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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.