Jonathan Cairo of the Oakland Police Department in The Force (Kino Lorber)

Director Peter Nicks makes a well-meaning exemplar of cinema vérité that documents how an urban police department responds to pressures to change from an active, diverse community and the U.S. Department of Justice. However, the seeming transparency, earnest meetings, and revised training procedures all turn out not to have revealed the rotten core of business-as-usual ethics after all.

Amid an opening montage of negative TV news reports about past officerinvolved shootings (that averaged eight per year), new police chief Sean Whent, the third in some two years, exudes optimism in spring 2014 that the Oakland Police Department can respond to complaints about officer misconduct while meeting demands to reduce crime in a city beset by poverty. (Oakland birthed the Black Panther Party in the mid-1960s in response in some part to police brutality.) As a result, new attitudes and methods of cooperating with the community are laid out to a new class of recruits in the police academy, where charismatic community liaison Ben McBride pointedly brings his experience with the police as an African American male into the classroom.

The class discussion is compared to the confusing reality Patrol Officer Jonathan Cairo confronts while on night duty: how difficult split-second decision-making can be regarding potential threats. The filmmakers are there when several incidents occur involving armed suspects, after nearly two years of dramatic decreases in officer-involved shootings. These happen just as the nation’s cities roil over the police shooting and grand jury clearance in Ferguson, Missouri, among other incidents with unarmed civilians. Vigils and demonstrations in Oakland question the local department in a “winter of protest,” led by the experienced and forceful community organizer Cat Brooks of the Anti Police-Terror Project. Throughout, the chief continues to be open to calm and thoughtful interviews.

As the academy students progress to role-playing exercises, there’s the first, and only, hint of an endemic problem within the department: a female recruit is continually interrupted and her input disparaged in a group discussion. Then, after Nicks thought he had finished filming and was in the editing process, a lurid OPD scandal centered on a teenage prostitute hits the news, and the accusations of the lack of supervision go right to the top, with chief Whent resigning. Not only is this discouraging for the city and the OPD but the documentary can’t really sustain an examination of what was missed and what viewers have previously seen.

However, The Force is still useful for presenting the point of view of police. It is the only such documentary of the many excellent films this year on the subject of policing that were otherwise from the view of #BlackLivesMatter activists and families of those shot by police in different cities, including Erik Ljung’s The Blood Is at the Doorstep, Camilla Hall’s Copwatch, Queen Muhammad Ali and Hakeem Khaaliq’s #Bars4Justice, and Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s Whose Streets. With the federal government easing back on oversight, continuing pressures for change will have to be locally generated.

Using a style that looks like cinema vérité, but without capturing substantial insights, Nicks is in the midst of a trilogy of films on public institutions in his adopted hometown of Oakland, after tackling health care (The Waiting Room, 2012) and education, all appearing on public television.

Directed by Peter Nicks
Produced by Linda Davis
Released by Kino Lorber
USA. 93 min. Not Rated