A new documentary about the rise of police militarization in America is hitting theaters this month, following a huge film festival win.
From the fallout of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, to the streets of South Carolina, where filmmakers went on a ride-along with a SWAT team, or a police training seminar that teaches “righteous violence” — the film explores all the ways police departments have started to mirror the military in recent years.
Director Craig Atkinson says his father was an officer outside Detroit for 29 years, even serving on a SWAT team. Atkinson says he was interested in how the War on Terror has affected policing since his father’s retirement in 2002.
“During the 13 years my father was on SWAT from 1989-2002, his team conducted 29 search warrants total,” Atkinson notes on the film’s website. “Compare that to today, when departments of a similar size we filmed conducted more than 200 a year.”
Since 1997, local police departments have received more than $6 billion in property from the Department of Defense. More than 8,000 police departments are part of the program. They’ve received tactical vehicles, weapons, clothing, and supplies. The film notes another $34 billion in “military-grade equipment” that’s gone to police departments since 9/11.
But, Atkinson notes, the equipment that was intended for use in the War on Terror, is instead being used on day to day policing. “The problem is, in three years of filming police, there was never an opportunity to use the equipment on domestic terrorism,” he said. “Instead, the military surplus equipment and surveillance technology were used on a day-to-day basis to serve search warrants, almost always for drugs.”
Atkinson says he hopes the film challenges the rising culture of police militarization, saying he hopes it illustrates a “dire need for change.”