In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson established a commission to investigate the causes of the urban uprisings in Detroit and other cities over that summer. That commission, known as the Kerner Commission, came back with a blistering report on white attitudes toward black citizens.
According to the commission’s report, one of the major elements driving racial divisions was police treatment of black citizens. And it specifically warned against the militarization of law enforcement agencies.
A new documentary film demonstrates that, almost 50 years after the Kerner Commission issued its report, many police departments throughout the country have failed to heed that warning.
The film, Do Not Resist, begins with images from the demonstrations that arose in Ferguson, Missouri, following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. It traces the military equipment used in response to those largely peaceful protests back to an assortment of federal policies that help local police agencies acquire excess supplies from the military.
Craig Atkinson, the director of the documentary, told Stateside that with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of 9/11, funding for such equipment transfers rose by $34 billion, to a total of $39 billion. “Like any other business, you get the returns where you put the investment,” he said. “And in this case we happened to put it into the equipment.”
And although counter-terrorism was the impetus for the proliferation of military equipment among law enforcement agencies, there are few limitations on how a police department can use the weapons, armor and vehicles it receives. “There is absolutely no oversight when this equipment goes out,” he told us.
As a result, the equipment is deployed even in circumstances that don’t call for it. Atkinson points to the now common occurrence of a militarized SWAT unit with anti-terrorism training executing a search warrant on a low-level drug offense. In one case, a SWAT team stormed the apartment of a 22-year-old college student. The crime? Possession of 1.5 grams of marijuana. “There’s a large disconnect between the stated reason for this equipment and how it’s used on a day to day basis,” Atkinson said.
For Atkinson, this is more than a matter of public concern. His father was a police officer and a SWAT team leader in suburban Detroit, and recalls a very different approach to policing. “[My father] was on SWAT for 13 years and they only did 29 search warrants total,” he told us. “It was pretty heartbreaking for him to see how SWAT became a routine part of policework.”
Today, a single SWAT unit might do as many as 200 raids in a single year.
And just as the Kerner Commission warned, many of those raids take place in poor and minority communities — places like the Ferguson neighborhood where Michael Brown was shot. “It’s creating the type of environment where people start to resent the police presence,” Atkinson said. “That’s the exact opposite of what we’re looking for from our police departments in this day and age.”
Do Not Resist has already received critical acclaim, winning “best documentary” at the Tribeca Film Festival. And despite the film’s blunt criticism of these relatively common police practices, Atkinson told us the response he’s received from law enforcement has been surprisingly positive. He hopes to take the film on a multi-city tour of police academies, where it can be used as a teaching tool and, perhaps, spark reforms in the way our law enforcement agencies use military equipment.
Listen to our full interview with Craig Atkinson, director of the new documentary Do Not Resist, above.