that incredible scene where the students in the academy are shown a video of a fatal shooting by a police officer and they debate it, and the question of what constitutes lethal force. “Do you really need to shoot somebody 25 times?”
To me it was fascinating to watch these recruits talk about that, because it’s one thing for a veteran police officer to say, “You don’t know what it’s like. I don’t know what that guy’s got in his hand when he comes at me.” But these recruits haven’t been in the field yet and they’re already bringing that attitude to that encounter. So where does that attitude come from? Do they get it from the movies or what?
PN: They get it from a lot of different places, And what’s really interesting is that the officer in that scene advocating for the use of force—advocating for what to a lot of people is extreme, undue use of force—is a guy who grew up in a poor community. We couldn’t include it in the film for a whole variety of reasons, but I think two of his brothers were killed by gun violence, and he became a cop because he wanted to make a difference. He’s a young guy who grew up surrounded by violence. So what may seem like a lot of force to some, to him the bar is different. And he’s a person of color. So I think we need to recognize that officers are coming to this job with all kinds of different experiences and things aren’t always what they seem.
And that’s really my frustration with all of it is that a lot of time these narratives get flattened out, all the nuance gets taken out of it, because people are trying to win an argument, or make a point. Not that the shooting in that video is justified, but it’s important to understand in greater depth who these officers are. A lot of the things that are happening are at the hands of officers of color. Freddie Gray. In Oakland, the whole thing that led to federal oversight was the Riders case, which was these officers violating the civil rights of people in the community. And those were largely officers of color. So part of that is trying to get people thinking differently about who are these officers are and what experiences they’re bringing to the job and how that’s impacting their actions.
TKN: You can definitely see tribalism at play in the film—not just racially but the tribe of police versus the tribe of civilians. When Chief Whent talks about the “blue wall of silence,” yeah, I get it. Same as in the military. It’s this closing of the ranks and this feeling of, “We do a dangerous, thankless job, you don’t know what it’s like, and then you come in here outraged and complain that we’re doing it wrong? Fuck you.”
PN: And that circles around to what I believe is one of the film’s sharper points, which is why you need accountability and oversight. You have to have mechanisms in place that the public trusts. I think right now that’s what the legal system is struggling with, because there’s a case, Graham v. Connor, that is the legal precedent that gives officers a very wide spectrum of opportunity to use force. Basically, all you have to do is say, “I felt my life was threatened.”
TKN: It’s like “stand your ground” for cops.
PN: It really is. I believe there’s more of a problem with the culture within police unions that the culture within police departments, actually. Because I think there’s a lot of cops and a lot of commanders—when you talk to them individually—who are reform-minded. Maybe they’re bullshitting and pulling the greatest wool over our eyes in history, but just from having gotten to know these officers and commanders over the years, I think there’s a genuine interest in reform. But the structures and mechanisms are designed to protect police regardless. You saw this play out in New York City with Mayor DeBlasio and the reaction that the union had.
TKN: I think it’s Chief Whent who says, very near the beginning of the, film, that this is a country that was founded on mistrust of the government, and to many people, the police are the most visible, everyday manifestation of the government. Which connects to Captain Armstrong telling a bunch of students in the police academy that one bad cop can destroy a department, can destroy a city, can destroy a country.
PN: I think we can change behaviors. But right now we’re much more focused on legal mechanism and accountability, and that’s when we get into civilian oversight, and federal oversight. These are mechanisms that can be brought to these complex institutions to give the public a greater degree of confidence that when something goes awry, or somebody’s rights are violated, or somebody’s life is taken, there can be some justice brought to that situation. There’s just no sense that historically that happened, or that in today’s landscape that is happening.
THE SLOW BULLET
TKN: In the film we learn that Oakland’s police department has been under federal oversight for thirteen years—longer than any other city in America—and that one of the solutions being contemplated is putting the department under the control of this sort of civilian commission you’re talking about. At the risk of betraying my ignorance of law enforcement, I was shocked to learn that city police departments aren’t already under that kind of control as a general rule. That seems like a natural fix for such a troubled organization.
PN: Well, it’s complicated. It wasn’t a huge secret that Chief Whent was frustrated with the reform mechanism. And I think that feeling was shared by others: that it was going on too long, and the overseers are being paid quite a bit, and it’s costing the taxpayers money. There was an Our Brand Is Crisis kind of thing there, where the mechanisms were seen as taking advantage. And if you look at the data, and the changes that were taking place, there was quite a bit of change, so the question was at what point do you remove that oversight, having been in place for so long. But then you see what happened with the scandal, and you think, “Oh, of course they weren’t out from under federal oversight. They’re still damaged.”
Is it possible that it would have happened regardless? (shrugs) You could have a really tight ship over there, but the question was, why didn’t the chief bring that scandal to light earlier? Why didn’t he prosecute it in a more aggressive way? And ironically, it’s because they were so close to coming our from under federal oversight that they wanted to sweep it under the rug. They delayed and they obfuscated. If Chief Whent had come right out and shined a light on it, maybe he would have been fired anyway. Maybe it was a no-win situation.
The scandal was a complex story that had all kinds of angles and ins and outs, and we didn’t get into all of it in the film. It involved an officer who committed suicide, the one that was having the relationship with the girl; his wife had also committed suicide, some people thought that he had also murdered her….it was a rich story. But a duality was really in play there. There were a lot of positive things happening in the department, but there were a lot of underlying unresolved issues—not just moral failures, but the racial piece, and how we talk about race, and implicit bias. Those are not things that just police officers struggle with. It’s in all our institutions.
I call it the slow bullet. You look at teachers, doctors, nurses, and how they treat people of color, how they treat poor people of color, how they treat poor white people even. It affects people’s lives in profound, profound ways.
My mom was the only black guidance counselor in the inner city schools in Boston. She was a guidance counselor for many years, and she would tell me that a lot of these kids who were failing out—the Irish kid and the Italian kid—the guidance counselors would advocate for them. They’d say, “All right, you’re not going to Harvard, but maybe we can get you to graduate, maybe you can go to a state college.” They’d support them. But the black and Hispanic kids wouldn’t even graduate. The counselors wouldn’t talk them—they didn’t know how to talk to them, they didn’t have that shared cultural language. They saw them as hopeless.
And so for those kids, it was the slow bullet. Those kids never began a trajectory that would end positively for them. So that reality manifests across the spectrum in our public institutions with communities that have very few resources, and that’s a profound problem in our society and it has to be addressed.
TKN: Right. At the risk of stating the obvious, when you don’t feed the hierarchy of people who can help those kids, you perpetuate that cycle. Those kids don’t go to college, they don’t become guidance counselors themselves and help the next generation of kids, and the inequality continues.
PN: Yeah, the cycle continues and we still have the achievement gap, and we still have 80% of robberies in a city like Oakland being committed by African-Americans, and that continues the perception of who black people are—not just among cops but among the general populace. So that speaks to the underlying themes of our trilogy. The third film, presumably, is going to look at education, and that one is arguably more contentious than anything we’ve done.
NUANCE IN THE AGE OF TWITTER (AND TWITS)
TKN: Given the extent to which the rise of Trump turned on his exploitation of racism in America, do you feel like people view the film any differently since the election?
PN: It’s hard to know. I think the election has created a more divisive environment in terms of how we speak to each other.
One of the things that really moved me, but was also incredibly frustrating, was that individually I’d had profound and meaningful conversations with people on all sides of this issue: activists, cops, cops who hate activists, cops who are supportive of activists, community members who are supportive of cops, community members who hate the cops. I’ve had very meaningful conversations in small settings. It’s when you get into larger settings that things fall apart. I mean, there’s no way that you can carry the nuance of some of those exchanges into larger settings. You get that pack mentality. You see that on social media for sure.
A protest is another perfect example. You’re not going to see any nuanced interactions among people shouting at each other on the protest line (laughs). That makes a great Facebook video, but those two people who are shouting are also capable of having a meaningful conversation away from the glare of the lights and the crowds.
I think we have to find some way of allowing those conversations to happen and for experiences and stories to be shared. That’s the only way we’re going to make any progress. We tend to work harder at trying to understand people that we know something about. So the father who voted for Trump and the daughter who voted for Sanders, they can have different values, and they may be in conflict, and I’m sure some families have been broken over this thing. But I’m sure many more families try to understand each other, you know? They know each other, they love each other, they’ve grown up with each other.
Americans are diverse. We have different values, we’ve had different experiences, that’s what makes the country great. But particularly now, with the framing of race and power in this country, it has led to—whatever you want to call it—the Ta-Nehisi Coates era. There’s a new challenge to the status quo that has evolved beyond Martin Luther King’s call that I think we are now grappling with…..and a lot of people who voted for Trump, they’re just not hearing it. And vice versa. Some people don’t understand how anybody who voted for Trump could possibly be a good person. So that’s where we’re at and that’s why we need to tell stories.
More than anything, this film sparks really intense conversation and dialogue, and that was our intent. But it leaves you with some very complicated feelings. At the end of the day it makes you realize how far we have to go….not just with our institutions, but with our values.
What does it mean to be an American? We’re having that conversation right now. We have a president who seems to scoff at fundamental values of human decency. We have questions about how men treat women, how the powerful treat the powerless…..not that women are powerless, but in some situations they do feel powerless. The girl at the center of the OPD scandal who got involved with this cop, if you unpack her story, it’s tragic. Her power has been stripped away from her for a variety of reasons that are not her fault.
She’s made choices the same way that women trying to make it in Hollywood make choices. But we have to understand that these choices are not made in a vaccum. There are power dynamics, and that speaks to the title of the film, “the force.” There are people who abuse their positions of power and that’s why we have a press, that’s why we have checks and balances so that we can hold the powerful accountable when they violate those basic tenets. And that is a really fundamental piece of our democracy. If we start losing that, and the trust starts crumbling, it’s deeply troubling.
That’s why this conversation around the relationship between the police and the communities that they serve is really important, because the police represent the democracy, they’re the most visible form of the government. So we gotta get a handle on it. And that’s part of the reason we made the film.
Peter Nicks is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker based in Oakland, California, and the director and cinematographer of The Waiting Room, The Force, and the forthcoming Homeroom. He received his BA from Howard University and his MA from UC Berkeley’s Documentary Film Program in its School of Journalism. He is a 2015 United States Artist Fellow and the founder of Open’hood. a non-profit storytelling entity dedicated to exploring complex social issues, in particular, the vital yet under-funded public institutions that serve us all.
THE WAITING ROOM
INDEPENDENT LENS / “THE FORCE”
Photo: Peter Nicks, from The Force