William J. “Dub” Lawrence was a proud Marine, police officer, and the youngest sheriff that Davis County, Utah, had ever elected; a seasoned beacon behind the badge who also founded the state’s first-ever SWAT program in 1975. But when that very same SWAT unit shot his own son-in-law to death after a 12-hour standoff on September 22, 2008, everything changed. The veteran lawman retired to run his own sewage cleaning business and dedicate his off-hours to determining what police were hiding about that fateful night.
“I like this job,” the 70-year-old Lawrence says at the start of the SXSW-winning documentary Peace Officer, as he lowers himself into the bowels of a clogged sewage line. “It’s a lot less stressful.”
Filmmakers Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber make Dub Lawrence the face of America’s complex crisis over the militarization of law enforcement. And what a face it is. The effervescent ace investigator sports a tireless, grandfatherly beam that only cracks when he recalls the night Utah SWAT killed his daughter’s husband, Brian Wood, after incapacitating him with a barrage of gas, rubber bullets, tasers, and flash and pepper grenades in his own driveway.
Earlier that day, Lawrence had assured his distraught daughter, Wood’s parents, and his own grandson to trust in the first two cops who’d arrived on the scene responding to a domestic disturbance. They knew what they were doing, he thought. But things escalated beyond control as his horrified family stood by. More officers swarmed the neighborhood, taking position around the armed and upset Wood, who had barricaded himself in his pickup truck.
The situation, carried on local news, came to a violent end when a police sniper shot Wood with a single bullet as he lay injured by nonlethal fire on the ground next to his truck, his hands empty. Police said he’d committed suicide by gunshot but were later forced to admit he did not.
Peace Officer follows Lawrence as he painstakingly sifts through photographs and heavily redacted evidence obtained by the Freedom of Information Act in his makeshift office inside an airplane hangar. Years of re-creating accidents and crime scenes as a police investigator help Lawrence unearth new evidence that CSI overlooked due to either incompetence or a cover-up, he says.
The film also takes a multifaceted look at the rapid escalation of violent tactics, training, and attitudes of the police in the past four decades. The recent firestorm over these very issues in Ferguson, Missouri, is briefly referenced, although Peace Officer makes its case by sticking to instances of fatal police encounters in the state of Utah against all white victims. That choice leaves race conspicuously out of the conversation. Instead, the film zeroes in on why and how America’s law enforcement bodies have grown so weaponized and combative in order to keep the peace in their communities.
The film blames the War on Drugs, first waged by President Nixon in 1971—four years before Lawrence first introduced a SWAT program to Utah—and the recruitment of SWAT officers as warriors in that war that proliferated in the Reagan era. As for the tactical gear, rifles, and tanks that are now de rigeur in modern police procedure, as seen in shocking images captured last year on the streets of Ferguson, America has Congress to thank for launching the 1033 Program—weaponizing local law enforcement with military-grade arms since ’97.
Directors Christopherson and Barber let the other side argue in favor of militarization, visiting local senior police officers who defend the use of force and relish the toys the government has added to their arsenals. One local sheriff insists his force uses their police Humvee to drive injured citizens out of dangerous and remote locations. Another praises the taser with almost too much glee before unapologetically defending the occasional killing of unarmed persons by police as a necessary evil. “The reality is SWAT teams save lives,” says Sheriff Jim Winder of the Salt Lake City Unified Police Department.
Peace Officer shows how easily those militarized trappings can also create a warrior-cop mentality and the perception of a suspected perp as “the enemy.” Lawrence is called to independently investigate other violent killings of unarmed Utahns at the hands of police. There’s the shooting death of Danielle Willard in West Valley, Utah, by cops who claimed she’d bought drugs, then attacked them with her car—although Lawrence claims he finds evidence that the officers were at least six feet away from her vehicle when she was shot in the driver’s seat.
Then there’s the controversial case of Matthew Stewart, the Army veteran charged with aggravated murder and attempted murder for killing a cop and shooting several more in a botched 2012 drug raid. That raid went south when armed undercover police burst into Stewart’s Ogden home, leading to a vicious firefight. Reconstructing the scene, Lawrence finds new evidence that one of the officers was actually hit by friendly fire, and reenacts how Stewart may have mistaken the raid for a home invasion. Months earlier, the same task force made headlines by killing another man, Todd Blair, five seconds after bursting into his home on another raid, in search of his roommate. A graphic video of Blair’s death went viral. Weber County prosecutors declared Blair’s death justifiable.
Lawrence is still crusading against police militarization, a mission that should get a boost from Peace Officer winning this month’s SXSW Grand Jury and Audience Awards. “It does not appear that the police are going to change unless they are shown this is an error, this is wrong,” he says. “I don’t think mankind is equipped to tolerate injustice forever.”