Policing their own: New HBO documentary series offers inside look at academy
Navajo Police Officer Antwan Gray has been first on the scene of a massive car wreck. He’s seen strangers open fire around a group of children. And he’s tried to de-escalate rising domestic tensions before they end in violence.
Sometimes his hands shake and adrenaline rushes through him.
But he knows it’s an important job.
“I just told my wife, ‘If it gets to that point, I will take a bullet for somebody,’” Gray says in a new documentary series about the Navajo Police Training Academy. “And she just asked me, ‘Why would you do that?’ And I said, ‘Because, you never know. It could change somebody, and I have faith that things can change. I’ve seen it.’”
Gray is among a new class of officers featured in the HBO three-part series, “Navajo Police: Class 57,” which followed Gray and other recruits through a grueling year at the groundbreaking Navajo training academy.
With unparalleled access, the series gives viewers an inside look at the only in-house police academy in the country for a tribal nation, on the largest reservation in the United States. Officials estimate they need an additional 300 or so officers to cover the vast territory, which stretches across four states.
Co-directed by award-winning Indigenous filmmaker Kahlil Hudson, (Tlingit/Haida), the series includes work by cinematographer Shaandiin Tome, (Diné), and is executive produced by Navajo filmmaker Blackhorse Lowe, of “Reservation Dogs.” Also co-directing are Alex Jablonski and David Nordstrom.
“For me, first and foremost, what was important was telling a story that humanizes Native people and showed the depth of Native experience,” Hudson said.
“And its officers policing their own,” he said, “This idea of community policing, a long-oppressed minority training their own officers and policing their own people. It’s almost like a social experiment that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country.”
The series kicked off Oct. 17, exclusively on HBO.
‘It feels like a boot camp’
For Class 57, the pressure is constant, the stakes are high, and the very survival of their sovereign nation depends in part on the success of the academy.
Hudson said he was looking for a project to address tribal sovereignty when he learned about the reopening of the police training academy in 2017. The tribe gave him unprecedented access to the academy.
“I met with the chief of police, with tribal sovereignty being one of the underlying themes with this training,” Hudson said. “I met with all the district commanders; they basically gave me carte blanche access. They really were very supportive all the way through the project. They let us in wherever we needed to be.”
The Navajo reservation spreads out across 17 million acres with a population of more than 190,000 people. The Navajo Police Department now has about 180 police officers. Officials believe they need 500.
Hudson says that the big difference in the Navajo police academy is that the training is tribal specific.
“So why is that? That’s a good question,” Hudson said. “The Navajo Nation police force is one of the largest in the country. They really have the need and they financially support their own training academy. If you’re a smaller tribe, you only need to train a couple of officers a year. It doesn’t really make financial sense to hire your instructors.”
“The special training permeates everything that they do there,” Hudson said. “For example, in some of the more rural communities, older grandmothers, grandfathers, don’t speak English so the officers are encouraged to speak Navajo so they’re able to communicate.”
There are also a high number of domestic violence issues to address, he said.
“In terms of domestic violence, the numbers are 10 times the national average, and in all my ride-alongs this is certainly what I experienced, too – close to 90 percent of the calls were between family members,” Hudson said. “There’s a lot of de-escalation-type training scenarios because largely that’s what they end up doing.”
The series, in fact, can sometimes be hard to watch, as the domestic training is put to use in the actual calls officers go out on. The stress level is very high, and so is the dropout rate for the trainees.
“One of the recruiting officers explains that they need to experience people yelling, getting in their face — high-stress situations where they’re having to use their wits, think it through and de-escalate, using these different tactics before they get out into the field,” Hudson said. “It’s a six-month training program; it feels like a boot camp.”
Some trainees find the stress of the academy more than they can take, Hudson said. Of the 28 trainees in Class 57, only 10 graduated.
“A lot of people dropped out, because at a young age, they have these experiences where they’re told that they don’t amount to anything,” Hudson said. “When you hear that at home and then you come into the police training academy and you’re treated that way, it gets to people…
“And then you see the possible fatality rate of officers getting killed and attacked on the job, that’s almost an impossible situation.”
Hudson was right in the middle of filming, even when the officers and trainees went out on calls. But “Navajo Police: Class 57” isn’t an Indigenous version of the television show, “Cops.”
“We very intentionally film in a way where we were obscuring people, so filming from the waist down or filming their feet or coming around from behind them, so we don’t actually see their face,” Hudson said.
“It’s partly just out of respect to protect these people’s identities,” he said. “We did not want to make a show that was like ‘Cops,’ where the perpetrators, the suspects, are being exploited — not make this about the good guys versus the bad guy.”
He did get a feel, however, for the risk police officers face.
“There were certain calls where I was in danger,” Hudson said. “It was not fun, but whether or not I was fearful or aware that I was in danger, that’s another story. When I’m filming, I’m a one-man band. I’ve just got a camera. I’ve got an audio kit that I’m monitoring. I have wireless mics out to the officers. I am so caught up in framing the shot because I’m operating the camera, listening to the audio, getting in close to the scene as a viewer and as a filmmaker.”
His focus, however, is on the officers, even at the massive car wreck involving a woman and child.
“I was really focused on just staying with the officer and filming his experience, while covering the rest of the scene in a way that we could make a narrative sense of it,” he said. “It was important that we center the officers, [with] them telling their stories. Those are quick decisions you have to make on the scene.”
He wants viewers to see for themselves the Navajo police in action.
“We wanted to attract people to this world,” Hudson said, “and bring in an audience that might be attracted to a show around policing.”