LRM Exclusive Interview: Documentary Director Craig Atkinson for DO NOT RESIST

– by Gig Patta

It’s almost like war has started in our own backyard.

With the current division between Black Lives Matter protests and law enforcement, director Craig Atkinson looks into the current state of policing in America with DO NOT RESIST.

The film opens with the actual on-the-scene footage of the violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in which the law enforcement uses complex training and heavy equipment to quell the unrest. The film observes the current and future directions of law enforcement using high-tech surveillance monitoring technology, military-grade equipment, terrorist conference training and even following a SWAT raiding a home to execute a warrant.

LRM had a phone interview last week to discuss current events and law enforcement technologies with director Craig Atkinson from his documentary DO NOT RESIST. We’ve covered various topics of law enforcement, his experience in the middle of the Ferguson riots and the future of policing.

DO NOT RESIST is currently playing in select theaters in New York City, Southern California and San Francisco. Check www.donotresistfilm.com for current showtimes and future play dates.

Read the interview transcript below.

LRM: So how is your day going so far? Pretty long press day?

Craig Atkinson: Yeah, exactly. Right in the center of it. It’s good. It’s nice to have a film that you can stand behind. It’s resonating with a lot of people, so it’s much easier to talk about it.

LRM: How did you originate the idea for this documentary for DO NOT RESIST? Was this simply seen on the news?

Craig Atkinson: My father was a police officer outside of Detroit for twenty-nine years. He was actually a SWAT officer for thirteen of those years. I grew up with the War on Drugs era policing. I was familiar with that style of policing.

It was a year prior to the events in Ferguson—there was this Boston Marathon bombing. It was the first time I’ve ever seen the police equipment post-9/11. I also thought the mentality of the officers for the community of Boston was much more of an occupying force versus a protect and serve model. I saw that even played out. I remembered my dad’s era, in which he retired back in 2002. He was already out of the police force when all that equipment started to flood into that police work.

I was curious in a way of when it happened and how it changed. So it was what I’ve observed in the days following the Boston Marathon bombing. Like I said before, it was a year prior to Ferguson. In fact, we thought we were just informing the public with our findings and this topic.

Obviously, when this Ferguson did happened—it became a national story. It changed the direction on where we were headed. That was the genesis on how this came to be.

LRM: All this started way before Ferguson, huh? Ferguson was just a coincidence?

Craig Atkinson: That’s why people are really responding to the footage we got in Ferguson. We knew we were making a film over a course of a couple of years. When the events in Ferguson started happening, we recognized our assumptions on what could be happening in law enforcement. And here it was. It was actually demonstrating that.

The first night we arrived was the opening scene of the film. I think we knew that it was going to take a couple of years to make the film, we take the time to film the scenes in conjunction with the project. People remarked that they didn’t know it played out in Ferguson like that, because people have only seen it with clips in the media or on cell phone videos. People instantly reacted to the events and we could’ve been more thoughtful as we were making a film at that point.

LRM: How did this all unwrapped for you? Did you just saw it on the news and then you packed immediately to get on a plane for Ferguson?

Craig Atkinson: Basically. I’m originally from Detroit. My parents experienced a really bad flood in the area during the summertime. I happened to be in Detroit and was helping them with that. The events in Ferguson started to unfold. I called our producer to grab the camera and meet me in St. Louis. We met at the airport and unpacked this camera we just purchased. We ran there and with the opening scene of the film was our first night there.

LRM: Your Ferguson footage was amazing. You were so close—very much in the midst of things. Was everybody okay with that? You weren’t really endangered at all, right?

Craig Atkinson: Hmmm…..we were in danger quite a bit actually. One time, we had live rounds go past us so closely. Our camera microphone picked up the shock of the bullets whizzing past us at one point. The thing was we were on the street and in public space. We didn’t have access with the police department or with anyone else.

We were out in the open. We could’ve roam freely and put the camera as closely as we want to. We were sticking it out and putting ourselves in the environment. It was so that the camera could observe the scene. It provided the opportunity for the viewers to observe it from a neutral standpoint. Oftentimes, you can see me positioning myself in the middle between the protest community and the police officers. We were really trying to study both [sides].

LRM: Of course, this is not a documentary about Ferguson. This is a documentary about police militarization. Talk about how you managed to develop this project in the past couple of years.

Craig Atkinson: Like I said, we thought we were breaking a story until Ferguson happened. It almost became a moving target for us. Everyone started to dissect the topic and pull it in many different directions. It was tailored towards their direction depending on whomever was speaking about it. It was very difficult to try and match on what the national story was with these events. The direct experience was adding up towards a different set of conclusions.

When we realized the media was pitting police officers versus citizens, typically in a divide and conquer situation, there is something much more nefarious happening underneath it. We can discover for what it was with all the surveillance technology brought back from the wars abroad and now being introduced into police work.

Looking back, it was the transition between the War on Drugs to the War on Terror as it relates to domestic police work. These tools of wars always come back to the domestic police work. In this case, there were surveillance technology being introduced to domestic police work without any oversight whatsoever. There was no policy to dictate its use. We thought we can point out to the community and the police force on something that they weren’t really considering at the time. That’s why our film shifts into looking at the surveillance technology.

All the equipment to outfit police departments were going on for the past thirty years. No matter how we reform those programs, that equipment will never be coming back to the military. They’re not going to ask for them back. It’s already a done deal.

So I thought on what we weren’t thinking about yet. I looked at the surveillance technology and asked, “What is the effect of this thirty years from now after Ferguson? What is the real effect after creating this surveillance state?”

Our freedoms, our civil liberties and our privacies are completely eroded. What will this look like thirty years from now? I thought it will be much more beneficial to point people towards what’s coming versus rehashing the military hardware that had gone out and never coming back.

LRM: You are referring to the camera systems, tech to read license plates and drones, right?

Craig Atkinson: Also using computer databases of personal information of citizens. They can run algorithms to determine an unborn child can commit murder by the time they are eighteen years old. NYPD has a program called “The Laser Program,” which essentially scans the social media profiles and web communications to compare them to psychological profiles of serial killers. Rapists and suicidal individuals.

If your posts match these criminal psychological profiles, the police could actually make a home visit to make sure that you’re doing alright. The problem is that a lot of these data sets that they’re running these algorithms on from CompStat. CompStat is a crime statistic accounting data gatherer that has gone throughout the country. It reports all the crimes for that particular year.

They now use CompStat as performance standards for police chiefs. If the crime rates do not go down in your area, then you may not get Federal funding for the next year or you may not get your promotion. A lot of police chiefs in the country are under a lot of pressure. They started to account for crimes differently. Let’s say it’s an aggravated assault and now they call them simple assaults. All of the sudden, the crime rate in that area would go down.

The problem is that we amassed a database with very questionable statistics at best. Those are the data sets being used to determine to let someone out of jail with supervision or to predict someone will likely to commit a murder. If you were looking at the quality of the data, some of it has complete inaccuracy which will create more unjustly policing.

LRM: You have a lot of footage with the law enforcement. Were they okay with all of this or was it still difficult to obtain?

Craig Atkinson: It was difficult to get access with the police departments certainly. You can say everything in the film almost didn’t happen. It was just difficult to shoot in those environments. We had to promise these police departments were to shoot an authentic portrayal on what we did together. We certainly came through on that. We fed it back exactly in the way on how it played out.

We gave the officers a fair opportunity to show whatever they wanted and how they were using the equipment. If they had shown us situations like the Pulse Night Club shooting where they used an armored vehicle to puncture a hole on the side of a wall—we would’ve shown that in the film.

But, we kept going out on search warrants with police departments. They were always for drug search warrants. It was always that we never found anything in these homes. I was forced to show the footage we actually retrieved and that’s what we’ve included in the film.

LRM: Now this film can be easily become controversial with the dividing of America as anti-cop or anti-protestor. How do you find the delicate balance to keep your message across?

Craig Atkinson: The feedback we’ve gotten so far is, “Thank you so much for not making a film that is anti-cop. You’re being fair.” You let the scenarios play out and let the individuals to indict themselves during the course of the scenes. They appreciate the controlled observations that we allowed for it in the film.

We also had the opportunities to screen the film at police departments and police academies. They’re seeing it as a teaching tool. It could be looked at as an area of reform in police work. I’m encouraged by that dialogue. I’m encouraged the fact that some law enforcement look at it as a teaching tool.

I think we don’t show the full breath of this live experience in the usage of the heavy artillery or heavy equipment. We do show what takes place on a regular basis.

LRM: Let me ask you personally—do you think law enforcement needs all this equipment or is it better to be over-prepared?

Craig Atkinson: Here’s the thing—I’m not necessarily against the equipment. MRAPs are over-excessive, because they can roll-over constantly. The military used to train their officers at a minimum of eighty hours just to drive. Law enforcement doesn’t do any of that training. So I think something like that is probably a bit excessive.

I’m not against the equipment. I think law enforcement should have the equipment to be used in terrorist events, active-shooter events or even hostage situations. We would want our law enforcement to be well-equipped to handle those situations.

However, if you say you are using it for those situations, then go ahead and use it for those situations. But, not to turn around and raid homes for low level drug offenses. Unfortunately, when you have a profit motive to seize assets directly back to your department—we’ve kind of created a perfect storm. Law enforcement with heavy artillery and heavy equipment are using it basically to seize assets so the departments could make money from it.

I think if the equipment is set aside for its intended use—it’s a benign thing. It could actually be very effective. The fact is that all these police departments are saying that they’re preparing for ISIS. Then we raid a home and with the homeowner thinking they are under a terrorist attack. The reason why is that the police officers are trained for a terrorist attack. They’re not using it on terrorists. They’re using it on a family of four who are at home watching TV. The SWAT team would kick down their door just to drag the son away for having a gram of weed.

There’s a huge disconnect with its intended use and how it is used on a regular basis.

LRM: Absolutely. That is probably very scary if you were a victim of one of those raids. [Chuckles]

Craig Atkinson: Yeah, absolutely.

LRM: Is this your directorial debut as a first feature film?

Craig Atkinson: Yeah, I work in documentaries almost exclusively and professionally since 2008. I was an assistant editor on a film called 12th & DELAWARE. I was the producer and cinematographer on DETROPIA. This is the first film I’ve directed, shot and edited myself.

LRM: With this project, it seems like you faced many challenges. What do you suppose was the most difficult thing you had to do?

Craig Atkinson: In this particular project, it was that after Ferguson that I thought we were about a year from finishing. With a year later, I thought for sure no one care about this project anymore. I also thought that there will be enough reform to make this a done issue. For us personally, working as hard as we could for the past two years, we were working and thinking all of this could fall on deaf ears.

The most disappointing reality for the whole thing is that here we are—two years later—it’s timely as ever without any reforms. I would’ve preferred if it fallen on deaf ears. It would’ve meant we’ve gotten beyond some of these things. It was disappointing that when it was finished—it was still very relevant. And without any progress since we’ve started.

LRM: Absolutely. Could you talk about any of your future projects? Do you have another documentary in the works?

Craig Atkinson: Sure. We are dedicating a chunk of time to get this film in front of as many people as possible. It looks we will have the opportunity to bring this to police departments and police academies. I want to make sure that actually takes place. I think that’s the population that needs to see a film like this. They will use it as a teaching tool. I’m going to put a lot of energy and time to promote the film.

Then see how it goes. This film was an intuitive process the whole time. We enacted on a bunch of hunches. I would like my next project to come out the same way of working. It’s by paying attention to the writing on the wall. And by moving forward in a very organic way. There are plenty of topics I would like to cover. On where I excel as a filmmaker and cinematographer, I could actually follow things unfolding and happening in real time. Other topics, I’m interested in pursuing, are not only interesting in writing or talking about it—but to demonstrate it visually. So I’m always looking for opportunities to put the camera in those situations. I want to do what I do best—storytelling with the visual component.

LRM: Great. With such a diverse audience watching your documentary, what is the one lesson or message you hope they will receive?

Craig Atkinson: It provides a visual account of the headlines and stories we keep on hearing about. There’s a lot of people in the law enforcement who are trying to create reforms, but meets a lot of resistance since it’s a very insular culture. I hope this provides a visual example for their work and what they’re talking about.

For the community perspective, it’s been saying that it’s an issue for decades now. We’re not saying anything new. We’ve just provided these visual examples on these things that have been happening for the past years. Both community members and police departments will be able to use this as visual accounts on where they can get reforms in the works.

LRM: Thank you for this conversation. I want to give a special thanks for obtaining the footage from Ferguson. It’s very crisp and clear. It’s much better than any of the cell phone footage I’ve seen before.

Craig Atkinson: Sure. Sure. Well, thank you.

DO NOT RESIST is currently playing in select theaters in New York City, Southern California and San Francisco. Check www.donotresistfilm.com for current showtimes and future play dates.

Source: LRM Exclusive

Film, Interviews, LRM Exclusives Do Not Resist, Craig Atkinson