The Force (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Can the system be fixed?

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Documentary film “The Force”, which is currently available on Netflix, gives us a clear-eyed glimpse into the ongoing problematic status of the Oakland Police Department, which was put under federal oversight in 2003 but has only drawn more public attentions due to numerous cases of misconduct and brutality without much progress. As closely looking into the considerable efforts for reforming the system, the documentary also shows us how difficult and complicated the situation is in many aspects, and its several memorable moments make us wonder whether it is really possible to fix the system from the beginning.

The documentary focuses on the 2-year period which began with Sean Whent being installed as the new chief of the Oakland Police Department in 2014 Fall. Whent promised the immediate reform of his police department, but there were many problems including the public mistrust toward the police department, and we observe how Whent and his police department tried to deal with these problems. For example, one scene in the documentary shows police academy students receiving the special education on the importance of their public image, and we later see Whent trying to bridge the gap between the police department and citizens through a community meeting.

In that community meeting, Whent is confronted by several citizens who have lots of discontent toward the police department. He keeps emphasizing that he and others in his police department will do as much as they can, but he also frankly admits that he cannot promise anything easily. Being usually understaffed, the Oakland police department cannot handle every reported criminal incident, and many people in the city continue to distrust the police department as before.

Anyway, things began to look a bit better in early 2015. As the police-related shooting incidents were considerably decreased, the public image of the Oakland police department was significantly improved along with the praises from several federal government officials, and there is a rather amusing moment which shows Whent being interviewed by a French TV reporter for what he achieved during a short period.

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However, as some of you already know, things soon became bad as before. A number of police-related shooting incidents happened during next several months, and that was a major blow to whatever Whent and his police department had managed to accomplish. In case of one unfortunate incident where a suspect happened to die while pursued by police officers, Whent tried to demonstrate transparency via the public release of a video clip shot by police body cameras during that time, but the public opinion on the Oakland Police Department remained to be negative, and many citizens consequently protested against the police department on streets.

In 2016 May, there came another blow to Whent and his police department. Over 30 police officers were charged together for a serious case of sexual misconduct, and Whent eventually resigned from the position not long after that as he was faulted for covering up this case. After his resignation, two acting chiefs had to resign during next 8 days due to each own trouble, and that further damaged the public image of the police department.

This bumpy trajectory of Whent and the Oakland Police Department is often intercut with two other narrative lines in the documentary. We watch the training courses of a group of police academy students who are going to serve in the Oakland Police Department, and there is an illuminating moment when they discuss on a shocking video clip which shows a potentially dangerous suspect being shot no less than 13 times by a police officer. While it is quite clear to us that the officer in question overreacted to the circumstance, many students say that they would do the same thing in such a situation like that, and they casually disregard a reasonable opinion from one dissenting student.

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And we also observe the daily work of a young police officer in Oakland. Things are usually mundane during his work hours, but there is always constant possibilities of danger around him and other police officers, and they sometimes have to handle very tricky situations. When he and several other police officers are handling a simple car accident at one point, a guy who is the brother of an injured woman comes to the scene, and the mood becomes tense as that guy becomes more aggressive in front of them.

Director Peter Nicks, who receives the Director Award for his documentary at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, steadily maintains his objective attitude. While letting us appreciate the efforts for reform in the Oakland Police Department, the documentary also observes and listens to community activists, and we come to sense a big, complex picture surrounding its social issues. Although I must point out that the documentary falters as cramming too many things into its last 20 minutes, its overall result is mostly well-balanced, and it also functions as an interesting counterpart to “Whose Streets?” (2017), another recent acclaimed documentary film which presents the same social issues from the opposite perspective.

Although the circumstance does not look that optimistic at present, “The Force” provides a little glimmer of hope during its closing moment. While the Oakland Police Department is still under federal oversight, the Civilian Police Commission was recently established as demanded by citizens, and the documentary indirectly suggests that it may bring some real changes in the end. Considering what I observed from the documentary, I am rather skeptical, but I hope that things will get better for everyone in Oakland someday.

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