Since last year’s protests in Ferguson, during which local police donned their combat gear, rolled out their MRAPs, trained their rifles on unarmed protesters, pummeled crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets, and just generally revealed themselves to be the occupying force black Ferguson residents already knew them to be, the idea of the militarization of the police, as a particular social problem, has exploded into the national consciousness. In fact, the Wikipedia article on “Militarization of police” (whose neutrality, you won’t be surprised to learn, is disputed) was only just created in January 2015.
Of course, America’s police forces didn’t suddenly turn into Starship Troopers last year. Radley Balko, who serves as the primary expert talking head in Peace Officer, a small-scale, incident-driven exploration of police militarization in Utah, has been on this beat for years, and he traces the origins of police militarization to the Watts Riots of 1965. The LAPD’s inability to contain the unrest occasioned the creation of the first SWAT team, which spread to police departments throughout the U.S. and, when joined with Reagan’s War on Drugs, led to an explosion of SWAT raids, in fact a 15,000 percent increase in such raids since the late 1970s.
In the 1970s William “Dub” Lawrence, the central figure in Peace Officer, founded the first SWAT team for the police department of Davis County, Utah. Three decades later, this SWAT force would kill his son-in-law as he watched from the sidelines. Since then, Lawrence has made it his mission to investigate deaths related to SWAT raids, obsessively reconstructing crime scenes in order to bring the killers to justice.
You couldn’t hope for a better protagonist for your documentary on police abuses than Lawrence. Despite the heavy subject matter he is gregarious, with an easy smile and such a firm commitment to justice that, while sheriff, he once wrote himself a ticket for parking in a restricted zone (an incident which apparently provided fodder for a Paul Harvey item). Directors Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson follow Lawrence as he meets with several families whose loved ones have been the target of SWAT raids. The incidents related are surprisingly messy, with few perfect victims. Barber and Christopherson weave the raid on Lawrence’s son-in-law throughout the film, slowly revealing the overwhelming force applied to a man who was pointing a gun at his own head.
With its focus on Utah and its incident-heavy approach, Peace Officer is not a one-stop-shop issue documentary a la “Food, Inc.” Barber and Christopherson allow a few talking heads to provide some context, but the emphasis is on the raids themselves. This has benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, we get to understand the inherent messiness and massive potential for violence that comes along with overwhelming police force. In one of the film’s smaller stories, a man whose house is raided because of mistaken identity is told that if he had answered the door with a gun in his hand rather than a baseball bat he would be dead now. On the other hand, Peace Officer can often seem somewhat unfocused And this film provides only a small slice of the picture. The film is very short on statistics and very long on recounting specific incidents that lack a clear narrative or thematic point. Lawrence’s reconstruction of a raid on Matthew Stewart, which resulted in the death of a police officer, is in many ways the centerpiece of the film, and yet, for better and worse, Barber and Cristopherson refuse to draw from it any particular point. I admire their unwillingness to mold incidents to fit an agenda, but I do wonder whether certain stories were worth telling in quite so much detail, especially when doing so comes at the expense of broader context.
More significantly, Peace Officer almost entirely omits race and class from the picture. One talking head from the ACLU briefly mentions that police militarization disproportionately affects poor communities of color, and yet not a single person of color speaks in the film. This is no doubt due to the film’s focus on Utah, which is over 90 percent white. But a film on overpolicing that almost completely elides race is only telling part of the story.
Still, Peace Officer is generally gripping and its relatively deliberate pace and somber more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone helps us to explore the human consequences of police militarization. If Peace Officer can’t exactly said to be eye-opening and definitely can’t be said to be a definitive statement on its subject, watching it does provide a deeper and more nuanced understanding of one of the major issues of the day.