‘An Unfiltered View’: Producers of ‘Police on Trial’ on What the Documentary Reveals 2 Years After the Murder of George Floyd
From left: Marcia Robiou, in a still image from the FRONTLINE and Star Tribune documentary "Police on Trial," and Mike Shum, filming inside the Tribune's printing press. (Shum photo: Mark Vancleave, Star Tribune)
In the new documentary Police on Trial, FRONTLINE and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters from the Star Tribune follow Minneapolis through a pivotal period in the city’s, and the nation’s, history — from the days after George Floyd’s death, to the trial and conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin, to ongoing calls for reform and accountability.
Days before the documentary’s May 31 premiere, director, writer and producer Mike Shum and producer and reporter Marcia Robiou spoke to FRONTLINE reporter Paula Moura, who also worked on the film, about their efforts to examine Minneapolis’ public safety system and those impacted by it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The murder of George Floyd was covered extensively. Two years later, what new insights can a documentary bring to our understanding of what happened?
Shum: I think we were so stuck in social media and so stuck in breaking news — especially the week of May 25, two years ago. Everything was confined to this one week, that one day. I think taking a longitudinal approach to exploring what happened — how did the city grapple with that event over the course of two years? — that, in itself, was valuable.
Robiou: This is a very emotional and complicated topic. Being able to follow this story for two years, from multiple angles, really allows us to show the nuances.
Shum: I have to give credit to Marcia for asking important questions and pushing our team to say: “Well, let’s go to the records department, and let’s dig deeper, even if you’re not going to give us the information right away. Let’s talk to the police department and former police officers, even if they’re not going to talk to us right away.”
[The team requested body-camera and squad-car footage and any photographic and/or audiovisual evidence of incidents involving Chauvin, as well as police reports and another former officer’s personnel file, from the Minneapolis Police Department Records Information Unit.]
That’s the value of time — to not just watch and see this chronology unfold, but to really push through the surface-level narratives, to ask people very serious and very difficult questions.
Robiou: One other thing I would add is that these historic events have a way of putting the national spotlight on people who normally wouldn’t be in the limelight. I think Mike did a really good job of showing the humanity and the emotional turmoil of these people.
For example, spending the time with Minneapolis police officers on ride-alongs and really trying to get an unfiltered view of how they’re dealing with this. It’s so rare for us to hear directly from them, without their spokesperson in the room. Spending time with the mayor [Jacob Frey] while he drops his kid off at daycare and goes to a press conference, spending time with George Floyd’s aunt. I think that’s a huge asset to the film.
In addition to moving beyond the bifurcated narrative, it’s moving beyond one person and focusing more on systems, interrogating this idea that it’s about one officer who did something bad, but really looking at what goes into public safety and all the different elements of it. I think we were able to do that with the Star Tribune partnership, because each reporter has their own beat. We were able to get a more holistic view of public safety.
Shum: Like everybody, I was reading every possible news outlet to figure out what was happening, and it was Libor Jany and Liz Navratil’s reporting that gave me enough foundational context to just grapple with what was happening. The prospect of actually collaborating with these reporters, really seeing through their eyes, was of real interest to me.
You were the only one filming Angela Harrelson, George Floyd’s aunt, as she watched Chauvin’s trial. You were able to spend a lot of time with MPD officers and community members. A lot of what we worked on was getting access. How challenging was that?
Shum: We did so much to gain access, which is the most challenging part of any documentary. Over time, because we gained that trust — not just myself, but as a team — we were able to be there for these critical moments.
Robiou: Reporters from other states and countries were in Minneapolis, everyone wanting the same interviews. And there was a lot of distrust of reporters in general, which has made access harder. [We wanted to make sure] they understood that we didn’t have an agenda and that we just really want to understand their perspective.
We reached out to more than a dozen people who had encounters with Chauvin over the course of his more-than-18-year career as a police officer, and we were able to get exclusive footage of some of those encounters. Zoya Code’s case, for example: The judge said it was close enough to the way Derek Chauvin handled George Floyd three years later that it could be introduced at Chauvin’s trial in Hennepin County District Court. What were those people’s reactions like, seeing the footage? Why did you want to hear from them?
Shum: Zoya’s reaction to the footage was twofold. One, I think it was a validation for what had happened to her. But it also brought her back to a really difficult time she was having with her family. It was a very difficult moment to watch that, from the body camera.
We were looking at Chauvin’s history because there’s a very clear contradiction in play, when you have the police department saying that this type of force is not accepted by the MPD, and yet you seem to have a track record of this type of force. It was important for us to talk to these former or current Minneapolis residents about what they went through, also with Chauvin.
Some of them didn’t want to go back to that place again.
Robiou: I think the reason I wanted to speak with them is just being very aware that a police report or a court document is not going to tell the full story. Speaking with the people involved was a critical missing piece to figure out what actually happened. Of course, Derek Chauvin, as well. We tried, but he would not speak to us.
These encounters kind of stay with them and mark them years later. We recently sat down with John Pope. He was 14 at the time Chauvin came to his house. [Pope] just watched the body-camera footage for the first time a couple of weeks ago. And he’s really struggling with why this happened to him. It’s really sad to hear someone who’s 19 years old having to deal with such a difficult question. I think that’s similar to what I heard from other people I spoke to, like Zoya and Jimmy [Bostic Jr.].
For me, I just had so many questions as to how [Chauvin] was able to remain on the force for so long. Who were his supervisors? Were they aware and green lit all of this? We tried to track down the supervisors, with mixed results. But I think that was really important, to go beyond one officer’s actions and really show what are the systems in place that allow an officer with these red flags to remain on the force working for so long, and to be a training officer.
You’re able to show some ride-along footage with MPD officers. Did they tell you their work had changed over the last couple of years? If so, how? Why was it important to include their perspective?
Shum: I felt like we wouldn’t have a complete picture if we didn’t know what officers were going through on the streets — especially how in-flux it was. So many officers left the department. On a basic-understanding level, it wouldn’t be fair to have a film about a police department without ever really talking to police officers.
Under the microscope, I think a lot of the changes that they had seen — at least with the ones we had talked to — were how many officers had left and how much that was felt. But also, the anxiety around their relationship with residents, in the face of the election that could have dismantled the department.
Robiou: We spent a lot of time with a lot of officers out of uniform. [We had] a lot of conversations with officers. What made it into the film is a very small percentage of the interviews we conducted on camera, but also even before we got to that point, both current and retired officers.
A clear theme, across the board, was sort of a feeling of abandonment, and not feeling supported by city council and the mayor — sometimes former MPD chief [Medaria] Arradondo, as well.
It’s a difficulty in being an officer at a department that has now become the face of police brutality in the United States and wanting to not be associated with that label.
Police on Trial is part of a collaboration with the Star Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The documentary was produced in association with the Center for Asian American Media and supported by The WNET Group’s Exploring Hate initiative.