A new documentary opening this week offers a look inside one of the most tumultuous periods for the Oakland Police Department, including a period of intense protest, a string of deadly officer-involved shootings and an explosive sex-abuse scandal involving cops and the underage daughter of a police dispatcher.
The Force is directed by Peter Nicks, who previously provided a window into the emergency room at Highland Hospital in his 2012 film The Waiting Room. Nicks describes the two films as part of a trilogy examining the “grand narrative of Oakland,” with a third forthcoming film to examine the Oakland Unified School District.
"It's important for us in our democracy to have a view into these agencies," Nicks told Hoodline. The films are partially funded by his nonprofit, Open’hood, which seeks to create dialogue around the films and continue the narratives they create.
Nicks was embedded with Oakland police for about two years, going back to November 2014.
At the time, the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York at the hands of police had led to Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. The Oakland Police Department had been under oversight by a federal judge for over a decade.
As he approached the project, Nicks said he didn’t have an agenda, but was seeking to document the reform process with an eye to the complicated relationship Oakland has had with police going back to the Black Panther movement of the 1960s.
“I felt I would find a lot of good officers and a lot of officers who were clueless or potentially dangerous,” Nicks said. He said that while it can be difficult to identify officers as racist or to tease out individual actions from the collective culture, "as a society we recognize that something is wrong."
"From the officers’ point of view, they believe they're trying to save lives, they're trying to save black lives every day, so there's a big gulf between how these officers see themselves and how the community sees them," Nicks said.
Oakland police had made strides in limiting use of force and were even close to finished with their reform efforts, but just as Nicks was wrapping filming, a massive scandal broke that eventually led to criminal charges against three officers and a retired sergeant.
Nicks said he had little indication of the brewing scandal. It was kept quiet after department brass first learned about it through a suicide note by Officer Brendan O’Brien in September 2015, which implicated other officers in having sex with an underage victim of sex trafficking.
The federal court monitor heard about it in March 2016, and the scandal became public in May. Nicks’ documentary crew went back to work to determine what the scandal meant to their narrative.
Eventually, police Chief Sean Whent—the documentary's main character—left his position; court-appointed investigators implicated him in not making the investigation a priority.
"Chief Whent, even though he really faced a moment of truth that was judged in the end and led to his departure, he brought a lot of change to the department and oversaw a period of reform," Nicks said.
Never miss a story.
Subscribe today to get Hoodline delivered straight to your inbox.