Tuesday, October 17, Human Rights Watch and the Handa Center for Human Rights & International Justice presented an on-campus screening of The Force, a recently released, Sundance award-winning documentary that follows the Oakland police department — which has been under federal oversight since 2003 due to misconduct and civil rights abuse — for two years beginning in the fall of 2014.
Director Peter Nicks, who was present at the screening, said he went into the filming “aggressively unbiased,” and that his goal was to “broaden the understanding of the conversation” of police brutality and accountability in society.
The Oakland police department has faced numerous investigations over the years, ranging from evidence tampering to inappropriate use of force. The film opened with Chief Officer Sean Whent addressing new recruits, telling them that “one police officer can have an impact on this whole country” and reminding them that they “don’t have the blue wall of silence anymore.” Officers are bound to report misconduct in order to restore trust in the institution.
Yet, despite the inspired rhetoric, there seemed to remain a large disconnect between the goals of the department and the public perception. One Oakland woman described a time when she called 911 to report a burglary and was informed that no officers could report to the scene for three days. In the meantime, her neighbors’ houses were also burgled by the same thieves.
For a while, the documentary narrative fringed on hopeful. In 2014, there were no officer involved fatal shootings, down from an average of four per year, and CNN reported that complaints about the department were down 60 percent. These improvements, however, seemed flimsy in light of the accounts of police brutality in the community. One of the most heart wrenching scenes showed the murder of Nate Wilks, who was shot by three officers during a foot chase. Community members gathered in solidarity afterwards, some calling for greater transparency between the police department and the public while others declared that they “do not believe that the police department can actually be reformed” because of its inherent flaws and dangerous power system. Finally, shortly before the department was supposed to be released from federal oversight, Chief Officer Whent was forced out over a sexual misconduct case, causing the OPD to cycle through three chief officers in only nine days.
Following the screening, Peter Nicks, the film’s director, Alison Leal Parker, director of Human Right Watch’s US Program, and John Raphling, senior researcher for Human Right Watch’s US Program, were present for a moderated discussion. All three urged students to stay involved with issues of police brutality and systematic reform.
Raphling said, “The discussion we’re having [about these issues]is only happening because people are speaking up.”
Parker added that some good books to read to stay informed include Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, while Nicks suggested that Frederick Wiseman’s social documentaries and the TV show The Wire also provide valuable social commentary.
In addition, Nicks reminded attendants that “we make decisions in the voting booth”: our political voice is one of the most powerful weapons in the fight for reform. Parker cited two pieces of legislation to keep an eye on: “Back the Blue,” a federal bill that she said could do serious harm to police transparency, and the “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act,” which could positively begin to chip away at mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes, especially federal drug laws.
Above all, the three speakers urged students to get involved in any ways they feel comfortable, including making phone calls, writing letters, and attending protests. In the words of Raphling, “Take action. Any kind of action.”
Hannah Kunzman is a freshman events reporter for Stanford Politics.