Peace Officer

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 2, 2015

'Peace Officer'
'Peace Officer'  

William "Dub" Lawrence doesn't seem like a hysterical sort, nor a bleeding heart. Lawrence served in the military; he was then elected Sheriff in Utah's Davis County, in 1974; in that capacity, he set up the county's SWAT team. Decades later, his own son-in-law, fireman Brian Wood, was killed after a domestic dispute with his wife and a 911 call that initiated a cascading chain of escalating events that ended with the Wood's shooting death after a long standoff -- and, crucially, after an attempt by Wood to surrender, which was met by police with a burst of gunfire that shot rubber bullets at Wood as he was trying to leave his vehicle. Wood responded in kind. The standoff ended with him dead.

Lawrence, who was watching the event unfold with the eye of an expert, proclaims himself as "disappointed" in the way the police dealt with the situation, and condemns Wood's death as a "homicide." He's waiting for justice. Because the law provides police officers broad protections in such cases, Wood's death is not legally a homicide at all, and chances are slim anyone ever will be prosecuted.

The film probes similar cases, such as a man who picked up a gold club when a horde of cops burst through his door and into his home. (He was instantly shot dead by an officer who thought the golf club might have been a sword.)

Or the incident involving a veteran who was suspected of growing marijuana plants in his basement, and who responded to a "knockless warrant" -- the kind that involves breaking doors down and swarming en masse into a residence, weapons at the ready and while shouting -- by jumping out of bed, grabbing a gun, and trying to fend off what he claims he thought was a break-in by criminals. (That case resulted in what Lawrence seemingly demonstrates was an officer's grievous wounding by friendly fire; despite Lawrence's beat-by-beat reconstruction and the physical evidence, the police flatly reject that notion, blaming the house's occupant for all the carnage that the police suffered during the operation, with several officers injured and one killed.)

Then there's the case of the 21-year-old woman who was startled by plainclothes cops while sitting in her car and tried to drive away; the officers unloaded on her vehicle, killing her. They claimed her car struck one of them. Lawrence's analysis of where the officers were standing -- well away from the car -- calls their claim into question.

The police interviewed in this documentary by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber defend police actions in all these instances. They point to the need to protect officers who enter into high-risk situations to serve a warrant or make an arrest. On the other side are skeptics who take note of the military gear local departments have been given by the government -- equipment that comes with a requirement to put it to use, with no apparent stipulation that much use be justified or necessary.

The film traces the rise of SWAT teams to the mid-1970s and the innovation, by then-L.A. police chief Darryl Gates, of cadres of specially trained and equipped officers who could take on outsized threats like, say, the Black Panthers. SWAT teams then were increasingly used on the war on drugs. Not, what used to be a fairly rare use of police force has become -- literally -- a everyday occurrence, with SWAT teams being deployed to serve warrants as well as deal with hostage crises or live shooter situations. Advocates for de-militarizing the police warn that the use of such militarized tactics and personnel will only further inflame communities that feel targeted and squeezed by the police -- mainly, "poor communities of color."

The more the police lean on the people, in other words, the more the people will push back -- and that reflex of pushing back automatically criminalizes the victims that result, while legally justifying the police teams that use such force. But such force is not bringing peace and order to American streets -- it's bringing chaos, and the problem is getting worse.

So just who is responsible for such a cycle of violence? And whose responsibility is it to de-escalate situations that could, and should -- in theory, at least -- be handled with a minimum of force and without any lethal consequences?

There's no doubt as to where Lawrence and the skeptical side land. They make the reasonable argument that the police -- who increasingly resemble soldiers instead of civil servants -- have all the hardware they need to carry out what amounts to a war on the civilian population, and that ability entails a level of responsibility.

The police squarely blame the people who get shot and killed, seemingly ready and willing to accept that unnecessary deaths might well result. One officer goes so far as to say that no one wants a policeman in the middle of a raid or a firefight to slow down and take the time to assess a situation to determine if the best solution really is to squeeze off multiple rounds.

Neither side comes across as completely in the right. Lawrence has a trustworthy face, and the demeanor of a sober, intelligent man, but either he or the film leaves out answers to obvious questions, starting with the situation that began as a domestic dispute between Woods and Lawrence's daughter before spiraling into a shootout with the cops. What sparked the fight? Was Woods mentally disturbed in some way? (All we're told is that he sometimes reacted in an extreme manner.) What, specifically, was it about the way the SWAT team conducted themselves did Lawrence find disappointing as the situation unfolded in real time, before his trained eye?

That's not to say there's not plenty about police tactics and recent headlines centering on what seems to be egregious misconduct (much of it carrying overtones of racial prejudice) that's alarming. There's far too much smoke around this topic for there not to be a fire smoldering underneath. But that same haze contains understandable, strongly emotional thinking, deeply rooted resentments that draw class and race into the question, and an almost prejudicial sense that the police must be categorically in the wrong.

All of this obscures the film's core message: The police are drifting away from their proclaimed reason to exist, which is "to protect and serve." They are all too quickly becoming an occupying force that views ordinary people are enemy combatants. The poor, the mentally ill, and people of color are disproportionately affected, which is way and how the situation has worsened over time and festered unchecked for so long.

Only now is a national and widespread political consciousness emerging about the problem; will we do something about it, or simply pin more medals on officers who may be poorly trained, unable to rise to the level of cool-headed professionalism the use of their firepower, body armor, and tanks demands they possess, or even happy to use their authority and their equipment against mere civilians? That's the question the film asks, but it needs to have made its case more clearly.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.