Like many in the country, filmmaker Craig Atkinson was glued to the news coverage when the bombing of the Boston Marathon occurred in 2013. But Atkinson found what he saw during the manhunt unsettling.
“I was shocked by the way that the police were approaching the community,” Atkinson told Business Insider, as he watched SWAT teams searching homes without search warrants. “It was like fear had got the best of us.”
Atkinson’s father was a police officer in Oak Park, Michigan (a northern suburb of Detroit) for 29 years and became a member of its SWAT team when it was formed in 1989. His memories as a child are filled with playing the hostage for training drills that his dad’s SWAT team conducted, and when he got to his teens, playing an armed assailant.
With a unique eye to the evolution of SWAT over his life, the Boston Marathon bombing was a disturbing reality for Atkinson in the militarization of the police in the US.
“It was such a departure from the way that I felt my dad’s SWAT team approached the community,” he said.
So Atkinson decided to investigate it in his directorial feature debut “Do Not Resist.”
Atkinson teamed with producer Laura Hartrick to make a gripping documentary (which won the best documentary grand jury award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival) that examines how law enforcement across the country are using government grants to beef up their departments with military equipment to fight terrorism. However, for small towns not as much a threat as Boston and New York, they are mostly used by SWAT to serve search warrants and assist in crowd control.
Beginning production in 2013, Atkinson traveled the country to find different instances of the militarization phenomenon. He visited a SWAT competition in Florida, got a ride along on a new MRAP (Mine-Resistance Ambush Protected vehicles that withstand IEDs) that the police department of Juneau County, Wisconsin — murders in 2014, zero — just received, and sat in on a city council meeting in Concord, New Hampshire for the approval of a BearCat (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck) for its police department — murders since 2004, two.
But then the movie completely changed when 18-year-old Mike Brown was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014.
“Before Ferguson, we had 80 hours of footage to educate people,” said Atkinson. “That was no longer needed because the Ferguson story showed it.”
Atkinson and Hartrick raced to Ferguson and captured incredible footage of the protests that occurred there following the death of Brown (Atkinson is known best for his cinematography work on films by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady like “Detropia” and “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” which he had an additional cinematographer/camera operator credit). With officers in riot gear, some shooting tear gas from atop BearCats, the actions by Ferguson police towards the protestors seen in the movie is more infuriating than what the cable news coverage showed.
“Most news outlets there had to go file stories at 10 or 11 o’clock at night,” said Atkinson. “But we had the luxury to just wait it out until the end and there were a lot of exchanges between the police and the community in those hours when no one was looking that changes the entire dynamic of what was being reported.”
Atkinson shows SWAT teams following crowds back into their neighborhoods and deploying tear gas after the city-imposed curfew. Also, officers in standoffs with citizens while they are just standing on their front lawns.
But with his general knowledge of SWAT procedure, Atkinson also observed the lack of training by the Ferguson police.
“They would shoot the tear gas towards the crowds but also on the sides of them, so they had nowhere to go but towards the police,” said Atkinson.
In the haze of tear gas, Atkinson captured on film one female protestor saying to anyone who will listen: “They need to stop giving these boys these toys because they don’t know how to handle them.”
“Do Not Resist” also explores the future of policing, talking to people behind aerial surveillance and face recognition, both of which are currently being used in some police departments in the country. Then there’s the work of Richard Berk, a professor who is developing an algorithm that seems out of “Minority Report” as it predicts at a person’s birth if they will become a criminal.
But the section of the movie that will stay with most long after watching are the words of the top trainer of military law enforcement in the country, Dave Grossman.
Atkinson was allowed to film Grossman’s class, which was full of SWAT commanders from across the country, and what is revealed is a chilling presentation where Grossman tells the men such things as “we are at war and you’re the frontline troops in this war,” and “the best sex you’ve had in your life” is when you come back home alive from the job.
“I just wanted to show the American people who their officers are being trained by,” said Atkinson, “and I want Dave Grossman to have to explain himself to why this is the most effective way to police our streets in this era. I think we have outgrown that philosophy and we need to evolve it to accommodate what our society is actually asking us. Let’s go back to a protect and serve model.”
Business Insider reached out to Grossman, and though he said he has not seen the movie, he has seen the trailer which he’s in, and he believes it is “horrendously irresponsible.”
“It’s got a quote of me saying, ‘We are at war and you’re the frontline troops in this war,’ but in the context of Ferguson. That was the context they created,” said Grossman. “I was talking about this land and 9/11 attacks and what’s coming down the road as far as terrorist attacks. In time of war, law enforcement is essentially troops on American soil. I think that there’s 9/11-scale attacks coming. What they may do is attack schools, day cares, and school buses, and what I was telling my cops is when that happens there is no elite delta force that’s going to show up to save your kids, you’re it.”
When asked if he’s worried that his teachings might get misconstrued and SWAT members may bring his thinking to events like Ferguson or the protests in Charlotte instead of a terrorist act, Grossman said “I don’t teach tactical, I teach the mental side of the game.”
Grossman also dislikes the term “militarization of police.” He says that things like MRAPs and BearCats are “tools that [police] are using to stay alive.”
“My presentation is always evolving, always talking about the latest science, the latest physiology, the latest case studies” said Grossman. “It is truly the most successful military law enforcement training. Are all of these police chiefs that come to my training, are they all insane? These [filmmakers] set out to do something horrendously irresponsible, it’s part of the whole war on cops left-wing mantra, and it is enormously harmful to business.”
In a response to the above remarks by Grossman, Atkinson sent an email stating: “The righteous violence that Dave Grossman instructs officers to deploy may be effective when fighting ISIS, but while the police are preparing for the next 9/11 attack, they are engaged in 63 million police-citizen interactions a year,” he wrote. “It is irresponsible to think that you can teach the ‘mental side of the game’ while not considering the broad application in which this mentality is deployed. I think it’s important to note that Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who reflexively shot and killed Philando Castile as he reached for his wallet during a routine traffic stop, had previously undergone Grossman’s Bulletproof Warrior training.”
Atkinson also notes that Sheriff Laurie Smith of Santa Clara cancelled a Grossman training session due to concerns that the class makes officers more likely to use deadly force when it’s not necessary.
“Do Not Resist” opens at New York theater The Film Forum on Friday and will be available for streaming later in the year. Here is the complete list of screening locations.