Raleigh Police Officer Robert Wagner had been preparing for this day for years. On Wednesday, July 29, he turned in his resignation.
The letter had come the day before. It was official. Wagner would not be granted an unpaid leave of absence to work on a feature-length version of his short film “Bragg ‘N East,” one that had stirred controversy and accusations of racism in the community of his old East Raleigh community-policing beat.
Former Police Officer Robert Wagner stands beside a poster for his short film “Bragg ‘N East”
The decision set Wagner on a new path, one he feels called to by a higher power. Instead of patrolling the streets of Raleigh, Wagner will tour the country, promoting his film at festivals and trying to raise money for the expanded version.
“I look back at my experience and I realize God has trained me and prepared me for what I’m doing now,” Wagner said.
“He’s still putting me through a training process.”
Raleigh Police Department Spokesman Jim Sughrue said the department would not elaborate on the decision not to grant Wagner’s leave request. Local government units typically release only basic facts when an employee leaves.
In a follow-up e-mail, Sughrue wrote:
“Robert Richard Wagner’s employment with the Raleigh Police Department began on June 11, 2007, and it ended with his resignation, which was effective July 29, 2014. At the time of his resignation he held the rank of senior officer and was assigned to the Field Operations Division.”
Those facts shed little light on the events that led Wagner to turn in his badge.
“My agenda was to follow my calling that God has set out for me. Their agenda is to follow departmental policies and regulations,” Wagner said. “If there could have been an exception made, it was denied.”
A Matter of Policy
Wagner had requested an unpaid leave of absence so he could take time to tour his short film, “Bragg ‘N East” at film festivals around the country and search for investors for a feature-length version.
Department policy allows unpaid leave for two reasons: educational and emergency. While the argument could be made that Wagner’s experience would be educational, if not in a way that would help him as a police officer, he had no desire to go that route.
Bragg ‘N East director Rob Underhill and creator Robert Wagner sit on a panel at the Gwinnett Center International Film Festival.
“I told them in the very beginning, I said was going to maintain transparency; I’ve never had anything cloudy, everything is transparent,” Wagner said.
Friends even suggested ways to get around the requirements, telling Wagner he should “take an online course for wood-shop or whatever, not tell them how long I’m going on educational leave; it wouldn’t be ethically right, it wouldn’t send the right message.”
Department policy states: “Educational leaves may be granted for extended periods of time. Other personal leaves without pay are limited to 90 days in length.”
In 2012, after years of patrolling the same streets and witnessing the same problems manifesting themselves time and time again, Wagner reached a breaking point.
In an interview last July, Wagner told the Record:
“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,” he 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.
Wagner shoots a scene for the short film Bragg ‘N East
After a particularly harrowing event, Wagner said he turned to God for help.
“I remember God telling me, how can you expect them to give something they never received – unconditional love?” he said.
So Wagner came up with a plan. It began with an attempt to treat every member of the community – even those he had locked up before and would lock up again – with unconditional love.
At first, this was enough. But he soon realized he needed to do something that would help the community in a more tangible way.
He would make a movie, based on his experiences as a cop and his faith in God, and shoot on location in southeast Raleigh, employing local residents to work on and appear in the film.
He would call it “Bragg ‘N East,” after a particularly crime-ridden intersection in the South Park neighborhood of southeast Raleigh. It would be faith-based, and focus on the transformations of a veteran police officer and a hardened criminal.
Any profits would then be poured into his ministry, which would be used for revitalization and educational and employment opportunities for members of the South Park community.
Five months after Wagner’s interview with the Record, “Bragg ‘N East” got made. It was shot in three days and completed on a budget of around $15,000, far less than the $700,000 Wagner had initially sought.
It was a short instead of a feature-length film, and Wagner himself took on the starring role in order to save money.
It debuted at the Living Arts College in north Raleigh in early March. Since then, it has received a number of award nominations at and invitations to multiple film festivals across the country.
The Twin Rivers Multimedia Festival in Asheville named it an official selection in its 21st annual festival this past July.
The Gideon Film Festival in Florida nominated it for best sound and best production.
Gwinnett Center International Film Festival
The Gwinnett Center International Film Festival in Georgia also named it an official selection, and Wagner sat on a “Drama in Film” panel there alongside several others, including Bragg ‘N East Director Rob Underhill.
Wagner is now seeking $400,000 for a feature-length version of the short. So far, he’s raised around $20,000.
A Controversial Start
Wagner knew from the beginning that his vision for “Bragg ‘N East” might conflict with his role as a police officer.
In a June 3, 2013 meeting of the Central Citizens Advisory Council, Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown announced that Wagner would no longer be serving as a community officer in the Bragg Street area.
Members of that CAC, including current chair Lonnette Williams, had gotten wind of Wagner’s plans for the movie, and didn’t like what they were hearing.
The notion of a white cop coming in to “save” a black community struck them as racist, and outside of Wagner’s purview as a police officer.
“He was in this neighborhood as a police officer, not a missionary,” Williams said at the time.
The South Park neighborhood which Wagner used to patrol
The criticism also gave birth to a second nickname for Wagner: the Great White Hope. The first? Wagz.
Although department officials would not say whether Wagner’s reassignment was the result of his film project, Wagner realized he would need to prepare for the possibility that he might have to decide between the movie and his job.
A Backup Plan
In order to offset the potential loss of Wagner’s salary, he and his wife got into the vaporizer business – better known as e-cigarettes.
“We started off doing small parties with friends,” Wagner said. “My grandmother stopped smoking with it, she told me, ‘If they only made these 50 years ago…’”.
Now, he and his wife run a shop in Knightdale specializing in the devices.
“I hate using the word e-cigarette,” Wagner said. “It’s such a negative term.”
“I kind of struggled with it; I didn’t know what the ministry and church people were going to think about this.”
“It has the ability to at least barely maintain what we’ve been making, I pick up odds and ends here and there; we’re not living rich,” he said.
Wagner has also not ruled out a potential return to law enforcement, although he is unsure if it would be with the Raleigh Police Department.
Wagner said he left the department on good terms, and felt most of his co-workers and superiors supported his mission but were not allowed to speak out about it. Indeed, Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown was one of those in attendance at the “Bragg ‘N East” premiere in March.
BRagg ‘N East Premiere at the Living Arts College