WaPo | There are no children at the residence, the lead officer assures his colleagues. (There were.) There would be a significant quantity of illegal drugs at the house, another says. (There weren’t.) The tactical team then proceeds to raid the home of a black family in Richland County. Most officers storm the front door with their guns while one shatters some side windows as a distraction. Minutes go by. The officers’ body language eventually shows signs of frustration as their search for contraband continues to come up empty. Finally, someone finds a book bag with traces of marijuana at the bottom — not enough to smoke, much less sell. They arrest a young black man with long braids for possession.
“I never one time said you’re a bad person,” the lead officer tells his arrestee, with an odd cordiality. “I just have a job to do, and you happen to be in the middle of it.”
The officer also seems to know that the man is a student at a local technical college. He’s working toward a degree in construction. The man also runs a landscaping company to help pay for his education. The man later tells the officer that he was on his way to pick up some lawnmowers that morning. Knowing that he’s about to be arrested, he asks the officer if he could tell his employee that he was arrested and won’t be able to pick up the lawnmowers. He then gives the officer $876 in cash and asks it to give it to his employee to go pick up the mowers, along with a weed-eater.
Instead, the officer confiscates the money under civil asset forfeiture laws. There is no obvious connection between the money and the pot residue. The man volunteered the cash, mostly because he didn’t want his arrest to hurt his business. In doing so, he provided ample evidence that the cash had nothing to do with illegal activity. Still, if unchallenged, the $876 will go back to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, even if the man is never charged with a crime. The cost of hiring an attorney for such a challenge would likely exceed $876.
Meanwhile, the man’s father asks the officers whether the police would pay for the windows they just shattered. The lead officer tells him that breaking the windows was a tactic, then adds, “The moral of the story is, don’t sell drugs from your residence.” Perhaps realizing that he had no evidence for what he had just accused the man of doing, he tried to correct himself. “I didn’t say you were actually doing it, I just said — said you were associated with … ” and then there’s some mumbling.
The striking thing about the footage is, again, the utter mundanity of the raid. A family was just violently raided over an immeasurable amount of pot. A man was arrested over that pot. The money he needed for his business was taken from him. Yet there’s no shame or embarrassment from the officers. There’s no panic that the whole thing was captured on video. That’s when it hits you. They don’t think they’ve made a mistake. This is what they do. The lead officers later tells the camera, matter-of-factly, that the raid turned up “a personal use amount of marijuana.” Perhaps realizing that he was also on camera back at the police station promising a much larger stash of drugs, he adds, “It happens. Drug warrants are, you know, 50-50.”
The documentary also eschews voice-overs and talking heads and simply lets law enforcement officers speak for themselves. You don’t need a civil rights activist or ACLU attorney to tell you about the threats posed by militaristic, aggressive policing when law enforcement officers can make the point unintentionally — and thus more powerfully and persuasive — when they’re speaking freely.
For example, the directors attended one of the many SWAT competitions across the country. One SWAT cop officer reflected on his first raid. “I was just trying not to smile. I thought it was so fun. I thought it was so cool,” he says. Since then, he says, he always loves to watch the “SWAT pups” (his term for first-year SWAT officers) on their first raid. “They’re always just smiling from ear to ear. They’re just on top of the world.” At risk of stating the obvious, the officers he’s describing are about to stage an armed, potentially lethal invasion of a private residence.