When government breaks and you don’t want to fix it

We have an ongoing crisis of faith in this country. It’s a crisis of faith in our institutions.

In poll after poll most Americans, often a vast majority of them, say they no longer trust government, corporations, organized religion, the news media, the sciences (including medicine), or just about any other institution that only a generation or two ago commanded the near total respect of We the People.

It’s a good time to be an “anti,” whether an anti-corporate crusader or anti-government libertarian — as well as someone trying to make money off catering to “antis.”

Pillars of our society are wobbling, as Americans opt out of vaccine programs, church attendance, public schools, and traditional journalism in numbers that threaten their viability.

“The Force,” a bracing documentary getting its television premiere Monday on PBS, and streaming on PBS.org starting Tuesday, is about one such institution under attack. In this case, though, it’s an institution that deserves to be under attack.

The Oakland, California, Police Department has a long history of betraying the trust of many, if not most, of the citizens it is sworn to serve. During the filming of “The Force,” the OPD once again betrayed that trust in such an awful way, you might ask yourself why anyone would live in Oakland.

Granted rare access inside an embattled urban police force, director Peter Nicks has made a timely and worthy film.

But he has also captured something else at work in Oakland. Something that fits into a timeline going back to the founding of the republic — the spirit of reform.

Long before public opinion polls existed, Americans were unusually suspicious of their own government. It’s a suspicion that seems often to be fueled by ignorance and paranoia. Other times, though, it is well-earned.

And when that is the case, Americans have time and again banded together to fix, or reform, their broken institutions. Not just propping them up, but transforming them into things truly worthy of the public trust.

“The Force” captures the moment when Oaklanders ask themselves: Can we reform the OPD? Can it even be reformed?

The film also helps you see how Black Lives is just the latest response to a pattern of betrayal of African-Americans by law enforcement going back decades.

And given this historical moment we’ve reached — where so many of us feel let down by institutions that we took for granted in the past — this powerful and disturbing film might get you to wondering why we still have these giant institutions anyway.

And what can be done when they fail us?

A timely film

Before we get to that, I want to talk a little about Peter Nicks, who earned the best director award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival for “The Force.”

Nicks, who’s two-thirds through a trilogy on the public institutions that serve Oakland, has earned comparisons to that greatest of observational documentary makers, Frederick Wiseman. Like Wiseman, he embeds a film crew, makes sure everyone is wired for sound, then watches and listens. Unlike Wiseman, Nicks uses tighter editing to produce shorter films, and an ever-present musical score to keep the viewer more engaged with what she’s watching.

Nicks has also gotten lucky with his timing.

In 2010, at the height of the conversation about health care, Nicks filmed “The Waiting Room” in an overcrowded emergency room in Oakland. This is also a great film also worth renting or streaming with ads.

For jaded TV viewers accustomed to relentlessly heroic portrayals of the ER, “The Waiting Room” was a reminder that the ER exists as something more mundane, but no less vital, to millions of poor and vulnerable people. It is the one place they can go and know that someone will help them.

“The Waiting Room,” however, was also about what happens when that expectation meets the reality of institutional health care in 21st-century America. From the admit nurse to the person operating the phones to the doctors on duty, the ER at Highland Hospital is clearly full of caring, highly skilled professionals. And yet, we see them running into the limitations imposed on them by the system at every turn.

Short of beds (which means short of money) and short on staffing (ditto), this day-in-the-life at Highland’s ER seems to be all about the waiting. Patients are waiting for doctors to see them, nurses are waiting for beds to open up, doctors are waiting for tests to come back and diagnoses to emerge from data.

Above all, patients are waiting — not always so patiently — for relief from their suffering.

Early in the film a large man is admitted in obvious distress. What’s wrong with him? No one knows for sure, and his time is running out. With his vitals tanking, he gets priority over other patients, some of whom have been waiting days (yes, days) to be helped.

Like many urban schools, the ER is expected to deal with situations beyond its control. It serves patients who are let down when so-called “urgent care” spits them back out with inadequate cures, or can’t get help from other providers because they’ve lost, or never had, health insurance.

Doug White, the lead ER doctor during the filming of “The Waiting Room,” discovers that his patient in distress, the one who leapfrogged ahead of so many others in line, has made frequent visits to the ER. Often he’s full of booze and meth. But White is obliged to run all the tests and sort out what’s ailing him anyway.

“He got the million-dollar workup for a rough night out,” White wryly observes.

Before the patient is discharged, his dozen or so pill bottles, most of which are empty, will be refilled with his medications, in the hope-against-hope that he will take them regularly. It’s a thankless duty performed by public institutions, and one that is rarely brought up in the national conversation.

“There are times I have to admit people to the hospital, keep them overnight, just as much for their social condition as their medical one,” White says. “It’s not ideal, but we’re a public hospital. We are the safety net in society. We are the institution of last resort for so many people.” Dr. Doug White in “The Waiting Room”

When institutions break faith

If “The Waiting Room” is about a benevolent, if frustrating, institution, “The Force” is about a malevolent, yet equally necessary, arm of public government. It’s a testimony to Nicks’ filmmaking craft that by the end, I was feeling the same kind of empathy toward Oakland’s embattled cops that I felt watching those ER people at work.

That’s really impressive given what happened as Nicks and his crew began filming in 2014 — the Black Lives movement exploded, and in cities across America the public’s eyes were being opened to the largely undocumented problem of police violence against people of color.

Perhaps in no town did Black Lives show up more dramatically than in Oakland, with frequent protests that shut down the freeway through town and caused damage elsewhere.

Right-wing media began comparing Black Lives to jihadi terrorists. But “The Force” offers plenty of proof that the movement came by its outrage honestly.

Nicks and his crew do ride-alongs, of course, but this is not “Cops.” This is observational documentary, and force-feeding questions to subjects is not allowed. Instead, “The Force” does things to help us understand the challenges beat cops face every day.

At one point, we see an inexperienced young officer, Jonathan Cairo, responding to a string of calls — domestic violence, accidents, yellow-tape crimes — that fly by in a blur, throughout his 12-hour shift. It’s a pretty persuasive depiction of the hamster wheel that is his job. Cairo is a cool customer, but one can almost feel the stress building inside of him.

In another scene, Cairo whips out his taser to stop a suspect who’s trying to flee. Nicks goes the opposite speed here, slowing everything down, playing the scene over and over, including a view from Cairo’s body cam.

The film pays recurring visits to the police academy, where a class of officers in training are informed (as we listen in) just what it is they’ve signed up for.

In one scene, police chief Sean Whent tells the recruits what will happen whenever they discharge a gun or a taser. This is interspersed with video of Officer Cairo in a windowless room at a computer, recounting the taser incident in tedious detail.

“They don’t show you this on the recruiting poster,” Whent says. “You go into recruiting, they’ve got the motorcycle and the helicopter, and all the cool stuff. They do not show you someone sitting for hours on end in the report-writing room.”

That line gets a laugh.

“But it really is important, and it’s absolutely in line with what the national conversation is now,” Whent continues. “Police departments are having to document why they do the things they do. And rightfully so.”

And then we get a brief but accurate history lesson from the chief of police.

“Remember, we are the government. The nation was founded on a fundamental belief — mistrust in government. That’s where the Bill of Rights comes from. At the core of the foundation of this nation is a mistrust of government. And we are the most visible sign of that government.

“We give you tremendous authority. And a gun. It’s not unreasonable for people to expect you to explain why you do the things you do.” Chief Sean Whent, OPD, in “The Force”

If Whent sounds pretty thoughtful for a top cop, well, he’d better be. For as we learn at the beginning of the film, the OPD has been under federal oversight since 2003, and he’s the fifth police chief the city has had in that time. Someone clearly needs to put on their thinking cap, and for a time it seems Whent is the guy.

It’s mentioned in the film that the OPD has a long history of violence. This being an observational doc, details are few, but one watchdog I consulted summed it up this way: “systematic police brutality and racial profiling … chronic understaffing, abysmal crime-solving rates, and a severely backlogged laboratory.”

The feds got involved after the discovery of a secret vigilante force operating within OPD, known as “The Riders,” which brutalized black and Latino residents.

There’s a striking moment where police academy trainees watch a film from 1974. It’s of a community meeting between the police force and the public. And it’s so friendly that at one point — this is the film the cops are watching — a black gentleman marvels at how something like this would never have happened when he moved to Oakland in 1947. (Like Portland and Seattle, Oakland’s white supremacist past is easily forgotten.)

The film shuts off and the police captain running the meeting yells, “We’ve been working on this for forty years!”

That’s true. But it’s not working.

And everyone seems to agree — even right-wing media would agree — that having the federal sword of Damocles over OPD’s head isn’t a solution, either.

Reform is working — until it isn’t

Whent is determined to reform the department and end the federal oversight on his watch. But his to-do list is daunting: Reduce civilian complaints. Increase public transparency (for instance, by inviting a documentary filmmaker behind the scenes). Improve morale. Fill hundreds of open positions on the force.

Above all, convince the public that OPD is once again an institution worthy of its trust.

And then, about the time “The Force” starts filming, Whent and his team must respond and adapt to public outrage following a string of high-profile police shootings, both nationwide and in Oakland.

For most of the film, his approaches seem to be working.

Until they don’t.

Some local critics were not so taken by “The Force.” A reviewer for the East Bay Express wrote that the observational technique used by Nicks was “completely inappropriate for presenting the story of OPD.” The film suggests Whent is being transparent when he holds a press conference to announce the release of body-cam footage in two cases where people died. “But around the same time, OPD refused to make public video and other evidence pertaining to several other controversial incidents.”

Yet when I imagined the film as that critic wanted it — with narration, captions, talking heads, all those things that supposedly add context — I can’t say my impression of the department or any of the main characters in this film changed.

“The Force” is an honest document of a broken government institution.

The real reformers

And that brings us to the only people who can really reform OPD. The people that OPD serves.

We meet some of citizen activists, like Cat Brooks, who have seen the moral and social harm that OPD has caused over the years. For all their frustration and anger, they have not given up.

And how can they? For many Oaklanders, leaving town is not an option. This is their force, paid for with their dollars, and tears, and blood. They don’t hold press conferences or make promises of “transparency” and “accountability.”

They’re demanding change. And they’re not leaving.

As “The Force” concluded filming, its cameras were able to capture the first halting steps toward the change that Oakland’s police needs. For the first time, the idea that a local board of civilians should have the power to investigate, hire and fire at OPD gains momentum.

By the end of the film, I didn’t think anyone in charge, not even the tough-talking mayor, had a clue how to break OPD’s unending cycle of abuse and mistrust.

So let the people try.

“The Force” should get you thinking about how we break out of our own mistrust of the institutions around us. For Oaklanders, sitting by passively and hoping the elected officials figure it out is not an option.

It may not be an option for us either.

In the end I was reminded of that searching question that the great civil rights worker Ella Baker said we should always ask ourselves when our institutions fail us: “What can I do?”


Two PBS documentaries that pair well with “The Force” are Stanley Nelson’s history of “The Black Panthers” (site | how to watch), set largely in Oakland; and a new “Frontline” report on the huge problem of sexual abuse of women working as janitors and the inadequate response of their employers. If you think the MeToo movement is just about ladies who appear on awards shows, this “Frontline” and “The Force” will challenge you.

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