First with sympathy and then with a rushed, understandable helplessness, Peter Nicks’ cop-doc The Force examines the challenges of making significant change inside that most resistant of institutions: the Oakland police department. For three years, Nicks and his cameras had access to a department that starts out in transition — in 2014, then-new chief Sean Whent publicly calls for facing the OPD’s rep for brutality by saying, “This police department has a history that we have to own up to as our legacy” — and then eventually collapses into a shambles.
The film opens with some hope and straight talk. We see new recruits being trained in the avoidance of force, in the maintenance of composure in volatile situations, in accepting that their actions will be recorded on civilians’ cellphones, in the terror of what it's like to get a lungful of tear gas. Chief Whent insists to officers-to-be that the days of the blue line of silence have ended — it's a cop's duty to report the abuses of other officers. The department had for a decade operated under federal oversight; Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf tells officers on her first day in office that it’s time to “root out what is clearly a toxic, macho culture.”
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The enormity of the task gets laid bare in a revelatory scene of police academy recruits wrestling with questions of when force is justified. We watch them watch dashcam video of the 2011 shooting of Ernesto Duenez Jr. by officer John Moody in the San Joaquin County city of Manteca. In just 10 seconds, Moody pulls into Duenez’s driveway, shouts at him to put his hands up, hollers “put the knife down!” and “I will shoot!” and then fires 13 times — most of the bullets hitting after Duenez has hit the ground. Duenez had just parked, too, and was emerging from his truck. It’s impossible to tell if he was holding a knife — the footage is a terrible blur of panic and aggression, ending with a young woman dashing out of the house, screaming her throat raw.
The recruits watch the video twice and then erupt. “We don’t shoot to kill, we shoot to neutralize a threat!” one man insists. But his response to the footage — stunned, horrified, outraged — splits with others in the room. “I felt that was necessary,” a second young man says. “I’m not getting stabbed,” a mother says. A young woman exclaims, “But —” and tries to make a point, but the men don’t listen. “You don’t know if he’s on drugs or not!” a man tells her. “How many rounds does it take to stop somebody on drugs?” And: “We fire peashooters! Thirteen shots may not stop somebody!” (Mooney was not charged for the shooting, but the Manteca department eventually settled a $2.2 million civil suit in the case.)
More heartening: on-the-job footage of a rookie officer who attempts to tase a man fleeing some vaguely defined altercation involving a tire. The cop misses the man, who gets apprehended after crashing over a chain-link fence, but he then must account for the discharge of the weapon to his superiors. Their questioning of him is brisk but serious: In The Force, we hear cops grumble about having to justify in writing their every use of (or attempt at) force, but Nicks shows us officers committed to the effort. He also reviews, via dash and shoulder cams, just how exactly the rookie’s foot chase and near-tasing went down. The sense conveyed is that police work offers quick bursts of chaos that then demand rigorous accounting.
Between these everyday scenes come familiar, epochal ones: Black Lives Matter activists facing officers in riot gear; protesters surrounding the department headquarters after a spate of “officer-involved” shootings in 2015; reporters pressing Whent and Schaaf on the bizarre sex-trafficking and prostitution scandal that eventually involves more than a dozen officers and results in Whent’s resignation. Nicks’ cameras, in these moments, keep up with the story rather than document or reveal it. We’re left to wonder, as the department loses three chiefs in nine days, what the OPD’s perpetual crises mean for residents and cops. (One local woman, at an open forum, says that no officer ever came to her home after it was robbed, and that this failure must have emboldened the burglars, who soon hit her neighbor’s house, too.) In the end, the story of the force proves too big for The Force. Late in the film, Nicks offers a dazzling montage of everyday police work caught by his crew, and I wished that the doc was much longer than its 90 minutes, that it made more time for observation, that more often it let us simply watch and listen as its cops make their in-the-heat-of-it choices and then account for them.