There’s a scene in Peter Nicks’ new documentary, The Force, in which then-Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent lectures a group of young cops fresh out of one of OPD’s academies. Whent is saying something about how the public expects its police officers to be highly ethical and accountable. The rookies scribble notes and earnestly nod their heads, and, for a few seconds, the camera focuses past Whent. Staring at the chief from a couple rows back is Brian Bunton, one of the officers who was charged last year with a felony for sexually exploiting the teenager known as Celeste Guap.
But in Nicks’ film — which is supposed to be an unflinching examination of the police as a complex institution — Bunton is just a fresh-faced rookie listening attentively to his reform-minded chief. And for half of the film, Whent comes across as a no-nonsense innovator who decided, like a maverick, to let a crew of documentarians embed in his department and record OPD’s apparent transformation from a troubled agency into a model of progress.
Had the OPD sex crime scandal never been exposed, that’s all Bunton might have ever been. And Whent would be a white knight, the guy who turned Oakland’s police department around.
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Beneath the surface of the film was a dark secret. When it exploded, so did Nicks’ movie.
Not that the film had to fail. Nicks documented plenty of fascinating material while having an unusual degree of access to the department.
OPD has made great strides in modernizing and reforming itself in recent years. OPD was an early adopter of body-worn cameras and extensive use-of-force reporting that led to a dramatic drop in violence. And OPD’s work to address racial profiling has been incredibly transparent compared to other agencies.
But in The Force, these advances are presented with virtually no context. They appear only as un-narrated clips of officers on patrol or in the classroom. The film doesn’t tell us why body cameras are part of nearly everything an Oakland cop does, or why the officers have to fill out use-of-force reports when they fire their Tasers.
The reason for these procedures is the federal court-supervised settlement agreement that resulted from previous scandals: Oakland cops racially profiling and brutalizing Black and Latino men in the 1990s. This isn’t thoroughly discussed in the film. At best, a few captions set up a scene, or put a coda on a vignette.
This lack of narration doesn’t work. Viewers are left to watch the department struggle to police the city and navigate a complex political environment without any backstory.
Filmed as one of the most explosive scandals in recent policing history was unfolding, and during the Black Lives Matter movement, the documentary misses the big political story by staring at mundane details.
Nicks’ use of an observational cinematic technique is completely inappropriate for presenting the story of OPD. The result is that the film wastes over an hour showing us incoherent scenes of cops responding to pedestrian-vehicle accidents and foot chases that end in suspects being tasered. We watch cops celebrate and win awards, take phone calls, and go to protests. Other officers manage unruly witnesses at a homicide scene.
But it’s all incoherent. There’s no story behind it.
Interviews with current and former officers as well as city officials, attorneys, and other players in OPD’s saga, especially those who appear in the film, could have provided at least a version of the department’s tangled history. Instead, Nicks just stuck a camera behind Chief Whent and a few of his more photogenic officers, gathered occasional protest footage, and assumed this collection of video would say something meaningful.
To the extent there is a story in The Force, it emerges as the film examines how OPD handles tension between its officers and the community. For example, there’s a thread in the movie in which the police department responds to protests following several controversial officer-involving shootings and the mysterious death of a man found wedged between two buildings.
To someone unfamiliar with these incidents, the film makes it look as if OPD is being extraordinarily transparent by allowing members of the media to view body-worn camera footage recording these deaths. The department’s story about why the men died is mostly verified. One had a gun when he was cornered in West Oakland and was shot to death. The other ran and apparently tried hiding but killed himself from asphyxiation.
But around the same time, the department refused to make public video and other evidence pertaining to several other controversial incidents, including the fatal shootings of Demouria Hogg and Richard Perkins. Because Nicks’ film uses minimal captioned narration to explain a scene, nobody appears on camera to question the department’s decisions to selectively release videos that justify its claims in select cases.
There are many other incomplete stories and unexamined problems in The Force. For example, in one scene, an OPD instructor has rookie officers watch a video of Ernest Duenez, Jr. being gunned down in his driveway by Manteca police officer John Moody. (The instructor, Capt. Armstrong, incorrectly says the killing happened in Merced.) Afterward, Armstrong asks the police cadets, was it necessary to use deadly force?
Several of the cadets say no, the killing was unnecessary. In one group, a young female cadet voices her frustration because she can’t get a word in with three men mansplaining at each other.
This scene could have been a jumping-off point to examine the values of OPD’s younger officers who are entering a department and sometimes butting heads with their sergeants. Or the film could have followed female officers as they navigate a hyper-masculine workplace. But like other scenes that just barely begin to crack the surface of OPD, this one disappears, too, and we’re rushed on to the next decontextualized visage of policing.
It’s as if all the access Nicks got led him nowhere.
Even Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has acknowledged that OPD still suffers from a “toxic macho culture.” And according to media and court investigations, its leadership tries to keep secret high-profile cases of misconduct while also heaping punishment onto lower-level cops. Higher-ranking officers rarely endure serious discipline. Until recently, the city attorney failed to prevent discipline from being overturned, normalizing unaccountability. OPD’s internal affairs division continues to have shortcomings. Racial profiling is still a problem. Furthermore, the police officers’ union, the Oakland Police Officers Association, remains an influential player in the city’s behind-the-scenes politics, thwarting many reforms for fear its members will be scapegoated — a fear based on experience.
All the while, Oakland’s mostly white affluent residents remain aloof to the vexing problem of high violent crime rates in the flatlands where predominantly Black, Latino, and Asian communities endure the growing inequality of a rapidly gentrifying city — from the housing crisis to lead poisoning, unemployment, and bad schools. These communities of color demand safer streets, but they frequently question whether the department is part of this solution. More than 90 percent of Oakland officers don’t live in the city. Few cops have real ties to the community.
The Force doesn’t shine a light on any of this.
By the time OPD’s mega-scandal exploded, in May of 2016, Nicks’ team had already spent considerable time and most of their budget on the film and were in the production phase. His team had to scramble to understand the calamity, film it, and fold it into an already flawed movie, making the final product even worse.
In the film, Whent disappears after the department sealed itself up in the middle of the scandal. It’s obvious that Nicks’ access dried up at this point, and he appears to have made a last-ditch effort to explain some of the city’s broader political changes by focusing late in the documentary on the establishment of Oakland’s new police commission. But here, the film presents inaccurate information. We’re shown scenes of protesters, mostly affiliated with the Anti-Police Terror Project and Black Lives Matter, railing against the department. These protesters, we’re made to think, spearheaded the November 2016 ballot measure to establish a new police commission.
In reality, the Anti-Police Terror Project actually opposed the police commission because they claim it’s too reformist. And the people who were actually responsible for getting the police commission onto the ballot, like Gwen Hardy and Rashidah Grinage of the Coalition for Police Accountability, appear nowhere in the film. (Their story of trying to hold the police accountable, stretching back decades, would have made for a very interesting documentary.)
Part of the reason The Force — the second episode in Nicks’ trilogy about urban institutions — is such a disappointment is because The Waiting Room was so excellent. In that 2010 documentary — which looked at problems in the health-care system through the emergency room at Highland Hospital — the observational method with minimal narration was a masterstroke.
But sometimes the subject matter dictates the filmmaking methodology. An organization like the OPD can’t be explained by sticking a camera over the chief’s shoulder for a year. There are too many secrets and too many plots running counter-course for the fly-on-the-wall to learn anything. Let’s just hope Nicks’ third film about Oakland schools doesn’t make the same mistakes.
The Force screens at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland on Friday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. and at the California Theatres in Berkeley on Sunday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. Filmmaker Peter Nicks will appear in person.