Power, or the Purpose of the Police

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

What can we gain from a better understanding of the police as an American institution? A new documentary digs deep into the history, philosophy, and legality of US policing, tying historical injustices to the contemporary use and abuse of state violence. Following much praise for Power at Sundance and CPH:DOX earlier this year, Oscar-nominated director Yance Ford (Strong Island) brings his arresting social history to screens across America this week.

As the enforcement arm of democratic government, the police enjoy a monopoly on the legitmate use of violence. But violence against whom, and why?

In Power, we hear how the approximately 18,000 police forces and one million officers in the US today developed out of disparate historical lines, including frontier militias during Westward expansion, Southern slave patrols, and various attempts by states to manage conflicts with workers and to protect private property. As a result, the police today are simultaneously part of democratic government yet also qualitatively different from other state entities due to the special power dynamic they have with citizens.

Packed tight with historical facts, found footage, and insightful analysis, the film raises hard questions about the purpose of the police. The approach is polemical and didactic, but it’s also formally artistic and personal, if not as directly personal as 2017’s Strong Island, about Ford’s own brother’s killing. And while anger may play a role, Power does seem more interested in provoking your intellect than your emotions. Ford genuinely seems to want you to think. “This film requires curiosity, or at least suspicion,” Ford announces at the start, meaning suspicion of the film itself.

Property is a big theme here—human beings as property, land as property, business as property, and even public space as property. Various expert analyses included in Power share the theme that, rather than existing for the sake of all, police forces in the US have operated on behalf of socially dominant groups in order to maintain control and keep wealth concentrated in the “right” hands.

While the police mean different things to different people for different reasons—and different people mean different things to the police—the extraordinary power relationship they have with regular citizens is undeniable. Police power, while abstract and theoretically omnipresent, is at the same time unusually intimate. Police officers can search your pockets or your text messages, and they can touch you all over your body without your consent. Police power is also immediate. When asked by an officer to do something, you do it—no delay, no excuses. If you do not comply, you may be told to do it. If you still don’t comply, you will be forcefully made to do it. ATM, they used to call it: Ask, Tell, Make. You have no real choice—unless you want your freedom taken away—and there’s no buying time. Unless you’re already incarcerated, or perhaps in the military, no one but the police has such intimate and immediate power over your body and your behavior.

While it’s the police as an institution that’s the main focus, the film does question the internal personal experience of officers, conscious and unconscious. Hearing from a thoughtful veteran Black officer in Minneapolis as he goes about his daily work, we get a glimpse into how he thinks and feels about the job, including its racist origins. And while each officer is different, we know from psychological research that certain kinds of personality styles tend to be found in police departments. Not everyone is comfortable taking an authoritarian stance against a complete stranger while pointing a loaded gun.

To its detriment perhaps, the film focuses exclusively on US police. The lack of any international context means that a comprehensive take on the problem of “policing” today, rather than just “US policing,” is missing. Our country has particular problems with policing, no doubt, and a unique history. But it is far from the only liberal democratic society that has serious issues with the exercise of state violence against its own citizens. A bit of comparing and contrasting with other systems would have been an opportunity to more deeply interrogate how we may be able to overcome what seems to be a very American problem: first and foremost, the disproportionate use of deadly police force against Black and brown citizens.

That said, there’s plenty included here to try to wrap your head around. We see very little in the way of graphic violence—an interesting and welcome choice—but Power neverthless does not go down easy, nor should it. The viewer is challenged to absorb and make sense of the studious collection of information and imagery presented, and the deliberate and effective way this film sparks the intellect without being overwhelming is its greatest strength. By the end, tough questions are asked about the future, including: How much worse could it get?

This November’s election could determine whether or not we see a sharp roll back of legal accountability for police violence in the US, and keeping MAGA authoritarians out of office is imperative.  And yet, preventing a Republican takeover in Washington will not be enough. Center and left-leaning politicians have also funneled resources into police forces in recent decades without significant reform or restructuring. Some experts insist society must rethink the police as an institution altogether: How can we protect the public’s safety without damaging public safety at the same time? How can we achieve effective civilian oversight of law enforcement? And how can we ensure that democratic power lies with the people and not with the police?

Power (85 min.) is available on Netflix beginning May 17, 2024.