The first major documentary on a topic of fast-rising public interest — the increasing militarization of U.S. police departments — “Peace Officer” turns out to be as engrossing and well crafted as it is timely. Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber found an ideal protagonist/guide for this inquiry into excessive police force and accountability: Dub Lawrence, a longtime Utah lawman and politician who in 1975 founded the state’s first SWAT unit. He’d retired from public service 33 years later when his son-in-law was killed by that same SWAT force in a lengthy standoff. Winner of a well-deserved grand jury award at SXSW, the film should easily be able to parlay that honor into further fest play and niche sales in all formats.
By any reasonable standard, the killing appeared to have been wildly mishandled, with a small army of heavily armed forces (even a helicopter) confronting one agitated civilian outside his own home. He’d only pointed his gun at himself, and almost certainly could have been talked into peaceful surrender. (Indeed, he’d tried to surrender, only to be shot at as he attempted to exit his vehicle in the driveway.) Lawrence waited years for the authorities to acknowledge this fairly obvious boondoggle. When it was clear they wouldn’t, he began assembling his own case on behalf of his widowed daughter and in-laws. Accessing materials via the Freedom of Information act (though some arrived heavily redacted), he found considerable evidence to contradict the official police version of events.
Meanwhile, Lawrence was also applying extensive investigative skills to bear on other recent Utah instances of extreme police aggression. Two were large-scale night raids on private homes, one of which triggered a bloody shootout between SWAT personnel and the military-vet resident who claims he thought he was fighting home-invading burglars. (Adding further confusion, the police weren’t wearing any identifiable uniforms.) His crime? Suspected marijuana plants in his basement, though there was no evidence he’d sold or intended to sell any.
Another sleeping family was stormed by police one night in what turned out to be an instance of mistaken identity. (One officer mentioned in parting that if the husband had been brandishing a gun rather than a baseball bat, he’d probably have been killed.) A different type of case highlighted here involved an unarmed young woman who, having just been seen supposedly buying illegal drugs, attempted to flee police. Danielle Willard’s panicky driving in a parking lot put the officers “in fear for their safety” — or such was their immunity-embracing excuse — and she was shot to death at close range in her vehicle.
Juggling these narratives and providing a larger context in an astutely edited package that mostly keeps human-interest narratives in the foreground, the directors eventually provide a clear picture of a very complex problem. One aspect of that is the long-running if largely unsuccessful war on drugs, which over decades has mandated that police departments spend a great deal of their attention and resources pursuing victimless crimes. (This includes permission for “no-knock” search warrants like those that permitted the disastrous home raids noted above.) Another is the fairly recent trend of military-surplus equipment and weapons being “gifted” to police forces, with the proviso that they must be put to use within a year.
These and other factors have resulted in a 15,000% increase in SWAT raids since the late 1970s. Once considered apt only for highly dangerous, specialized missions involving terrorist groups and such, now these exercises’ considerable fire- and manpower are routinely marshaled against civilians in situations that once might’ve been defused by negotiation, or simply by a warning visit from a couple of men in blue.
Lawrence and others claim such military-style responses too often accelerate rather than reduce the likelihood of violence. And as several legal authorities and justice activists point out here, the consequences for that violence are grossly unequal. Citizens exercising their right to bear arms and protect themselves during an apparent home invasion usually find (if they survive) that courts severely punish any harm inflicted on a law officer, no matter what the circumstances. On the other hand, as we see here, no amount of exposed evidence tampering or falsified justifications for aggressive action seems to result in more than (at most) job termination for the responsible officers.
With Lawrence as its admittedly obsessed protagonist, “Peace Officer” is less accusatory than reformatory; it hopes that heightened awareness can begin to stop further instances of wildly excessive force, and seeks to reverse a tidal wave of police distrust among large sectors of the public. That shift will require not just reconsideration of whether military weapons and strategies are apt for civilian law enforcement, but reintroducing a “serve and protect” mission that seems increasingly waylaid by methods that treat citizens like enemy combatants. (While all the cases spotlit in pic unfolded in Utah, the themes’ general relevance across the nation is made clear without being belabored.)
Renny McCauley’s lively editing does an excellent job lending cogency as well as suspense to a movie with a complex, potentially overloaded agenda, mixing individual stories with political, social and law enforcement trends. Packaging overall is straightforward but first-rate.