In the potent documentary “The Force,” there’s a moment when Sean Whent, the Oakland chief of police, faces a tough critic: the public. It’s 2015, and he’s talking about the police response to calls. He admits the police are not providing the level of service they should but adds that they’re trying their best. When a robbery victim says their best isn’t good enough, he apologizes. “We need to do a better job, no doubt, and we are trying to do a better job.” By the end of the movie it seems clear that he didn’t apologize enough.
Blunt and sobering, “The Force” is an account of a big-city police department in crisis. In some ways, it is a bleakly familiar story of a troubled department struggling — and failing and struggling — to right its wrongs. In 2003, Oakland and its police settled a civil-rights lawsuit and began trying to implement reforms (like improved officer training) and adhere to fundamentals, or what the city attorney called the department’s “commitment to constitutional policing.” By 2014, the year the documentary opens, the department was into its second decade of federal oversight and these basic goals remained stubbornly elusive.
“The Force” doesn’t offer much on the history of the settlement, though the director, Peter Nicks, does periodically pull back to look at the bigger messy picture. For the most part, he keeps his focus trained on events as they transpire during the two often turbulent years that he roots around the department. He rides with officers, follows them onto the streets and straight into assorted testy conflagrations. He sits in on meetings, some with officers and others with politicians, recording silences and outbursts, moments of frustration and complaint. Repeatedly, he sets the efforts of individual cops against larger departmental issues.
Serving as his own cinematographer, Mr. Nicks largely takes an observational approach to “The Force,” the kind that turns the camera into a persistent bystander. This particular bystander tends to have a fairly short attention span and rarely stays in one place for long, perhaps because Mr. Nicks crams years of material into a 93-minute film. He also incorporates a bit of found…