SXSW Film Review – Peace Officer
The militarization of America’s police force, a phenomenon that has gotten more and more people afraid of the police, is given wider context into how the police now operate and the tragic result in this strong documentary. A former Utah sheriff, William “Dub” Lawrence, watched in 2008 as his own son-in-law was gunned down by the SWAT team that he had created back in the 1970s. This incident has had a profound effect on him and has created, as his own wife says, an obsession into righting the wrongs he now sees in the police force he loves. His story is documented in the new movie Peace Officer.
A brief history of the creation of the SWAT teams and the gradual change in how they operate gives some great context to how we have gotten to this point, showing the motivations behind the creation of the SWAT teams in the 1970s and their evolution. When it was first started SWAT was for the most dangerous circumstances like hostage situations and riots but is now being used in simply delivering a warrant, especially when it comes to drugs. The methods involve violent force to enter houses and carrying very powerful weapons. There are no cop cars out front with flashing lights identifying them, so instead they look like soldiers and given much more leave to use force on a suspect if they feel threatened.
The film highlights three major cases where questions about police tactics bring up deep questions about the way police officers now handle themselves. These three cases are all great examples because they show where there are potential problems with the police tactics in very different situations. One is Lawrence’s son-in-law being outside in a stand-off with police, another is the entering of suspected pot grower Matthew Stewart’s house late at night, and the last is two undercover cops confronting a young woman, Danielle Willard, in a parking lot for a possible drug buy.
We hear mainly from Lawrence as he goes over the events as he is able to reconstruct them. The main example of where he sees problems comes from the raid on Stewart’s house. We are given details about his life and hear from the police that were there the night when the incident happened. Getting the police and prosecution’s side was helpful in showing what they thought of the incident and providing perspective on the other side of the issue. It also makes a nice contrast when Lawrence and others look over the scene and show how they see what happened raises many questions.
William Lawrence was a godsend for directors Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson. His screen presence is such that he is instantly likable as we see him now as a waste treatment worker taking pride in work most of us would never want to do. Then we cut to seeing the amount of research and time he has spent on his son-in-law’s case and also several other cases. He is able to be jovial but also compelling as he goes over his own history with the police, the dedication and pride he has in the work they do and the family history he has. We also see how he investigates a scene given his credentials to be involved in crime scene investigations. He is the kind of credible expert that a film crew could spend years looking for.
Directors Barber and Christopherson themselves are equally as good as their expert, having a great sense of timing. As we move around these cases we are given just enough information to get us curious about what actually happened. As details are unveiled by the authorities and then by outside experts they paint a pretty terrifying picture. The effectiveness in the telling is how the cases are revealed to us. It is like watching a mystery unfold, seeing as the clues come together, while hearing step-by-step what happened, but also moving from case to case leaving us hungry to learn more. Over that time it puts us into the situation where we wonder what would we do? In these situations the police officers have much more leverage to use force if they feel even remotely threatened while the regular citizen needs to be able to understand immediately what is happening or can face death. Even if a citizen does understand who is pointing the gun he or she can be in harm’s way just by the level of stress the police have and the techniques they now employ.
This film made me angry. I wanted justice for these people whose lives were taken by the police and that shows the deep level of care that Barber and Christopherson put into crafting this film. Lawrence, as our expert in these events, brings the right amount of gravitas and personality to make the situations understandable for the layman and advocate for why things need to change. Together these three were able to make their case clearly and provide large amounts of evidence while keeping the events moving, compelling us to want to learn more.