Opinion: The Force Fails to Tell the Real Story of Oakland Police Accountability

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Many members of the Oakland Police Accountability Coalition, some of whom have worked on police reform for decades, have struggled to reconcile the portrayal of the Oakland community, its police department, and the fight for police reform that ultimately led to the passage of Measure LL — an independent police commission with the power to impose discipline that received 83 percent of the vote last fall — with the documentary film, The Force. The film was more significant for what it left out than what it described.

First off, the filmmakers were embedded with the police department and that shows in the film’s point of view. And even within that access, the film’s emphasis was very narrow, following one officer whose community engagement was shallow, to say the least. The film itself came off like an episode of Cops when it came to its portrayal of the Black community, showing only the most dysfunctional interactions with individuals who were experiencing life-threatening stress.

The thesis as told by The Force is an old cliché: A cop’s life is tough; he has to deal with difficult, even dangerous people. That may be a part of the story, but it’s not the whole story, certainly not the one that has yet to be told.

For instance, the film took pains to explain away a rash of killings by police, showing video from police cameras that purported to hold them blameless. But there was no mention of the shooting death of an unconscious man on the Lakeshore Avenue off ramp that same summer at the hands of a rookie officer. A huge peaceful vigil was held near where the victim died yet somehow a year later the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office found the killing “justifiable.” The police had video that then-Police Chief Sean Whent promised to share with the community but never did. Thirteen months later, the city paid a $1.2 million settlement to the dead man’s family. Once again, there was no mention of this incident or its aftermath in the film. Perhaps it did not fit the already established narrative.

Filmmaker Peter Nicks and his crew probably thought their documentary was almost in the can when the news on OPD and its trajectory toward reform blew up. At that point, the filmmakers had an opportunity to fully explore what had gone so wrong — that a department under court oversight for more than a decade could have jumped the tracks once again and found itself in the middle of a national scandal; but it was an opportunity lost. It appeared that Nicks and his crew had run out of steam and then decided to run out the clock just as wave after wave of ugly revelations hit Oakland and the Bay Area police community.

Since then, some officers who were involved in the cover-up of this OPD-underage pimping/youth-sex-trafficking scandal have been promoted. And at the same time, the initial charge that led to federal court oversight so many years ago — that of racial profiling —  continues to require the court monitoring.

While all this was going on, the Oakland community, never willing to accept the dangerous status quo, continued to organize against police aggression. There is a story to be told here that would rival any drama now in theaters, but alas it remains almost completely untold. The absence of even a mention in The Force of People United for a Better Oakland, PUEBLO, the organization that doggedly worked on police accountability for decades, is particularly galling.

There are some illuminating scenes of powerful Black Lives Matter demonstrations and discussions of tactics and goals at meeting of the Anti Police Terror Project — one of the groups working toward ending police brutality — but there is not one scene of any of the 30 community organizations that wrote and campaigned for the Oakland Police Commission initiative, Measure LL. One member of APTP is seen suggesting a police commission as a path to change, but ultimately, that group decided against supporting the measure because they said it was “reformist.”

For all that, many members of the Anti Police Terror Project continue to apply pressure in the streets and at city council meetings for reduced police budgets and the abolition of policing as we know it. There is no doubt that their efforts have made a difference, and some of us continue to show up for those calls. We see no contradiction in taking to the streets while lobbying at the ballot box, because we believe that the broadest strategy continues to be necessary in this struggle.

But to have altogether left out the band of dedicated community representatives who pulled off a huge electoral victory with almost no cash and no paid consultants in favor of hours of rookie cops riding around in police cars, is to downplay, at best, the story of the creativity, tenacity, and community dedication that are at the heart of transforming police community relations.

We continue to wait for that history to be told, but please don’t expect to find it in Peter Nicks’ The Force.

Pamela Drake is a longtime Oakland community activist.

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