Film About Oakland Police Spurs Critical Conversation

The Force is an award-winning documentary that takes viewers behind the scenes of the Oakland Police Department (OPD) from 2014 to 2016. The film provides an inside look at the department as it struggles to face federal demands for reform, an uprising following events in Ferguson, Missouri, and a scandal that rattles public trust. In addition to providing insight into the lives and work of OPD officers, the film offers viewers the wider lens of the Oakland community—including the department officials and activists who are working to better police relations with the public.

The film was produced by Open’hood, a non-profit organization that uses digital storytelling to explore the vital, yet under-funded, public institutions that serve our communities. The group is producing a trilogy of documentary films about health care (The Waiting Room), criminal justice (The Force), and education (Homeroom) in Oakland as they relate to that broader national narrative. The Force, which premiered at Sundance this year, hits select theaters September 15.

In a panel discussion following a recent screening of The Force, Emerson Collective Managing Director Anne Marie Burgoyne spoke with Director Peter Nicks, whose work on the film won him a Sundance Award for Best Director for a U.S. Documentary; current Oakland Deputy Chief LeRonne Armstrong; Oakland's Reverend Ben McBride, Co-Director of PICO California and Founder of the Building Trust Through Reform initiative to improve community relations with police; and Stanford social psychology researcher Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, who studies the reform efforts of the OPD.

Open'hood hopes the film will continue to spark positive and productive conversations about criminal justice, race, and community in America.

Pete, how did you conceive this film? I know it's part of a trilogy, but filming a documentary is so interesting in that when you begin, you don't know where it's going to go. This is of course a story that really took on a life of its own all by itself, so I'm wondering what the experience of creating this film was like.

The value proposition of our work is all about, to some degree, access. Access to the public institutions that are vital to our communities and it is important to note that the average person doesn't have access to these institutions. They can't go inside a public hospital. They can't go behind the doors of a police department and understand how these institutions operate and understand the people who operate them. And this is vital to our democracy.

That's really at the core of the value proposition of my organization, Open'hood, which we started in 2007 to do this trilogy of films examining the interlocking relationship between the healthcare system, the criminal justice system, and the education system in one American city, Oakland, California. First, we filmed The Waiting Room, which was a film about access to healthcare and how our communities are using the waiting room as their primary care physician when they don't have access or when they don't have insurance. The next natural step was to examine the police department.

We began trying to gain access into the department before Black Lives Matter was even a hashtag and it took about a year to get access. In that intervening period, everything changed. Then in the two-year period during which we shot the film, everything changed again. Then in the last couple of months as we were finishing the film, everything changed, and this story is still evolving. It's an ongoing conversation. It's one we knew would be vital at the time we were making it and would be vital in the years after we completed it.

How do you gain the trust of the people whose story you're trying to tell given that it is so complex and it is so nuanced?

When telling a story, you have to ask yourself: whose story are you going to tell, whose burden are you going to carry, whose voice are you going to represent? It is a very difficult choice for any storyteller to make and it's impossible for any storyteller to speak for everyone and to hold everyone's pain in a way that they need it to be held.

When making a film, it takes about a year to get access and we really try to communicate the idea that we are there to learn and observe and to try and understand and we don't have an agenda. We make sharp observations that are delivered in a way that tries to hold the experience of all involved, whether it's a police officer, a protester, various people within the community. We try to give dignity and agency to their voice in as balanced of way as we can.

I grew up in an environment outside of Boston, Massachusetts that was very different than Oakland where I am now based. I've been there almost as long as I spent growing up outside of Boston and I'm not going anywhere. That’s another thing that I tell all of the stakeholders in these institutions, all the people in the community that travel through these environments, that we are not going anywhere. We're not filmmakers who parachute in, tell the story, and then leave. We're developing long-term relationships with folks, and that bigger message I think gives people a degree of trust that says, "Okay. We understand." Then the work somewhat speaks for itself.

We're not filmmakers who parachute in, tell the story, and then leave. We're developing longterm relationships with folks and that bigger message I think gives people a degree of trust.

Peter Nicks

Dr. Eberhardt, my sense is you have an interesting role to play in this sector because you have the chance to talk to officers in many places about their experiences. I’m wondering if you can share your research, but in particular I would appreciate you bringing to life what you hear beat cops say about their experience and how that plays into this broader cultural conversation.

In 2014, I was brought in as a subject matter expert to help the department with their reform efforts. I put together a large team of researchers at Stanford to help in that effort. Together, we analyzed data on vehicle and pedestrian stops and found significant racial disparities in who gets stopped, searched, handcuffed, and arrested in Oakland.

In the documentary, you hear a lot about body-worn cameras. We were interested in using that technology to really unpack the stop, to really come to understand what happens during these interactions. With the body-worn cameras, we can now see these interactions unfolding in real time and we have the ability to really look at them and analyze them and learn from them. The footage helps give us some insight on whether training is working. We can look at footage, pre- and post-training to see what impact that training is having and how it's helping, if it's helping, how long it helps for, and so forth.

That's been my role. I'm not a filmmaker, I'm not a faith leader, I'm not a deputy chief, I'm a researcher and that's how we fight. That's how we address these social issues, by looking at data and sharing our findings with the public.

We produced a research article just a few weeks ago on our analysis of footage during OPD traffic stops. These are routine stops where there's no use of force, they're just routine traffic stops, and we looked at the language that officers are using during those stops and found racial disparities there as well. Officers are less respectful to black community members than they are to white community members, and we're trying to now understand why that's happening, what's at the root of it.

I'm a researcher and that's how we fight. That's how we address these social issues, by looking at data and sharing our findings with the public.

Jennifer Eberhardt

Deputy Chief Armstrong, negative interactions are as traumatic for civilians as they for police officers. In what ways is the department trying to improve community-police interactions? And does the police department provide means in which to help officers that have faced traumatic experiences while on the job?

Every day I'm challenged by what I see. There are 777 officers at the Oakland Police Department and 12 officers are responsible for the backlash we're experiencing now. Representing those who go out every day and put their life on the line for a community that at this time doesn't truly appreciate the job that they do, is difficult. For me to represent those who are doing it the right way, to represent the change in the culture that we like to see, to work with professors that are helping me understand culture, it’s a challenge. After 2015, we went another year and a half without an officer-involved shooting and for us that's a tremendous feat, to continue to not cause harm to our communities. But there are still some things within the organization that need to be changed. There's still a culture that exists that needs to be eradicated.

I often say that I'm always challenging the officers to be their best selves, to remember why they even chose to do this job. When I meet them on day one, most of them say that they came into this profession to help people, to have a positive impact on communities, but that changes over time. I think we underserve our officers with the lack of psychological and mental assistance we provide them. This is a challenging job, particularly in a city like Oakland where they experience a lot of negative interactions, and we don't provide them with the support that they need. This lack of support sometimes comes out in the way in which they do their jobs.

One of the things we've begun to do is we've started a new peer support program. We want officers to get specialized training so that they can be individuals that can serve as peers that other officers can freely speak to and open up to. We have also increased the number of psychologists we have at the department. DC Metro Police has a program where after critical incidents, officers actually go directly and see a psychologist, which is really helpful because they get attention immediately. There are models out there that we are exploring to see if they could be helpful and beneficial to our officers as we try to get them psychological support. For now, we're trying this peer support program.

Reverend McBride, you talked about the need to re-envision what this system of safety and security looks like. Can you unpack that for us a little bit, what that actually could look like?

We're at the time when we need to rethink the way in which we do public safety. We've come up with this acronym we're using called HEAT, which stands for hiring, equipment, accountability, and training.

We want to begin to think about who the data is suggesting are the people that should actually be providing public safety? How long should they provide it? Do we want people who are psychology majors and people who are coming from a human development background rather than recruiting people from a paramilitary organization? We also want to think about equipment. What are the kinds of tactics and equipment that we want people to use? We study some of the best practices being used across the world and try to find ways to mine those down into strategies. We really think, and we've said this in law enforcement spaces, that accountability and oversight shouldn't be seen as something that's anti-police. We want to begin to think about the kinds of training that we provide to people that are going to keep us safe in our communities. There are a lot of big vision ideas that some of us want to entertain. What would it look like if you had a cross-trained force of people providing both fire, medical, and conflict resolution safety options?

The majority of people who kill police officers in America are not people of color. They're white men. With that terrible number, we have on the books 300 officer suicides happening every year and there's internal members from some law enforcement executives that say it's closer to a thousand.

I have heard that some data is starting to show that women officers are able to get to conflict resolution without killing people the way in which men are and without using the kind of force that men do. When I've said that in some spaces, I'm like, "Maybe we need to start thinking about more of a woman-led public safety apparatus," and all the men cringe. Yet in Oakland, Libby Schaaf is the mayor, Sabrina Landreth is the city administrator and her chief of staff is a woman and now they have the first woman police chief. At this point in time Oakland is a city run entirely by women.

PICO California

PICO California is the largest faith-based community-organizing network in the state. Motivated by various prophetic traditions, PICO connects and leverages the power of the people to impact broad systemic change in the fight against racial profiling, mass incarceration, inhumane immigration practices, and the womb to prison pipeline.