SXSW Review: Captivating And Timely ‘Peace Officer’ Is A Must Watch Documentary

SXSW Review: Captivating And Timely 'Peace Officer' Is A Must Watch Documentary

Late night in a rural Utah town, around Christmas, a family of three is startled to hear strange noises outside their home. The wife and the child hide in the bedroom, while the man picks up a baseball bat to protect his home against people he assumes to be intruders. The “intruders” were police officers, members of the local SWAT team who were there to serve the man with a warrant. They point their guns to the man’s head, ordering him to drop the bat. He does. Eventually, it turns out that the SWAT team came to the wrong house and terrified a family with a small child because of a simple spelling error. Yet things could have always gotten much, much worse. Before they leave, the SWAT members say two things: “Merry Christmas,” and “If you had a gun instead of a bat, we’d have wasted you.”

Remember the inciting incident in Terry Gilliam’s police state bureaucratic nightmare sci-fi classic “Brazil,” where the police kill an innocent man because his name is a letter away from the name of a wanted terrorist? If the man in Utah was using a gun for protection, the way the NRA wants everyone to do, the opening scene of “Brazil” would have become a reality. At least in the case of the cops in “Brazil,” they sent an army to Buttle’s house intending to neutralize a “terrorist.” In the Utah case, why was the SWAT team necessary to simply serve a warrant, operating covertly so no one will know that it’s the police trying to enter your home instead of a potential burglar, murderer, or rapist?

Peace Officer,” Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson’s half “The Thin Blue Line”-style crime procedural, half political study about the militarization and overreach of police, is a refreshingly objective and levelheaded documentary that’s as culturally relevant as it is expertly paced and captivating. Steering away from the racial side of police violence, a volatile issue that would have required a Ken Burns-ian, 15-hour documentary to even crack the surface of the problem, Barber and Christopherson tackle the more universal aspects of police militarization.

Instead of delving into the big picture, which would include the various political and economic motivations behind the recent surge of military-level equipment and training that local police forces receive, the doc wisely brings the issue down to a relatable human level. It hands out almost equal chunks of its running time to arguments from citizens who were personally hurt or terrified by police overreach, as well as police officers who believe that any equipment or training that guarantees their safety is a blessing.

The focus of “Peace Officer” is an intelligent, cool-headed, and determined man who represents qualities from both sides of the issue. William “Dub” Lawrence was the sheriff in his rural Utah county in the ’70s who established the SWAT team in his area during his term. Three decades later, the very same SWAT team that he himself founded killed his son-in-law after an hours-long confrontation. The video from the standoff shows Dub’s son-in-law, although obviously disturbed, showing no immediate threat to anyone around him right before the SWAT officers killed him. The court thinks the killing was justified, so Dub, now retired from the force, takes it upon himself to seek justice.

Dub is a man with so much warmth and charisma that his story, an ex-sheriff who acts as a self-appointed internal affairs expert, would have turned into a kick-ass ’80s TV show for senior citizens. Matlock is an amateur compared to Dub, who fills his airplane hangar with meticulously organized documents and charts to help him find closure in his son-in-law’s case, as well as other cases involving unnecessary SWAT violence. Did I mention that he’s also a sewage worker by day? In fact, “Peace Officer” begins like an episode of “Dirty Jobs as we watch Dub clean out an especially nasty sewage pipe. Seriously, how is this not being developed for TV right now?

As Dub investigates cases of possible police overreach and wrongful conduct, which includes the aforementioned wrong name incident, as well as a tragic event where a veteran who supposedly thought the SWAT team entering his house to serve a warrant were intruders and eventually shot and killed one of the officers, a portrait of fear and mistrust gradually presents itself. If the duty of police officers is to protect the community while earning their trust, the horror stories told by citizens, the ones who were lucky enough to survive these attacks, paints the exact opposite picture. To them, the police represent a sinister bully who would not hesitate to murder anyone who might have a 0.01% chance of harming him.

As proof, “Peace Officer” shows us raw footage of a SWAT raid, again to merely serve a warrant, where they gun down a man who was brandishing a golf club in 0.2 seconds. We can clearly see and hear that the officers do not alert the inhabitants of the house before breaking in, so it’s perfectly understandable that the man thought criminals were breaking into his home and grabbed the first thing he could hold onto for defense. Considering this fact, maybe the officers in the first story should have said, “Even though you had a bat instead of a gun, we still could have wasted you. We have video of it happening before.”

The police officers on the other side of the debate construct a more idealized version of the issue, as they still hang onto old-fashioned ideas of law enforcement being a protective element that works hand-in-hand with the law-abiding public. One officer even provides the documentary with its title, as he states, “We’re not police officers, we’re peace officers.” Whether or not they are being sincere or simply regurgitating talking points, that’s up to you to decide.

One piece of the defense from the officers’ side makes practical sense, at least on the surface: Any piece of equipment they can get their hands on, even if it’s a tank, is necessary if it’s going to make sure that officers come home to their loved ones at the end of the day. However, maybe the sense of security and power that comes with being surrounded by such military-level protection creates an “Us vs Them” feeling and causes the officers to look at citizens as enemies in a battle field, as opposed to the very people they’re meant to protect. Also, none of the officers clarify why covert SWAT teams are employed for seemingly minor tasks. Is there a monthly SWAT deployment quota in every county?

“Peace Officer” creates an extremely timely narrative around a volatile issue and manages to not get lost in unproductive hyperbole. It should please fans of real crime procedurals and political junkies alike. [B+]

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Comments

Joe

All my life I have been a big supporter of law enforcement, but I have seen cases where law enforcement agencies have actually created the conditions that lead to a standoff. Ruby Ridge for example. Complete and total screw up, and outright premeditated murder of Randy Weavers wife by a police sniper. She was holding a baby. In our area, we have had people shot on their own property, only because they came out of their homes to investigate a noise. In one case, an officer shot a preacher, who was armed, but did not have his weapon drawn. The Sherrif bent over backwards defending this officer, said his story matched the forensics, but there were some glaring discrepancies the Sheriff just couldn’t see. They did not discipline the officer, and the city settled a multimillion dollar lawsuit with the family of the deceased. The lawyers saw the evidence and knew they would lose. The Sheriff, who I think is a good one, was upset. He believed his officer despite obvious character flaws and past history of dishonesty. Ironically, the same officer was fired a few years later for misusing police property. To the point, I understand defending your fellow officers, and civilians "just don’t understand" Just don’t do it so blindly. And remember who you serve, otherwise your department may face a shrinking budget.

ishmael

Sorry for any confusion; I often refer to my father-in-law as my dad (Lucky for me, I feel like I have two fathers).

Ishmael

I would much rather a confrontation with a criminal than a cop anyday. An encounter with a cop, just raised the possibilities of my death by 50%. This notion that there are just a few bad apples is ridiculous. Even cops from previous generations will tell you this. My father-in-law (a retired police officer) constantly reminds everyone that he does not know what has happened to the institution, but one thing he is certain of, is that the psychological test given to new recruits aims to find the psychopaths and sociopaths for employment. My 76 year old uncle, two years ago, was going into a donut shop for coffee, after midnight, when he was taunted by two cops in the parking lot, suggesting that he was out looking for hookers. When he had enough of their abuse, he told them to piss off. Immediately, one of the cops grabbed him like a rag-doll and slammed him onto the hoos of his car, dislocating his shoulder, and breaking three ribs. With the families urging, my father went to file a complaint a few days later, and was told, in no uncertain terms, that filing a report would become more of a problem (wink wink) for him that it would be for the two thugs who assaulted him. A few weeks later I was with my dad when we went back to the same donut shop one early afternoon, and lo and behold, my father pointed at one of the cops in the same parking lot. He was a massive man, at least 6’2", and clearly was roided up to the gills with his extremely thick neck and biceps, etc. He also had that look in his eyes, like he could easily, without warning, assault you. I call them crazy eyes, like a muscled up Manson. He creeped me out just looking at him. And people are starting to wake up (especially since none of the assualts I’ve mentioned were on black people) to the threat that cops pose. Whites, too, are starting to get their head out of the sand because this violence is increasing on Caucasians (a rather sad commentary, but there it is). A few years ago, here in Toronto, an 18 year old schizophrenic teenager on carrying a jack knife was shot at over 40 times (15 which missed him) in front of dozens of people outside the rail. He posed no threat, because other than the driver, he was alone, in the very back of rail. There were at least 8 cops, all of whom shot at him. He was already mortally wounded down on the floor barely alive, and a cop came into the rail and shot him in the head. There were protests for weeks afterwards. And don’t even ask me about the G8 summit about six years back where hundreds of people were beaten, sexually assaulted, urinated on, spat at, and wrongfully imprisoned in make shift cells in an abandoned factory for days With no toilets, food or water. Many of those cops came from the USA, working hand in glove with the Provincial police and Toronto police. Only one cop got fired (and he was black). I know many people who call the police only as a last resort. Robberies, assaults, sexual attacks are going widely unreported (and then one wonders why we are told incessantly that crimes are drastically dropping. Funny that!

Truthseeker

cirkusfolk, it might be wise to check facts before taking a stand. Ignorance might be bliss, but burying your head in the sand will fix nothing. In the case of the golf club, the man shot was merely a resident in his home. The man named in the warrant hadn’t lived there for months. The case with the raid on the vet’s house nvolved an old tip from an exgirlfriend about pot being grown in the home, something that is legal in DC & several states. The standoff with the man in his driveway was a domestic dispute call. None of these situations ever warranted the excessive force that was used & that is the issue here. When did defending your home, fighting with your spouse, or growing some pot plants become justifiable causes for invoking a death sentence? I agree that officers need to go home to their families, but citizen’s lives, safety, & families matter too.
"Every kind of peaceful cooperation among men is primarily based on mutual trust & only secondarily on institutions such as courts of justice & police." Albert Einstein

cirkusfolk

Basically if you announce you are the police, you are just giving the suspect time to think about what to do. Get a weapon, where to run, get a hostage, barricade the door etc. how can you not see that is a tactical mistake? As far as getting the wrong house or person, yeah that sucks. Whoever causes that error should be held responsible. But we are talking about tactics that are supposed to be used on the bad guys. Why would you want the bad guys to win?? And military equipment? Every piece of technology that creates better weapons, vehicles, ballistics, non lethal weapons etc is good. That’s why we make them for the military in the first place. The military is protecting us from enemies abroad and the police from enemies at home. Why should they not get the same equipment? I mean are you saying you are against bullet proof cars and vests? Why would you be? Or automatic rifles? Why not give them a black powder musket then? This is the stupidest logic I’ve ever heard. The bad guys will have automatic weapons and we should t? And even if they didn’t, u don’t want an even fight! This isn’t a boxing match. Police need be be better armed to win the fight and get the bad guys. Wow. Just wow.

cirkusfolk

Ummm, maybe you should research the death talley of officers "minor" tasks such as serving warrants. A warrant means that person has already done the crime and is going to jail, no ifs ands or buts. People who don’t want to go to jail do desperate things. Many officers have been killed serving warrants because they were ill prepared or they announced themselves first. I have an idea, this guy has a warrant for murder, so let’s go to his door, knock, say we are the police and that we are here to arrest him and then he will just come out and give up. You r an idiot my friend, I hate to tell you that. Hope you never need the police.

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