'Do Not Resist' Documentary Puts Militarized Police Under Fire

The documentary ‘Do Not Resist’ shows how military equipment is changing police culture. Courtesy of VANISH Films

Men in boots and camouflage sit on what appear to be armored tanks. Lightning flashes in the distance. The opening setting of the documentary Do Not Resist looks like Fallujah, but it's Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the 2014 fatal officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown. Protesters chant "No justice, no peace" as the officers push toward them with a wall of tactical vehicles and flashing lights. They keep their guns up and fire tear gas into the crowd.

The directorial debut of filmmaker Craig Atkinson, Do Not Resist premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won best documentary feature. Now in theaters and opening in more locations in November, the film explores the militarization of American police and how law enforcement sometimes uses former and surplus military equipment it says it acquired to fight terror for more routine police work.

On an afternoon in September, Atkinson explains that watching news coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing inspired him to make the film. "The level of weaponry and armored vehicles that police officers had, I had never seen it before," he says, finishing up lunch in his publicist's office. The previous night, massive protests had broke out in Charlotte, North Carolina, over the fatal officer-involved shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. Days before, a bomb went off in New York City, where Atkinson lives. While incidents like the New York bombing, as well as the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in June, show the ostensible need for police to have military-quality equipment, Atkinson says, officers seem to be using it in unnecessary situations, like drug-related SWAT raids or responding to peaceful demonstrations or possible housing code violations.

The subject is personal for Atkinson. His father was a Detroit-area police officer who participated on a SWAT team decades ago when such units were new. As a teenager, Atkinson says he joined his father for training exercises in abandoned buildings and played the role of hostage or armed assailant. But he says his father never had the kind of equipment that today's officers do—or the soldier-like mentality they seem to have. "I wanted to know what had changed between my father's era of SWAT and what was taking place in Boston," he says.

One change is that federal programs now enable American police departments to receive leftover or used military equipment. Most well known is the 1033 program, which began as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 1997. Since then, the Department of Defense (DOD) has transferred more than $6 billion in property to police departments, including tactical vehicles and weapons, as well as clothing and office supplies. The DOD says it only distributes items that "were excess which had been turned in by military units or had been held as part of reserve stocks until no longer needed." More than 8,000 police departments participate.

But Do Not Resist points out that through federal grants, police departments have apparently received an additional $34 billion for military-grade equipment since September 11, 2001. The number comes from a 2011 report by the Center for Investigative Reporting. "The federal grant spending, awarded with little oversight from Washington, has fueled a rapid, broad transformation of police operations…in departments across the country," the center wrote, citing records it obtained from agencies in 41 states and interviews with police officials.

All that equipment is largely meant for counterterrorism, Atkinson says, "but during the course of three years [of filmmaking], we never used it for terrorism. What we would use it on a day-to-day basis was most likely for home search warrants."

Besides filming protests in Ferguson, the filmmakers shot police conventions, training exercises and ride-alongs. One scene shows the police raiding a house and breaking windows as a diversion. "There's gotta be some drugs here," an officer says in the scene. The police end up finding what one officer calls "a little bit of weed" in the backpack of a college student who lives there.

"We're going in to [execute] these drug search warrants that are supposed to be for drug kingpins and we recover a gram and a half of weed from a college kid," Atkinson says. Given his family's law enforcement background, the filmmaker insists he did not intend to make an anti-cop film. "Our approach was very much, let's put the camera in the situation so people can decide for themselves," he says. "I hope we criticize the style of policing and not just condemn all of the officers that we see in the film."

There are an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 SWAT deployments each year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, up from 3,000 in the 1980s and 45,000 a decade ago. In 2011 and 2012, more than 60 percent of deployments the ACLU studied were for drug searches. The ACLU has decried the so-called militarization of police. "Sending a heavily armed team of officers to perform 'normal' police work can dangerously escalate situations that need never have involved violence," the organization has said. "The change in equipment is too often paralleled by a corresponding change in attitude whereby police conceive of themselves as 'at war' with communities rather than as public servants concerned with keeping their communities safe." (The film shows law enforcement lecturer Dave Grossman telling officers, "We are at war, and you are the frontline troops in this war.")

In 2015, President Barack Obama issued an executive order saying the federal government would limit what equipment is available to police under the federal programs, including tracked armored vehicles, bayonets and grenade launchers, and it vowed to start requiring additional approval before transferring certain equipment such as tactical vehicles and riot gear.

Yet military equipment programs have defenders. "Monsters are real," FBI Director James Comey said during a presentation that appears in Do Not Resist, and because of that, "we need a range of weapons and equipment to respond."

Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, whose members include police officials from 70 big urban areas, tells Newsweek that the police militarization issue is "overblown." "You can find situations where mistakes were made in the way [military equipment] was deployed, and in some cases where tragic situations take place," he says, but people who cover the issue "never, ever highlight the many thousands of uses of this equipment across the country on a day to day basis where…it saves lives of people in the community as well as protects officers."

Counter-terrorism is only one reason why police need such equipment, according to Stephens, who has not seen Do Not Resist. He says that following the December 2015 extremist attack in San Bernardino, California, "some of the equipment that people think police should not have was put to very good use." Military equipment also helps police respond to storms and flooding, he says. And he says it's also necessary because of the increase in weapons in the hands of civilians. (As of 2007, Americans owned approximately 294 million firearms, up from 192 million in 1994, according to a 2012 congressional report.)

Atkinson says he was open to portraying those types of situations. "I wanted to show the full range of the SWAT experience," he says. But departments did not give him the opportunity. "If we went on a raid and it was to apprehend an ISIS terrorist, I would have shown that."

The film closes with what's coming next: crime forecasting (predicting who will commit crimes before they happen, as in Minority Report), and the use of surveillance technology first developed for America's wars abroad. Today's militarized police force, Atkinson suggests, might just be the start.