Peter Nicks previously directed The Waiting Room about healthcare in Oakland. His latest movie, The Force, goes inside the Oakland Police Department, which is attempting to make internal reforms, but faces an uphill battle.
The film follows young, idealized police recruits at the beginning of their training and traces how they were later changed by the job. Although his subjects in his film are flawed, Nicks felt it was important to paint them as humanized, three-dimensional police officers. He says his films are asking the audience to not just point to the institutional failures of the criminal justice system, health care and education, but also to examine the root causes of these failures. A third film about Oakland’s education system is forthcoming.
RS: Hi, it’s Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Peter Nicks, who’s a, one of the most promising documentary filmmakers in the country, and probably–you’re now moving on to a feature film as well, right?
PN: Yeah, it’s a temporary layover. I’m not giving up on the documentaries, no worries there.
RS: OK, all right. But on the documentary front, he’s made Part 2 of a three-part trilogy on the city of Oakland. And the first dealt with the big public hospital, and now he’s done one based on being embedded with the Oakland Police Department for two years, a movie called The Force, which is getting rave reviews after being–you were picked as the top director for documentaries at Sundance. And it’s hopefully going to be given serious consideration for the Academy Award. And he’s got a planned third documentary in the trilogy on Oakland, which will look at the education system. And I applaud you on doing Oakland–oh yes, and I forgot, he’s now signed up with CAA and he’s ready for Hollywood fame, and he’s going to be doing The Fence, a movie about Boston and so forth. But we’re catching him in mid-career, age of 49, interesting life up to this point. But anyway, this movie The Force is intriguing because it begins almost as a love song to the Oakland P.D. And as someone who went to Cal for three years of graduate school, and my first wife worked for the Oakland Tribune, and I didn’t always have such fond memories of the Oakland Police Department. But what you managed to do, in the beginning of this movie–and you got the right to be inside the department, to be embedded there–and you picked them up at a point when they were very desperate to reform. They had been taken over, they’d been under receivership of the federal government for 14 years. They had a police chief who was determined to change the department, he made it very clear; you were able to film there for two years. And I really came to like this police chief watching most of the movie, ‘cause he was truly enlightened. He has a speech that is worth the price of admission for the film, where he explains to the police, our constitutional system is based on the idea that government is going to screw up. That the people in government are going to be the bad people. You represent the first line for people of seeing their government; you have the badge. And all of our protections, of the First Amendment and everything else in our Constitution, is designed to prevent you from messing up. OK? It’s a great speech. And I don’t want to give away the whole movie, but this guy seems to be on a great, successful trajectory; that first year he’s in, there are no officer-related killings, enlightened leadership is being established, the mayor seems to be on board. And then it all goes haywire the next year, kind of a Ferguson-type situation. And ending with his having to suddenly resign after two years because of a scandal involving sexual exploitation of a teenager, covered up, involving a number of members of the police department–and a cover-up that goes all the way up to the chief. So it goes from being what you must have thought at the end of two years was going to be an extremely positive look at a big-city police force on the mend, to where it ends up in disarray.
PN: Man. I mean, just hearing you describe all that, it’s shocking that we were there at that time, when all that happened. And I think, you know, what I like to say is that Shakespeare is timeless for a reason. And I think that the chief’s speech to that academy class, articulating that there will be failures and that we need systems–our democracy is all about accounting for, recognizing that those failures will come, and providing mechanisms to hold the individuals within our democracy accountable so that our democracy as a whole can remain healthy. And that that inevitability of something going wrong was always hanging over our heads, but we did begin, not necessarily to tell a positive story, because this was a story about a department that had been, didn’t just wake up one morning and say, hey, let’s reform the department. They were forced to reform because of civil rights violations in 2000, there was a case, the Riders case, that attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin brought a class-action suit on the behalf of citizens who were, whose civil rights were violated by this department. So that resulted in a federal monitor being installed.
RS: You should mention–the Riders case were a group of rogue cops who actually saw themselves as a posse, harassing people, right?
PN: They became, I mean, I think they saw themselves as the saviors. They, you know, this is, we as a society ask our cops to protect us, and cops say, “You want us to protect you? OK”–
RS: “We’ll become the hoodlums who protect you.”
PN: Yeah, “We need you to turn the other way.”
PN: And this is, you know, to some degree a more micro example of the bigger debate that we have about torture, sort of, and sort of war crimes. What, what’s acceptable? What do you need to do to achieve the goals that the society asks you to achieve? And in this case, these officers, you know, they just went rogue. And they, and I think when you’re in an environment like you are in a city like Oakland or Baltimore or New York City, Cleveland, you’re seeing over and over, every day, the very worst of society. And it’s not representative of the entire community; these cops aren’t getting to know the black kid who’s going to USC or Harvard, you know. They’re getting to know a very narrow band of young black men who tend to be, you know, offenders, who are violent criminals, who engage with the criminal justice system over and over again. That’s not to say that they’re not profiling that kid who’s going to USC. But they get to know–they know the names, they know the family members, they know intimate details about these people’s lives in a way that gives them a distortion. We talk about implicit bias, we–you know, there’s a spectrum of–you know, if you talk about racism in America, systemic racism, implicit bias is within that spectrum. And that’s really where we jumped in in terms of wanting to understand, how does a department like this reform? What does that look like? How do they do it in a city where they’re going to be faced with people who don’t like them, who are black and brown for the most part? How does that affect their mindset? We wanted to get in there and, not to tell a positive story of this department, but to humanize them. But I like to say, in my book, humanizing doesn’t mean making you look good. It means unpacking you in your full three dimensions.
RS: One of the things that struck me about these officers–and you do present them, this is the incoming class at the academy, you present them as almost angelic. There’s a sincere look on their face, they’re very earnest, they’re listening to the chief and the captain tell them, no, we have to straighten up, we’re under a court order, we’re going to clean this up. The mayor comes in and she tells them, we’re going to, you know, I’ll have your back but you better not screw up. So, and they’re all being, like, angelic, and the first thought that I had was, they–most of them don’t live in this town.
PN: Now, that’s changing. Traditionally, yes, that’s true. And you talk to a lot of cops–they don’t want to be, you know, going to the grocery store with their kids and bumping into the guy that they’re shaking down. [Laughs]
RS: They’re in a, they’re in a basically gentrified, white, suburban community somewhere outside that’s also changing.
PN: Ah, for a couple reasons, one, because they don’t want to necessarily engage with the people they’re policing; and then, two, because a lot of these cities that have crime, ironically, are some of the most expensive cities in the country due to gentrification; they can’t afford it, right. So they–
RS: Yeah. Even though they’re making over a hundred thousand with overtime and–
PN: Eventually, eventually you can actually make quite a bit of money being a cop. If you stick in there with overtime, you can make quite a bit of money. But even, you know, a cop making a hundred grand in Oakland, ah, it’s tough, you know. So, the cost of housing there is absurd. You know, so, but what we did notice was that that sense of pride that you’re describing as angelic, we also noticed a degree of militaristic sort of, that culture, that sort of camaraderie, that we definitely, it was very intentional to capture that. Because we knew that would be contrasted with what they would then see when they were going out onto the streets. Because what you learn in those weeks and months inside the academy is, to a large degree, academic. I mean, we’ve all seen Training Day. And where cops really learn to be cops is with their field training officer, which was played by Denzel Washington. And they’re the ones who teach you–everything that you’ve learned in the academy kind of falls by the wayside. When you have to survive, when you have to step out there, and when you have to sort of put yourself in a posture where you will not be eaten alive on those streets, that’s where you change. And so we wanted to get a sense of that, and we wanted to show the contrast with that idealism that comes into the academy. And it was a component of the film that we knew we wanted to capture. We did notice that it was an increasingly diverse academy, an academy that was increasingly recruiting young men and women from the community. And so that was part of the process of reform; that was one of the dictates that was asked of–and also, not locally, but nationally as well; we were asking community policing, cultural competency. We want to see more of this, we think it can reduce instances of undue use of force and violence at the hands of people who don’t understand each other, but are put into conflict.
RS: You know, and your style of filmmaking–I’m talking to Peter Nicks, who is really a terrific filmmaker. You call yourself a shooter and a director, so you’re behind–
PN: I shoot my own films.
RS: –yeah, and you’re a director. And there’s no question about your talent, and we’re going to be hearing a lot from you. And I do think your film is certainly worthy of consideration for an Academy Award this season. And it certainly unpacks a reality, and it has a punch and a power as a film that you didn’t intend, but you got it because you stayed the three years; you got it because you were open to it when it happened. And that is the reality of cinema verite: if you’re not there when the verite is going on, you’re going to miss it. And if you had just filmed that first year, it would have seemed like a very positive story.
PN: And there’s also a difference between cinema verite, that process, and the process of going in and doing an investigation. And these are two very different things. And there were people, some of the journalism establishment, actually, in the Bay Area, who on some level almost took issue that we were there, we had access to this department and we should have shown more, we should have told more. And so we, we–that was something that we really–
RS: I understand that very well, I’ve talked to people who have that criticism, I’ve read the criticism in East Bay Review and so forth. Ah, I don’t feel that’s valid. I think that’s a different approach, it’s a different movie, it’s something I would do. I’ve written about Oakland; I did it when I was editing Ramparts, we did an expose of that same police department, you know. But I want to–I’m here to say there’s something very important about what you do as a filmmaker. That’s why we’re having this conversation. And it pans out by the end of this film, because you’re staying with the story; you’re having the confidence of these people, and yet you had the integrity–’cause I’ve seen some interviews where you said, maybe I shouldn’t have gotten into the sex scandal or the racism, on the email scandal, or the dark side, and so forth–maybe cap the movie. But I think you had the integrity to say, no, it’s got to be in there. And the power of this movie is, again, playing on this verite technique–OK, we see these are human beings. They themselves are scared, they’re confused about what they’re supposed to do, they’re under a lot of pressure to do it right, they’re under a federal court law, they are being examined. And even under that most ideal of circumstance, they screw up big-time. Because, not to give the whole story away, but they have a sordid sex scandal, a 16-year-old who is the daughter of a police dispatcher, is a prostitute, made available to what, 30 members of the sheriff’s and police department, abused in the most horrible way, it’s a serious crime by any standard. And the big crime is the police chief that we’ve come to respect in your movie, and admire–at least I did–suddenly turns out to be sitting on this for six months. And the federal judge has these lawyers do an investigation, and they say no, this department can’t police itself because for six months it hid the fact that it was running a prostitution ring within its own department. And at the end of the day, you have a compelling argument of why the police cannot police themselves. Is that–
PN: Well, it circles back to the original observation of what the chief was trying to communicate, and therein lies the tragic irony, of the intention or the idealism that drives the culture of reform can then be undone by that same individual. And in this case, this was, you know, chief Sean Whent. And what we were trying to understand from our point of view–and the film, to some degree, is a reflection of what not just we experienced in Oakland during those two years, but what the entire community experienced. Which was something that on some level you–you know, people assume that cops are doing things like this. You know, I remember I was watching Smokey and the Bandit with my son, and there’s that scene where he goes into the trailer and there’s the prostitute and the sheriff. And this is, it’s embedded into our sort of popular culture that, you know, that cops are just surrounded by this stuff day in and day out, whether it’s violence, drugs, prostitution–that eventually they’re going to succumb. What shocked us was the timing of it, was seeing–and what we were trying to do, to some degree, was say, you know, there’s a lot of valid criticism of our police, but let’s unpeel that, and let’s look at what is trying to be done inside this one police department, and really ask ourselves, is this a model for reform? Because this is one of the most troubled police departments; this is not just where the Panthers started, this is, you know, Black Lives Matter emanated to a large degree from Oakland; Oakland has an activist DNA in the fabric of that–and they’re not going to put up with that stuff. Because of that activism, because of that intense criticism, some of the positive things that are happening there are missed. And we feel that it’s really vital to our democracy, to our sense of community, to our sense of understanding of ourselves and those around us, to shine a light on, not just those things that may be transgressing or violating our civil rights, but those things which are trying to move us forward. And so the film on some level asks you to hold those two things simultaneously next to each other.
RS: [omission] You actually have a respect and love for Oakland that comes through in the film–as I do, by the way, and I haven’t betrayed that by being here in L.A., and so forth. And Oakland is a city that was very important to the migration of black people in this country. It was a destination point after the war, or during the war, actually, for jobs in the defense industry. Oakland had a black middle class that was quite successful. And one of the things your movie does not do–I’m not saying it’s had to do it, but a companion movie would do it–is Oakland is a city of failed expectations for not just black working people, but for working people. It used to be, you could be in Oakland and you would join–I forget the name of it, the Local 10 of the longshoremen’s, warehousemen’s union, or work on the dock, or have one of these jobs and be in a good union, have good protection. I mean, Oakland once had a general strike for higher wages after World War II. Jerry Brown was the mayor, OK. You had great expectations. You have a mayor in this film who visits with the police and wants to do better. You have an activist community. And then it all turns to crap. And it’s not just Oakland; it’s everywhere. And yes, there’s the old message, power corrupts; people have power, they’ll abuse it. But there’s also another side to the story: policing is insufficient means for redressing social failure.
PN: Well, that–that’s it. I mean, and that’s the value proposition of my work, and I started Open Hood, which is the nonprofit umbrella which is facilitating the, we’ll call it a trilogy for now but it could very well be, it could go–you could do three trilogies, a trilogy of trilogies examining the agency of this community through its public institutions, through issues that resonate not just locally but nationally, like gentrification and housing. You think about sort of the homeless crisis right now, the opioid crisis, education–how do all these things fit together, and what does it reveal? Now, if we talk about poverty and we say, until we can address poverty, income inequality–you know, Occupy started in New York, but it blossomed in Oakland. Right? Until we address those things, we’re going to always, we’re going to continue to have problems with the police. I like to talk about the slow bullet–a police shooting of a young African American is heart-wrenching. And it’s emotion, and it’s direct. But the slow bullet of a teacher not supporting a young black child because of implicit bias, whereas, you know–my mom was the only black guidance counselor in inner-city Boston. And she would tell me stories of these guidance counselors that the white kids would come, the Irish and Italian kids were failing, and D’s and C’s, and they would be supported; well, maybe you’re not going to go to USC, but we’re going to get you to graduate, and we’ll get you to junior college. And the black and brown kids would get no support like that. And so that’s the slow bullet. And the consequences of that, and what the film is also, not just the film but the trilogy is asking the audience to do, is look deeper than just the institutional failure of the police, or of that hospital, or of that school. And say, what underlies this, and if we don’t address that, these issues are going to perpetuate in ways that are damaging, not just to the dramatic few that make the headlines, but scaled out across our communities. And in schools you have all these kids I’m meeting as we’re starting to research the next film on education, they’re trying to graduate these failing schools, and they’re on probation.
RS: One of my sons teaches in the largest high school in Oakland, Skyline, very dedicated. And what I’m concerned about it something I get from him. And I teach here at USC, and I look at our student body; we don’t have a lot of kids coming out of the black ghetto, or brown ghetto for that matter. And that’s true of UCLA, that’s true of Berkeley where you went to school, and so forth. And without the need for this work force, and with the incredible change in income equality, inequality and so forth, for the last 40 years, I wonder whether the society is not starting to look at these kids and their families as throwaway people. Basically a significant percentage go to prison and it doesn’t freak us out, when it should; the jobs aren’t there; and the support is not–I mean, come on, I went to school in the Bronx and we thought we went to the best schools in the world.
PN: It’s the new normal. I did a–one of the sergeants invited me over to one of the local high schools to give a talk to the kids. “Here’s Pete Nicks, he’s a filmmaker, he’s an African-American filmmaker, he’s doing it. He’ll talk to you about what he’s doing. He’s making a film about the OPD, his last film was shortlisted for an Academy Award.” You go there, you stand up in front of that class, you got about 15 seconds to get their attention, and then it’s over. They start, they turn their heads, they start talking to each other, they’re on their phones, they’re fighting; the teacher’s like, “Shut the–up!” You know? This is not normal.
RS: Well, maybe it was you. No, no– [Laughs]
PN: Maybe it was me.
RS: No, no, let me just say–I don’t mean to–
PN: But that’s not normal.
RS: I know, I don’t want to be dismissive. But I know, for instance, Skyline–I’m not going to tout my son, but I do have great respect for what he’s doing–and by the way, he used to be represented by Creative Artists, the same agency that you, and he was down here, quite successful at one point in the screenwriting business, but he went back to this. But Skyline, where he works and has the debate team, did win the National Urban Debate League competition for the whole country–
PN: With all due respect, you cannot scale out your son. And I’ve been in enough classrooms, in enough different classrooms, not just in Oakland, but in Cleveland, in Baltimore, in New York, in Boston, to know–and having grown up myself, in thinking back to the classrooms that I grew up in, and that I was educated in, that created in me an internal narrative in me that helped me get through very difficult challenges that I faced in my life–that this is not a normal situation. And people like your son, or debate teams like that they might have at Skyline, the work that Geoffrey Canada’s doing in New York–it’s phenomenal, they are potential models, but they are not being replicated, and they’re not scalable. And that’s the problem.
RS: But I’m trying–and this is your next movie, and I still want to focus on the policing–if the main thing we offer is the policing, and we don’t solve the education–the job problem, what jobs will they go to, what are the opportunities? Also the issues of what has happened to the family, what has happened to the community structure. In Oakland, there’s a solution being offered right now–and this is a good way to wrap this up. That solution is really, get rid of this population; it’s called gentrification. It’s happening in Los Angeles, it’s happening in San Francisco with a vengeance, it’s the Google buses and so forth. And now, right now, Oakland is unaffordable to those schoolteachers that you want to have take on these problems. ‘Cause they don’t make what the cops make; they make half of what the cops, or less than half of what the cops make, OK. An Oakland schoolteacher’s lucky to make sixty grand; a cop thinks he’s not making enough if he’s not making a hundred thousand, a hundred thirty thousand, a hundred fifty thousand with overtime. So you got a community there where you’re basically giving up on the educational system as a community. What you really want to do is keep law and order, right, as the main thing, while housing prices go up and you basically want to force this population out of the community. Isn’t that the real story of what’s happening in Oakland and San Francisco and L.A.?
PN: It’s a big part, but those people will go somewhere. And so wherever they go, we’re going to face situations where we are going to have to address the results of them not being educated, with them being wrapped into the criminal justice system, perpetuating stereotypes, embedding implicit bias in people’s minds, so how we see people continues to be distorted. And I think, you know, for policing, a lot of what both this film ended with and what we are asking for as a country, is a new model for what community safety means. But also in the context of, and what we’re trying to do is, remind people that it has to be a piece of a puzzle. So you need to address gentrification, you need to address housing prices, income inequality; gender gaps in pay, even, is a part of that conversation. You know, we think about black people didn’t have the right to vote until relatively recently; well, so did women. You know, a hundred years ago they got the right to vote. That’s not that long ago. And so that creates, you know, an ongoing cycle of problems that will perpetuate and sort of spider out into our institutions, whether it’s health care, education, or the criminal justice system, when we see the result of it.
RS: I think your film–and this is where I disagree with some of the critics on the left, in Oakland and elsewhere, about the film–I think the film has a truth to it that is pretty radical. Because what it says is that basically, the one avenue that the society is offering for dealing with this profound–truly profound, and it affects poorer white people; plenty of white people are not finding good jobs anymore. That’s why they voted for Trump, you know, and they’re finding different, the American dream is not working for them. And basically, if our response to a changed economy is not one of greater equality and good medical and taking care of people and good schools and some kind of European social democratic idea of, you know, stakeholders or de Tocqueville ideas–and it’s, no, gated community, it’s safety zone, it’s the police. What your movie says at the end–and you are trying in that movie to give these cops every benefit of the doubt. You are open to them, you’re not going to mangle their story, you are listening to them. And at the end of the story, it turns out that the Black Lives Matter critique of the police doesn’t tell you half of it. Because these angelic-looking folks in that police academy, a number of them go on to shoot innocent people, kill them; they go on to take a sexual advantage of a 16-year-old, right; one of their own, actually, a young white woman who’s the daughter of a police dispatcher. They pass her around to 30 different law enforcement people, and that whole scummy, steamy, horrible plot is concealed from all of the agencies by the top police brass, including the chief, for six months as the judge, federal judge points out. And the reason he has to resign is you guys could not be trusted to police yourself on the most obvious of crimes. This could be your daughter. Right? This could be your daughter, and it was the daughter of one of your own, working there. And you still did this.
PN: That’s right. And the film comes out at a moment when, you know, we are trying to make policy decisions regarding the role of oversight, of our institutions, not just our education and healthcare systems but our justice system. And you know, the Justice Department wants to roll back this federal oversight. So I think the film does make a very, very sharp point on that at the end, in addition to raising a big question regarding the nature of community safety. What does that mean? What does it look like? What role, not just do police play in that, but what role do caregivers play in that? What role do teachers play in that? What role do our parents play in that? And so that’s the overarching story that we’re trying to tell, bit by bit, with each film.
RS: Thank you, Peter Nicks. I think the film succeeds in that respect, and warns us that power corrupts, including the power, or most often the power behind the badge. Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. The engineering staff at KCRW, Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. And here at the USC School for Journalism and Communications, Sebastian Grubaugh has been, once again, the brilliant engineer making the facility available. And a quick favor from our podcast listeners. KCRW wants to learn more about you: who you are and how you listen. So if you have three minutes to help us out, go to KRCW.com/survey, and thanks. Be back next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.