ON A SUNNY AFTERNOON last summer, Craig Atkinson, a New York City-based filmmaker, stood in a front yard in South Carolina surrounded by several heavily armed police officers.
The officers, members of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department tactical team, were descending on a modest one-story house looking for drugs and guns. The team smashed through the windows of the home with iron pikes, then stormed the front door with rifles raised.
Inside, they found a terrified family of four, including an infant. As the family members were pulled outside, Atkinson’s camera captured a scene that plays out with startling regularity in cities and towns across the country, one of many included in his new documentary, “Do Not Resist,” an examination of police militarization in the United States.
The police begin rooting through the trash. “Where the fuck is the weed?” one officer asks, as the team ransacks a car parked in the driveway. “Boy that was sweet,” another says, commenting on the speed of the raid. One officer finds a backpack, which yields a bit of marijuana — it’s not enough to roll a joint, but it’s something.
The officer in charge questions the owner of the backpack, a young African-American man. In a conversation captured on Atkinson’s microphone, the young man, a local community college student, tells the officer he runs a small landscaping business.
Knowing he’s being taken into custody, with his hands cuffed in front of him, he asks the officer for a favor: Can he remove the $876 in his pocket set aside for new lawn-care equipment and give it to one of his employees to go to the hardware store?
Instead of handing the cash to the arrestee’s co-worker, the tactical team seizes the money.
“I never one time said you’re a bad person,” the officer tells the young man before he’s led off. “I just have a job to do, and you happen to be in the middle of it.”
The pernicious practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to grab cash or property during the course of raids, then requires people to prove the assets were not related to criminal activity in order to get them back — and allows police to keep the assets if they fail to do so — has been well documented.
What’s less common is to see one of those interactions play out on camera. Capturing those kinds of moments is what “Do Not Resist” is all about.