Policing History: Peter Nicks’ Ahistorical The Force Erases Context and Facts about OPD

Posted on September 16, 2017


20170915_190605There’s a scene in Peter Nicks the Force, the much hyped documentary by the director of the Waiting Room about the Oakland Police Department that is illustrative of the film’s foundational failure. Then-Captain Leronne Armstrong addresses an incoming police academy. He represents the intsitutional OPD that the young men and women are poised to enter and take on as their own.

Its a moving talk and hits many of the notes that reform–and even abolition–activists would want to see. Armstrong speaks of the history of the OPD unflinchingly, a history that saddled the law enforcement agency with a federal oversight mandate it has yet to complete after nearly two decades, and a reputation for racist violence that still echoes. History; he repeats the word several times throughout the film.

Its ironic, then, that the history of the OPD, its officers and leaders, rarely makes an appearance in Nick’s treatment of Oakland’s police force and city government. To be fair, Nicks stated intention was never one of shining a cleansing beam of daylight into the workings of the police department. His narrative, even before he began rolling, was one of a heroic and youthful next generation of law enforcement cleaning up the remnants of a previous racist, violent past. Its clear in his initial funding blurb:

The Oakland Police Project is a film about police power and restraint, unfolding deep inside the famously troubled Oakland Police Department. The film presents in intimate detail the rare perspective of beleaguered officers who are often viewed as oppressors in the community they serve, even as they and their young chief struggle to rebuild trust in the face of mass protests, budget cuts and more violent crimes per officer than any city in America.

Nicks comforting tale of a “young police chief” leading a “beleaguered” crew of well-meaning cops is the story Nicks obviously meant to tell. And he would have probably gotten away with doing so to a much more saccharine degree than the superficially even-handed narrative that premiered last night at the Grand Lake Theatre if real life hadn’t so spectacularly gotten in the way. According to Nicks,  he was instead forced to deviate from his own script when Black Lives Matter exploded nationally, and then the Celeste Guap police rape and pimping scandal broke. But that excuse only occults his own copious disinterest in the merits of recent and distant history of the OPD in favor of the fresh-faced generational narrative he sought to tell.

To anyone who’s followed the exploits of the OPD throughout the last decades, Nicks characterization of the “young” Whent may seem laughable. Of course Whent is young for a police Chief, but its a Dorian Gray sort of youth. Whent had been an Oakland police officer for 20 years–preceeding federal monitoring by 6 years–and he was the previous head of the troubled department’s even more troubled Internal Affairs Division.

One of Whent’s first acts as interim police chief in 2015, was promoting Paul Figueroa to Assistant Chief, despite the fact that Figueroa was implicated in the police violence that nearly killed Occupy Oakland activist Scott Olsen in 2011. When Figueroa took control of the tactical team responsible for the attack on Olsen that night, he was also the head of Internal Affairs, the very agency that would be called on to hold the officers accountable. Thus, Figueroa was doubtlessly also involved in the botched investigation of the incident, as well. Nevertheless, despite the fact that all of this would be great background for evaluating both Whent and Figueroa, who appears briefly in the latter part of the film, no such information is given, either visually or narratively.

The film verites other cops doing heroic work. Frederick Shavies appears early in the film as the very face of beleaguerement, trying to conduct a crime scene with uncooperative residents of the neighborhood. Shavies, of course, is one of the accidental youtube stars Armstrong warns against becoming in his opening speech. Shavies was caught on camera assaulting a journalist for filming police in 2009. Shavies also infiltrated and surveilled Occupy Oakland for the OPD. But Nicks has no interest in that, and we never hear of this history.

The same thing happens when we see interim chief, and ex BART Deputy Police Chief, Ben Fairow, who we are told, is summariliy fired because he may have had a brief affair. The far more disturbing truth about Fairow we never learn from Nicks is that he was the subject of a lawsuit by the wife of Sgt. Tom Smith, a BART cop killed in a friendly-fire incident during a house raid. In the suit, Fairow was said to have called police officers “pussies” and to have fostered an environment where untrained officers were called to potential live-fire situations of the kind that resulted in Smith’s death. This was Schaaf’s first choice for the new OPD that wouldn’t tolerate a frat-house atmosphere after firing Whent, but Nicks leaves it unexamined.

We also briefly see Officer Roland Holmgren advising Chief Whent on their narrative following an officer involved shooting. Holmgren, who appears and disappears without comment, is probably the police officer who best embodies Armstrong’s warnings about the OPD’s history. It would take an article of at least this length if not longer to recount his long sordid history at the department. He started a brawl at a police function; he was in the tactical team that fired on Olsen; he helped cover up the incident. Theres more, including intimidating witnesses to a bizarre home invasion by off-duty police in 2015.

Holmgren’s brief, uneditorialized appearance encapsulates the disturbing choices Nicks consciously made when choosing the focus of his OPD story. In the post-premiere Q&A, at the Grand Lake Theater, Nicks claims to have been wrapping up his filming when the Guap scandal broke. But Nicks was still in production and “embedded” in the police department when Officer Brendan O’Brien took his own life. Nicks had been embedded one year earler as well, after the suspicious death of O’Brien’s wife which was initially investigated as a homicide by OPD. O’Brien’s suicide note where he fingered various OPD officers, eventually broke open the “Celeste Guap scandal”, but the entirety of this chain of events definitely happened under Nicks’ watch.

The Force picks up this thread only after the scandal has “broken” publicly in 2016 [after the intervention of the federal monitor]. There is no mention of the investigation into O’Brien’s death that revealed it, despite Nicks surely having been in a position to at least hear about the suicide and investigation. Later reporting by the East Bay Express revealed that again, Holmgren was at the center of the cover up and intentionally botched the investigation, and that he supervised the intimidation of the young woman at the center of it which resulted in erasing key evidence. Like every other barnacled OPD officer in the documentary, however, Holmgren is no more than a formula character like all of the other tropes in his piece, from Whent to Figueroa, lacking a history or context.

In the face of all this it must be asked, what was documentarian Nicks thinking while O’Brien’s suicide, the suspicious death of O’Brien’s wife and the subsequent mayoral and police cover up of the Guap scandal–all the things he deliberately left out of his film–occurred? Nicks is not shy about the embarrassing answers and seemed to take pride in relating them at the panel following the Grand Lake premiere.

Nicks admitted that the idea for The Force came out of discussions with the city about how to give Open Hood a raison d’etre after the success of The Waiting Room. The result was an offer for unprecedented access to the OPD, but access that seems to have come with an unofficial and/or self-imposed censor.

The construction of the panel in which Nick outlined his pov and analytical position on police violence, was also illustrative of the analysis he brought to the project. Armstrong and OPD Public Affairs Officer Johanna Watson represented the OPD. Ben McBride–the clergyman spotlighted in several vignettes in the film was to represent “the other side” of the argument [and after some back and forth and disruptions, Cat Brooks, of the Anti-Police Terror Project was included].

Nicks admits that his goal in making The Force was to present what he described as the two “emotional sides” of the issue of police racism and violence. As a metaphor for his goals of fostering communication between these “two sides”, he offers an NPR discussion between a parent, a Trump supporter, and daughter, a Sanders supporter. Nicks wants us to hear each other and love each other more, to get past the volatile emotional baggage, to have space for our “difficult, simultaneous truths”.

Its a staggeringly flawed analysis of the way political power works, though it inscrutably received an ovation from the largely white premiere crowd. Of course, the victims of police violence, their neighbors, family and friends approach the issue emotionally, and of course they have their truths–some of which are based in verifiable evidence, some less so. But truth and emotion are exactly what their correspondents in this narrative, the police, do not bring to it.

The police and city are not the pro-Trump parent, expositing their heart-felt if fractured and unreliable “truths”. Though individual police may have truths of their own, and be motivated by emotion [and racism], the OPD as a public institution doesn’t. OPD and its functionaries–like Armstrong and Watson–don’t work in truths, and they are not motivated by emotion.

Public Affairs Officer Johanna Watson’s literal job it is to present official narratives solely created to exonerate and shield officers, the OPD and the city of Oakland. You will never hear Watson’s truth in public. She is paid to say what she has been told to say; messages meant to exculpate officials like Armstrong and the officers who work for him. She is literally paid NOT to tell the truth. She was doing that–getting paid to tell manufactured messages to the audience of the film–right there in front of Nicks

These are the insane fallacies Nicks brought to his work on OPD. The film’s version of history is an object without present context that can be held up and examined by future-present people not implicated in it–but he has the people most implicated in it, the veritable subjects of that history, perform that role. His framing of the police as automatons simply responding to calls, and not actively profiling, stopping, harassing and entrepeneurally creating arrests beggars the imagination–this probably has as much to do with the way he was embedded and allowed to film as the tropes that fit his pre-fab narrative. Finally, his odd idea that violent institutions and the people they subjugate can meet on some equal plane shakes the head at this late date. All these demonstrate a man who should never have contemplated a documentary on a police force, and exactly why he was chosen for the job in the first place.

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