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+]