"I was a witness to a homicide," William "Dub" Lawrence says in the opening seconds of the documentary "Peace Officer." And if that doesn't grab you, Lawrence next tells us that he feels, in an indirect way, responsible for that killing.
In the 1970s, the gregarious Lawrence was a Utah county sheriff who approved the creation of a SWAT team in his department. Created on the heels of the Watts riots and other incidents of civil unrest, SWAT units were envisioned as a quick-strike response team that could defuse a potentially violent situation before it got any worse.
Then, in 2008, Lawrence's own son-in-law, Brian Wood, got into a standoff with police. Sitting in his truck in his driveway, a pistol to his ear, the mentally troubled Wood was only a danger to himself. The police department brought in dozens of officers in tactical gear, snipers and armored vehicles to surround him. Pummeling him with flashbang grenades, Tasers, non-lethal rounds and finally bullets, the SWAT team killed Wood in front of his family.
The grieving Lawrence quit the force and began to question and investigate what he saw as a growing militarization of police in America. "Peace Officer," co-directed by University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber, follows his journey. Now a private investigator, Lawrence pieces together the evidence of this and other tactical unit killings in Utah to see if they were justified.
But if viewers are expecting a simplistic, the people-versus-the-police sort of documentary, "Peace Officer" has a surprise. Deftly weaving in Lawrence's crusade against the larger backdrop of recent changes in law enforcement philosophy, "Peace Officer" is as much on the side of cops as it is on the citizens. The movie says it's the system that both are forced to operate in, fueled by too much fear and too much money, that's really at fault.
In interviews with ACLU lawyers and with Washington Post columnist Radley Balko, we learn that the rise in militarization comes from several confluent forces. Law enforcement began taking a more aggressive stance toward the drug war in the Reagan years, including the use of "no-knock" raids in which police would storm a house, weapons drawn, looking for drugs. And, as the military were allowed to donate excess weapons and vehicles to local police departments, the armament for those raids got bigger and bigger.
The result, "Peace Officer" argues, is that police officers and citizens are put into volatile situations together, often unnecessarily, where tragedies can happen and innocent people can die. The air of mutual distrust that this creates in a community only makes it more difficult for police officers to do their job.
"Peace Officer" mixes even-handed interviews with victims' families, police officers and experts with disturbing helmet-cam footage and crime scene photos showing the damage wreaked by raids gone wrong. Again and again, we see situations that start from a position of armed confrontation — broken-down doors, shouting, guns drawn — that are just a split-second away from disaster if a civilian doesn't react properly.
The film has a fascinating protagonist in Lawrence and his ironic crusade. The work of the great Errol Morris (also a UW graduate) seems to be a clear influence on Barber and Christopherson, who give the gregarious ex-sheriff space to develop as a character, disarmingly calm and often grinning as he presents the evidence.
Grief and anger are at work behind his friendly grin, and there are haunting images of Lawrence at his son-in-law's crime scene, lying prone on the driveway in the exact spot where he died. "Peace Officer" makes you angry, it makes you sad, and it makes you convinced that cops and civilians need to come together to find a better way.