'Peace Officer': Film Review

Courtesy of SXSW
A moving and persuasive condemnation of excessive tactics in law enforcement.

Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber examine police militarization.

A powerful and important film about policing tactics that have crept into everyday use with little scrutiny, Peace Officer makes its case effectively enough to move even the staunchest law-and-order civilians. In a remarkably assured debut doc, directors Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson find a lead character who would seem the unlikeliest crusader against "homicides" committed by militarized police forces. In doing so, they make the most of his hugely sympathetic story while offering just enough of the broader picture to ensure we understand how universal his complaints are. Adding significant arguments to conversations that have reached the mainstream in the wake of Ferguson's crisis, the doc has theatrical-release value and should command attention afterward on small screens.

At the heart of the film stands Williams "Dub" Lawrence of Centerville, Utah, who hails from a family of lawmen and became Utah's youngest sheriff at the age of 29. With 45 years' experience as an investigator and a cheerful demeanor that radiates hard-working integrity, we trust him as he guides us through his own haunting tale of excessive police force;  In 1975, he started the local SWAT team that in 2008 would kill his son-in-law.

Even as that standoff was happening, Lawrence and his family placed their trust in law-enforcement agencies. But as he saw the lone man die at the hands of a cartoonishly disproportionate number of uniformed officers, his truth-seeking instincts kicked in. Within 20 hours, he recalls, "I took custody of the scene," conducting an investigation that other officials had abandoned. Though police initially told the media Brian Wood shot himself, Lawrence demonstrated that nothing of the sort happened.

Dub went on to perform incredibly thorough investigations of other police shootings, like a raid in which plain-clothes officers burst into the Ogden, Utah home of veteran Matthew Stewart, who was growing pot in his basement. Again, the official narrative didn't hold water. Either forensic teams were incompetent, Lawrence concluded, or there was a deliberate cover-up.

The film's point is that these upsetting events are far from isolated. Washington Post reporter Radley Balko and representatives of groups like the ACLU explain how SWAT teams began as a logical response to extreme threats to public safety, and then were co-opted by a War on Drugs that took the "war" label seriously, embracing tactics like no-knock raids, in which well-prepared troops break into homes of unwitting citizens, and then too often take any action of surprised self-defense as an excuse to open fire.

Few would argue that officers should go into dangerous situations without appropriate defenses, and certainly nobody takes that stance in the film. What they do point out is the tendency to introduce danger to situations in which none is present; to alter the psychology of police officers by training them like soldiers; to use needlessly threatening military-surplus equipment because if it isn't used, it will be taken away.

And as Balko points out, officers are almost always given the benefit of the doubt when they use force in heat-of-the-moment decisions in which they might reasonably believe they're in danger. Civilians, regardless of their innocence or the unfairness of a raid, rarely are given that benefit.

Directors-Directors of photography: Scott Christopherson, Brad Barber
Producers: Scott Christopherson, Brad Barber, Dave Lawrence
Executive producers: Sterling VanWagenen, Roger Fields, Brad Barber
Editor: Renny McCauley
Music: Micah Dahl Anderson
Sales: Submarine

No rating, 108 minutes