Raleigh Police Officer’s Upcoming Film Stirs Controversy

This is not the “South Park” movie you are looking for.

Inspired by Robert Wagner’s time serving as a police officer in and around Raleigh’s South Park neighborhood, the upcoming faith-based film “Bragg ‘N East” has little in common with the long-running cartoon series — save its penchant for controversy.

A controversy that, in this case, would eventually divide a neighborhood and lead to Officer Wagner’s re-assignment.

When Wagner, 29, joined the Raleigh Police Department in 2007, the decision was an obvious one, born of a lifelong desire to serve and to help others. Upon graduating from the academy, Wagner requested assignment to Southeast Raleigh, one of the most challenging areas of the city. It was there he felt he could do the most good.

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Provided

“That’s just my heart, I’ve always had a heart of just helping, reaching out to people in need,” Wagner said.

After about three years on the job, however, he eventually reached a breaking point.

“I felt like I was beating my head into a brick wall – I asked God, why? I’m out here every single day, and I don’t feel like I’m helping anyone,” Wagner said.

“I arrest someone, and before I can even fill out the report they’re back on the exact same corner doing the exact same thing I arrested them for.”

At the same time, his daughter, who had just turned 2, was diagnosed with a potential case of Leukemia. She was later cleared of the disease.

“I’m working 12-hour shifts, trying to sleep at the Chapel Hill hospital, I’m worn down and in the midst of all of this, I get called to a code blue on Bragg Street,” he said.

“I was the first one on the scene, and the lady placed her six-week old infant in my arms and said, ‘Save my baby’s life.’”

But there was nothing that could be done. The child passed away in Wagner’s arms.

“Then I had to go interview the neighbor – and she was mad because the people whose baby had just died had used her phone to call 911.”

The Golden Rule
It was at this point that Wagner, a lifelong Christian and the son of a Methodist pastor, turned to God for help.

“I felt like, no matter what, I kept running into hate and crime, and there was no end to it. I remember God telling me, how can you expect them to give something they never received – unconditional love?” Wagner said.

“I figured, if no one else is gonna show it to them, I will. That was my turning point.”

It was then that Wagner began engaging the community in a profoundly different way.

As a cop, he said he was trained to use the least amount of legal authority necessary to create voluntary compliance with the law.

His time on the job, however, had started to create a mindset of “arrest, arrest, arrest,” Wagner said, and he had begun to focus too much on catching people breaking the law, rather than taking actions which may prevent them from doing so in the first place.

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James Borden / Raleigh Public Record

By working to establish more personal relationships with those he encountered every day on the job, Wagner said he began to gain the trust of those who once reacted to his presence with open hostility. He even earned himself an affectionate nickname: Wagz.

“It’s a lot better than some of the things they used to call me,” he said, laughing.

Wagner described one incident where, after making an arrest, the man seemed more concerned about what Wagner would think of him than the charges he was facing.

“He asked, ‘Are you gonna treat me different?’ I said, no, I’m not. You just made a mistake, that’s all,” Wagner said.

Wagner explained that many people he encountered had rarely, if ever, experienced this kind of forgiveness. The love they received was often conditional, he said: “We’ll love you if you join this gang,” for example.

By practicing unconditional love, Wagner said he hoped to inspire others to do the same, and eventually break the vicious cycle of poverty and criminality many had come to accept as a way of life.

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James Borden / Raleigh Public Record

For Wagner though, merely practicing what he preached was not enough. He needed a more active, more concrete way of helping the community he served and had come to love.

A Film is Born
Although Wagner also had a desire to serve others by working as a police officer, he first pursued a career in entertainment. Upon graduating high school in New Bern, Wagner found work both on and off camera.

“I always said, there’s two things I want to do in life,” Wagner explained. “One was to work in the film industry, and two was to be a cop.”

By allowing him to draw off his experience doing the latter, Wagner said God had presented him with an opportunity to once again pursue the former.

In his free time, he began developing an idea that would eventually become “Bragg ‘N East,” so-named after an intersection in southeast Raleigh that has seen more than 70 arrests in 2013 alone.New_Bragg_N_East_Poster

The film will follow the stories of a hardened police officer, loosely based on Wagner himself, and a hardened criminal, based on a composite of the many he had come to know in his years on the job.

“It’s a movie designed to stir God’s people into literally loving the hell out of those who need it,” he said.

Wagner plans to shoot on location in southeast Raleigh using as crew members local residents who may otherwise have trouble finding work due to their lack of experience or criminal history.

“I want to give them an opportunity. I don’t care what their criminal record is like, but where they’re going from here,” Wagner said. “Maybe it can increase their self-esteem, show them they’re worth something, connect them to full-time jobs.”

Wagner has also enlisted the help of Emmy-award winning Hollywood producer Ralph Singleton, who has been a producer on films ranging from “Murder at 1600” to “Clear and Present Danger” and casting director Maxann Crotts, whose work includes “The Patriot” and “The Fugitive.”

By establishing the nonprofit Within a Yard Ministries, Wagner will be able to funnel any profits from the movie — currently budgeted around $700,000 — back into the South Park community. The money would be used for revitalization, employment and educational programs.

A Community Divided
Although Wagner said the feedback he has received on the film thus far has been largely positive, not everyone in the community appreciates the type of change he is trying to bring.

“Every time you do something good in this world, you’ve got your naysayers,” Wagner said.

In a June 3 meeting of the Central Citizens Advisory Council, which serves the South Park and other surrounding neighborhoods, Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown announced that Wagner would no longer be serving as the community officer. He was re-assigned and is now working in the Five Points area of Raleigh.

Raleigh PD spokesman Jim Sughrue said in a later interview that officer re-assignments are common and not an indication of any wrongdoing. As such matters are generally considered personnel issues, he was unable to comment any further.

Lonnette Williams, one of Wagner’s most outspoken critics and the former chair of the Central Citizens Advisory Council, offered some insight about why not everyone is supportive of Wagner’s efforts.

She said people were concerned the film was “creating the perception that we’re violent. Nobody would want to be over here because they think that’s true. It’s making people fearful to come into this neighborhood.”

“We got enough problems over here,” she said.

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Williams said she and some other members of the community also disagree strongly with Wagner’s policing style.

“He was in this neighborhood as a police officer, not a missionary,” she said.

Williams added that some in the neighborhood had become concerned for their safety, because Wagner was becoming seen as more of a friend than as a police officer.

“When I call for the police I want him to come with his gun drawn, ready to do business,” she said. “We want a police officer to be a police officer in a neighborhood like this.”

Williams said she and other members of the community had asked for Wagner to be re-assigned from the CAC due to escalating tensions over the film.

“We thought it was racist really,” she said. “He wasn’t the great white hope, that all the sudden he’s gonna show up, 20-something years old and save this black neighborhood — come on brother.”

Takisha Craven, who grew up on Person Street and still lives in the area, strongly disagreed with Williams’ assertions.

She argued that Wagner’s more community-oriented approach to policing was a great service to the community, especially its youngest members.

“A lot of children grow up thinking that police officers are bad,” she said. “Dealing with Officer Wagner, that changes the children’s outlook on what police officers are there for, they’re there to help you and protect you.”

Wagner, she said, would often spend his off-duty hours volunteering at the nearby Raleigh Community & Safety Club and would occasionally attend the graduation ceremonies of neighborhood children.

“The race card is being played because they look at it as, a white cop coming in a predominantly black neighborhood, trying to take over,” Craven said. “He’s not trying to take over. If they come to the meetings about the movie and they sit and listen, he’s not gaining anything from making this movie. He’s not gonna get rich and move to Beverly Hills. That’s not his objective; his objective is to help revitalize the community.

“I’m a black woman, if I go into a white neighborhood and try to make a movie [to help people], am I in the wrong?” Craven asked.

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James Borden / Raleigh Public Record

Moving Forward
Outspoken community advocates are not the only hurdle Wagner needs to clear before production on the movie can officially get underway.

Although it will be produced on a relatively small budget, Wagner still needs to raise much of the money for the film. Monday he launches a Kickstarter campaign, through which he hopes to bring in at least 10 to 15 percent of the movie’s overall budget.

Once the funds are raised and production begins, Wagner said he will have to take an extended leave of absence, one longer than normally allowed by department policy. The issue may have to go before City Council for approval.

Wagner’s faith has allowed him to deal with and endure these issues, and he said he believes that if God truly does want him to make this movie, as long as he does everything that he can, things will eventually work themselves out.

“I really believe that media can impact lives,” Wagner said.

“That’s the reason why I feel like I was put in this situation,” he said.“It was so that I could experience this and hopefully, you know change more lives and send a message.”

CORRECTION APPENDED: This article has been changed to clarify statements made by Lonnett Williams. She told the Record that the Community Advisory Council asked for Robert Wagner to be reassigned from coming to the CAC meetings, not reassigned to a different police district in the city.

17 thoughts on “Raleigh Police Officer’s Upcoming Film Stirs Controversy

  1. Seems like a nice guy as far as cops go, and glad to hear his daughter didn’t actually have leukemia.

    But if RPD officers are trained to use the least amount of legal authority to achieve voluntary compliance with the law then there are a hell of a lot of cops out there who voluntarily ignore their training and these violations are not showing up in their performance reviews. :(

    Anyhow, this guy, like so many drawn to law enforcement, seems to have a messiah complex — saving the public from itself, and/or saving souls from their owners’ erroneous ways — perhaps with a little capitalist twist of earning some fame and fortune along the way for himself. It’s easy to see why folks would resent the condescending nature the missionary’s approach, but it’s better than beating heads and filing false charges like so many cops do (the typical prosecutor-LEO game to force plea deals).

    I deeply empathize with Ms. Williams’ comment about the 20-something-savior behavior. We see it all the time in Raleigh with these silly narcissist hipsters who are happy to believe what they are told by Raleigh’s current crop of downtown developers, boosters and astroturfers (many paid behind the scenes by developers/investors and the city’s various related corporate-welfare schemes out of tax dollars) — that they are the salvation of the city — never mind that the city was doing quite well and obviously well enough to attract them and many, many others before they arrived on the scene in their youthful glory. I think this narcissism is rooted in our society’s youth culture. Or maybe it was all that “Jesus Loves You,” “I’m Special,” cheerleading? But I digress… :)

    Free Advice to Wagner: If you’re going to so obviously alter the “coming soon” promo photo anyhow (e.g., the elongated top of the street sign’s shadow to form a cross on the pavement as shown in this article), you might as well go all out and stage it to grab attention with some relevant action, perhaps an infanticide or police-brutality killing or drive-by-drug-gang shooting (though I’m sure Ms. Lonnette Williams would disapprove, and I wouldn’t blame her). Also, please consider that maybe you’re in the wrong line of work. If you want to help people, I don’t think being a cop is the way to go. It’s been years since I’ve read (don’t think I got through the whole thing though) “The Cross & The Switchblade” but it seems there is just too much baggage being a cop that would interfere with being an effective Christian missionary at the same time. Good luck with it, and please keep being good to people whatever you do.

  2. Chickenlittle is being overly critical for someone that hasn’t offered up any potential solutions to the crime problems in Southeast Raleigh.

    Also, Lonnette Wilson’s race card play only draws attention to her own failure of leadership that allowed Southeast Raleigh’s downward slide to the sorry state that it is in today. She seems to be desperate for Wagner to fail before he even gets started, probably out of fear that some “20-something” “great white hope” will do a better job helping the community than she ever has.

  3. Mr. Wagner was absolutely right on target in his desire to create personal relationships with the people in his neighborhood. This is exactly what’s missing in the culture of the US. We’re all so isolated from each other. We don’t know each other, so we rarely have a personal stake, a real root in the life of the community.

    Authority is an essential in police work, but when it’s built and earned as Mr. Wagner set out to do, authority becomes rooted much more deeply and can be genuinely called respect.

    The man’s heart is in the right place, and his sincerity is really refreshing.

  4. It’s really funny that those who have a problem with the movie are the same ones that are not doing ANYTHING to help the community. I know first hand that those in the community that have their opinions (and there are only a handful) are stuck in a time where they play the race card and down anyone who attempts to do good in that community….especially if they are not a person of color.

    What we are dealing with here is a group of bitter people (churches included) who have FAILED to step up to the plate to make a difference, so when a person or group comes in to do so it is a problem…… especially if they are not a person of color.

    It’s funny how Ms. Williams does not want the movie to depict negativity about the community, however she stated that when she calls the Police she want’s them to come with a “Gun drawn, ready to do business”…really?!!!…perhaps if she took time to build meaningful relationships with the other people represented in her community instead of calling to have guns drawn on them she may have a different perspective.

    I think there is a lot of negativity in how minorities view the police. I think it is a GREAT thing that this officer was able to break thru some of those barriers with people in this community and treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve, and for that I applaud him!

  5. I couldn’t agree more that Chickenlittle is being extremely critical without offering any potential solutions to the problem. One big thing I don’t understand is the comment: “please consider that maybe you’re in the wrong line of work. If you want to help people, I don’t think being a cop is the way to go.”

    If cops are not meant to help maintain peace then why do we have cops? My sister was killed 3 years ago and it was the work of COPS that brought her killer to justice bringing closure to our family. It’s the work of cops that put their lives on the line to offer you a sense of protection. If you can’t grasp that concept then it’s clear that you wouldn’t agree with Wagner because you simply don’t understand that basic concept he is trying to show his community, unconditional love and hope for a better future.

    I couldn’t agree more that Wagner is on the right track. We need more cops with the Messiah complex which isn’t to come in and take over but to come in, engage the people, and heal the brokenness. Wagner is clearly on the path to break the generational curse that clearly affects this area.

    As a man of color I will say that playing that race card in this situation simply shows why we need more Wagners in the world to rid our communities of this ignorance. In fact, because of her comment is why I can stand behind what Wagner does even more. I wish more people could the see the absurdity in her race card she played.

    GO WAGZ!

  6. All cards have (2) sides as in the RACE card. But why is one side used a lot more and more rapidly than the other side.??? Even though some don’t agree, GOD made us all, different colors, different languages!

  7. God Bless this man for what he is trying to do and I pray his venture will produce fruits that will be pleasing to our Lord and can only benefit our society for the greater good.

  8. The sad thing is that we talk about rebuilding and uplifting our community, but when a group or individual comes in and wants to genuinely help change it by possibly bringing in millions…its a problem? Does not make sense to me. God Bless you Wagner, and I pray that you God’s Vision comes forth.

  9. seems like Lonnette Williams out of her own mouth has established what kind of hood it is (violent), by stating” People there expect a police officer to come out with a gun drawn when called upon”again she is trying to make a racial issue out of this, …See More2 hours ago · Like..

  10. seems like Lonnette Williams out of her own mouth has established what kind of hood it is (violent), by stating” People there expect a police officer to come out with a gun drawn when called upon”again she is trying to make a racial issue out of this, instead of trying to do something herself (which is nothing), she has to find fault with someone who is. I applaud this officer and christian, there can be NO seperation of the two and he is trying to demonstrate this through action rather than words. GOD BLESS your efforts, and I’m sure he will

  11. @Rusty: You make excellent points right up until your second to last sentence. Anyone can be a good LEO. Not just Christians. That also does a great disservice to those men and women who risk their lives to serve the public not out of an obligation to a supernatural being, but because they feel obligated to their fellow man.

  12. how sad that the efforts of Officer Wagner to work for peace in a neighborhood have been criticized by those who would have no better answers…and would offer no solutions to the crime problem there…

  13. Phillo: get your head out of your __utt, I was responding to the article and never mentioned the service of other officers, only the efforts of this officer and if you have a better solution to the problem instead of criticism, or a problem with a Superior Being (GOD) as you put it , then take it up with them of which I’m sure you know absolutely nothing about either. By the way, my family and myself have been and are in law enforcement and I’m sure there are a lot of officers who support this effort to curb the violence which makes their jobs easier and a whole lot safer.

  14. @Rusty/@randall dodd

    “I applaud this officer and christian, there can be NO seperation of the two”.

    I only stated that there can, in fact, be a separation of the two – in fact, it happens all of the time.

  15. Pam Saulsby will be covering this story on NBC-17 WNCN tonight at 11!