The militarization of law enforcement practices and protocols has been a hotbed topic in the social media age. Combat vehicles, camouflage uniforms and high-caliber automatic weaponry have all become aggressive symbols of this shift. Adding fuel to the fire, a string of highly publicized officer involved shootings has sparked protests about racial inequality from Ferguson to New York City.
With citizen cameras filming everything at all times, the relationship between police officers and the community members they are supposed to protect has reached a contentious (and very public) tipping point. All of these troubling trends provide added weight to Peace Officer, a provocative new documentary about the origins and evolution of the SWAT program and "no-knock" police raids in general.
Dub Lawrence, a former law enforcement officer who now works as a plumber in rural Utah, has made it his mission to speak out against police aggression and faulty due process, obsessively investigating cases that have resulted in needless loss of human life. He stands as the film's core subject because of a tragic irony. After founding the David County SWAT team during his tenure as Sheriff in the mid-1970s, that very same unit would kill his son-in-law during a prolonged standoff three decades later.
Directors Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber place Lawrence at the center of nearly every scene because of his magnetic presence and thoughtful candor. He speaks thoughtfully and meticulously about the malfeasance he witnessed on the day his family member was aggressively gunned down right before his eyes. Peace Officer then expands to include Lawrence's experience working with the families of other victims who've been killed in no-knock raids.
While the filmmakers highlight the unconstitutional aspects of these developments, they insist on exploring the personal side of the collateral damage through Lawrence's elaborate investigations. While recreating a horrific shootout between undercover officers and a man named Matthew Davis Stewart that occurred on Jan. 4, 2012, Lawrence finds bullet fragments that the initial police inquiry missed completely. While initially shocking, such a find feels too good to be true, a bit of opportunistic luck presented before the camera.
Despite Peace Officer's occasional stylistic grandstanding, something made famous by the often-great filmmaker Errol Morris, it keeps a calm and calculating thesis intact. The detailed research and recreations that Lawrence brings to the table speak volumes about an unnerving police mindset brought about by the militarization of their job. Hoping to achieve a level of balance to their argument, the filmmakers interview multiple former and current police officers who provide, expectedly, more spartan reasoning for the increase in tactical aggression. "Sometimes peace is purchased through violence," says one resolute officer.
The film masterfully juxtaposes Lawrence's gripping professionalism with the brute strength rhetoric of talking heads who are supposed to represent law enforcement's party line. As with any documentary, reality means less than the constructed argument expressed through the power of editing and music. Still, one gets the sense that Lawrence and the filmmakers could have been even more damning in their critique.
Most curiously, Peace Officer, which opens Friday Nov. 6 at the Ken Cinema, bypasses the issue of race almost entirely, instead exploring the stories centrally located to Lawrence and his work. As a result, the film tiptoes around one of the most important factors in the debate surrounding police aggression and their role as community builders. Maybe it's a coincidence that every interviewee in the film is white, but such a discrepancy stands out considering the subject matter and discourse-worthy current events.
Still, the breaches of power and procedure discussed in Peace Officer, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at this year's South By Southwest Film Festival, are egregious and their justification by officers of the law disturbingly simplistic. Maybe Lawrence will fan out to other communities in need of closure and sympathy. God knows there are countless more cases beyond the borders of the Beehive State.