An examination of the increasingly casual and routine use by ordinary police of military tactics and high-powered weaponry, and how such militarization is changing the citizen-state relationship. [ Do Not Resist credits: Dir: Craig Atkinson/ 72 min/ Documentary/ Law & Liberty, Search & Seizure, Legalize Drugs]
In Do Not Resist the viewer gets an extended first-hand look at the working lives of ordinary police. They are transparently good and decent people, with the best of intentions, expertly doing what they have been told. But what gradually becomes apparent in this cinematic ride-along is that the strong-arm methods they are being trained in, the military-grade equipment they are being given, the high-tech tools they use to get past individual privacy, and even the SWAT outfits they wear, are in many cases creating a culture and a capacity for potential abuse of power.
No doubt there are moments when military-grade equipment and military-style tactics are legitimately handy, as say when arresting a dangerous armed criminal. But the problem is that once in possession of such equipment and training, use of it becomes normalized and common. Demonstrating that point is the greatest strength of Do Not Resist.
In one scene, a rapid “no knock” raid is executed, with broken windows and doors smashed in. The huge pot stash the police expect to find isn’t there, but on the plus side they do find a tiny “personal use” amount of marijuana, enough to arrest a young college student and seize, through civil asset forfeiture, the $800 he had been saving to start a lawn-mowing business.
The film makes its case purely via clips of actual events and statements from individuals. There is no narrator guiding you through. The content has simply been edited and woven together to tell a story. This is for the most part effective, and lets those being taped simply be themselves. You see the humanity and ordinariness of both the people behind the badge and the people they harry and arrest. Indeed, it’s the very ordinariness and best of intentions that makes what is witnessed so worrisome. No one seems to think anything is wrong with blitzkrieg-style tactics being used in the name of minor offenses, nor is anyone concerned about what that means for the Citizen-State relationship.
My only significant criticism of the film is that it does little to explain the why of how we got here. The audience sees scenes of over-the-top tactics and equipment and is intended to quite naturally conclude: oh dear we need to demilitarize the police — they’re really getting out of hand. But it isn’t the fault of local police departments that things have gone in this direction. The spider at the center of this web is the War on Drugs, which has been driven largely by the federal government.
Today, there are 50,000 SWAT raids annually in the US, mostly drug-related. Why SWAT raids instead of more conventional arrests? Because the drug cartels fight back with ferocity, and arriving with surprise and overwhelming force diminishes police loss of life. Simply disarming the police while still requiring them to enforce drug prohibition would just result in a lot of dead cops. Legal reform must go hand in hand with any de-escalation of police armament. It would have been nice if this documentary had gone into that angle a bit.
That aside, it’s a fine film and one that has earned significant critical praise, thereby carrying its important message into the mainstream. There is nothing in it that libertarians do not already know, but it is at least a good telling, and the point it makes – that the police are quietly being given extraordinary power over ordinary citizens — is worth repeating.
“When it was over, I had to force myself to exhale. What makes this movie so powerful is its terrifying portrayal of the mundanities of modern policing.”
“A sober account of police militarization in the 21st century that, no matter one’s stance on the matter, makes a brutal statement.”
“Craig Atkinson brings the government’s program of channeling military hardware to law enforcement across the nation starkly to light.”
“Do Not Resist is a quietly seething look at present-day policing in America.”
How to See It
Why this film is not available on Netflix streaming: “We dodged a bullet not taking the deal [with Netflix],” Atkinson said. “They would have destroyed three years of work.”