SXSW FILM 2015
By Linc Leifeste | March 26, 2015
Directors: Brad Barber, Scott Christopherson
I like to think there was a time when police officers were there to serve and protect, when our police forces were made up by and large of good people who were dedicated to keeping their communities safe. And as a white guy, it’s probably almost possible to believe it. Almost. But then I’ve seen and read enough to know that’s not really true. That said, I do believe that overaggressive policing, excessive violence, and the militarization of the police are overall on the rise (as compared to the past, when it was mostly minority communities having to deal with such problems). I also think that most Americans are opposed to those types of behaviors and activities but are still skeptical that it is a large scale problem. And then there’s that persistent, pesky race divide, with perceptions of police behavior often varying depending on the color of the skin of the person doing the perceiving.
The beauty of Peace Officer, a new documentary from filmmakers Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson, is that it’s backdrop is Utah, and the victims of excessive police violence that are the film’s focus are all white. So the odds are increased that even the most “law and order” of white viewers just might be led to the realization that there are some troubling trends in modern day policing (and maybe even wake up to the reality that this is an issue than minority communities have always had to deal with). Not to suggest that my fellow white people are the ones that have the most to fear in that regard. As the filmmakers pointed out in a post-screening Q&A, the subject of race and police brutality are worthy of many documentaries. But the truth is, this is an issue that should have all Americans concerned.
The star of Peace Officer is mild mannered former Utah sheriff turned sewage worker, William “Dub” Lawrence. Of note, back when he was a sheriff in the mid-70’s he formed Utah’s first ever SWAT unit. Fast forward thirty or so years and he had the horrific experience of witnessing his own son-in-law being controversially gunned down by the SWAT team after a day-long standoff. While he had violently broken the law, evidently out of character for him, by the time the police arrived he was not endangering anyone but himself. He had isolated himself in his vehicle in the driveway, had no hostages, and was at most, from his suicidal behavior, a danger to himself. That didn’t stop the police from putting an end to the standoff with flash-bang grenades, smoke grenades and ultimately a sniper round that ended his life.
It turns out that Dub is a very fair-minded, conscientious and borderline obsessive guy; “he’s a good man, and thorough.” So he ended up turning a segment of his airline hangar into a makeshift crime lab and gathered and pinned up countless pictures from the event. Using open records requests, he’s gathered all the video he can and reviewed all the evidence to try to come to some understanding of why events played out the way they did. And despite the ugliness of the things he’s witnessed, he comes across as an eternal optimist, the ideal soft spoken, reasonable narrator of events for those skeptical that police forces across our nation are overstepping the reasonable bounds of behavior.
In the meantime, he’s gotten involved in several other area cases of “death by police” in Utah. There’s a case of a teenage girl who was gunned down in her car after the police claimed she tried to back her car into them. And there’s a story of a young man who was reported for growing marijuana at his house, leading to a nighttime raid by a band of body-armor wearing, assault rifle carrying soldiers who beat on the door momentarily before battering it down. A shootout ensued, with the homeowner claiming he only fired after being fired upon and was acting in self-defense. He was injured, an officer was killed and he was arrested and eventually committed suicide before his trial. And of course, all of this was just a blip on the radar, if even that. Although I’d bet that if most Americans knew that heavily armed police officers were making a habit of busting down homeowner’s doors late at night for suspicion of growing marijuana plants, it would be an unpopular action. And as Dub carries out his own crime scene investigations, apparently much more thoroughly than the ones done by the police themselves, doubt is cast on the official versions of events that the police have peddled.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim the film is completely objective or even-handed, it does allow a number of officers to give the other side of the story. Here you’ve theoretically got a set of individuals putting their lives on the line to keep the community safe and they should be given every opportunity to come home safe to their families at the end of their shifts. If that means carrying bigger, more lethal weapons than the (alleged) criminals might have and using body armor and armored vehicles and busting down doors at night in large groups, so be it. Sure it might help to create an “us vs. them” mentality or give the average citizen the feeling of being under the watch of an occupying force but if you’re a law abiding citizen, there’s no need to worry, right? Unless, that is, as one family in the film found out, they happen to come knocking at the wrong door one day. Or as too many parents have had to learn, your son or daughter doesn’t comply quickly enough or behaves in such a way as to make officers feel concerned for their safety. What the film manages to do is drive home the point that this isn’t necessarily something that always happens to someone else or even to someone who “had it coming.” It could just as easily happen to you or me or someone we know and love.