By Jude Warne.
Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber are no strangers to the investigative process; as immensely talented documentary filmmakers, this is part of what they do. Dub Lawrence, the subject of the team’s SXSW-screened film Peace Officer, is no stranger to this either, having been a police officer that helped to break the Ted Bundy case, and a sheriff in Utah since the 1970s. Now Dub works as a water and sewage pump repairman – but he also serves as a private investigator, motivated in part by personal tragedy. In 2008 a Utah swat team – one that Dub had helped to put into place decades earlier – killed his son-in-law. This catastrophe, and the confusion and unnecessary use of violence that surrounded it, led Dub to begin an investigation into the inner workings of the American SWAT team system and its many malfunctions. Peace Officer tells Dub’s story and many others. American citizens, many completely innocent, were victims of their own nation’s law enforcement system, the same system claiming to serve and protect them, even with its life-threatening glitches. Many officers involved in these stories are themselves victims of these glitches; some suffer from PTSD from the murderous raids in which they were involved.
In conversation with filmmakers Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber – and their film’s main subject, Dub Lawrence – we learn more about the origins of their feature debut, as well as its eloquent and artful treatment of the tragedies that surround the implementation of SWAT teams in the state of Utah.
How did this project come to be? Who approached whom? Was it more a collaborative process, or did Scott and Brad instigate it?
Scott Christopherson (SC): I was playing a golf game in Utah three years ago, and Dub happened to be there watching a relative play. He came up to me after the game, he knew I was a documentary film professor and asked if I would teach him how to edit. He took me to his hangar and started to show me this story he had created – a two hour-long film, a police-chief analysis of his son-in-law Brian Wood’s story. I felt that it was a really compelling story, so when Brad and I were on a shoot together in Oregon, I told him about this really compelling character Dub. We spent a while talking about it and decided that we would co-direct and shoot the film together.
Dub Lawrence (DL): I started putting investigative materials together, trying to compile, understand and dig for the truth, through government records, access management acts, freedom of information acts. It took me two years and seven months to get some of the critical information, including footage from the police departments, where they basically denied that the footage existed. Once we were able to get the footage that had been taken since the 22nd of September 2008 and put it together, we started to sponsor this film, about two and a half years ago. I couldn’t have begun to put together the four years of research without Brad and Scott, they’re just incredible, sifting through it and picking out the important segments, and making a documentary film out of it.
Scott and Brad, how did you devise the form of the film? I think that it’s expertly done, the way the viewer gets taken through so much information and so many personal stories, yet the film begins and ends with Brian’s and Dub’s story. Did you devise that ahead of time or did it happen naturally?
Brad Barber: I’d say it happened pretty organically, we didn’t have it fully formed when we started. We began shooting and pretty early on it became apparent that Dub and his work with his son-in law’s case would provide the backbone of the film, a piece we would keep coming back to. There were so many other cases like it happening in Utah too, to other people who had had similar things happen to them. It made sense to us to provide a little bit of context, especially once the Ferguson shooting happened and it was in the forefront of national issues. We needed to give some context to how it affected communities of color, in addition to what happened in Dub’s story. That issue alone deserves its own film or series of films. In coming back to Dub at the end of our film, we had seen him in our stories as a microcosm for something happening on a large scale, and in the state of Utah.
Scott and Brad, how did you find it working with your subjects, and with Dub especially? Dub seems pretty open, but was there a lot of coaxing that went on, or did you find people willing to divulge their stories, wanting to share? Were they willing to?
SC: Dub, first of all, was very generous in giving us access to his world; I think that’s what really makes the film. Dub was open and willing to talk to us and trusted us to tell his story. As we explored all of these cases, we got to know of all these other characters. Along the way I met with several of these police officers that were involved in some of these raids, especially the Matthew David Stewart case. I met with the commander who had entered the Stewart home – we had lunch and he was in tears telling me what had happened, he was clearly suffering from elements of PTSD. He set up a meeting for me to meet with all of these police officers. My grandpa was an FBI agent in Utah for 25 years, and like Dub, I’ve always had great respect for law enforcement and I think that these officers could sense that hopefully. Out of the twelve I met with that were involved in the Stewart case, two of them said they would be happy to participate in the film, and those are the two you see in the film. The sheriff did take a bit of coaxing; Brad and I were up front, saying that we did want to hear his perspective. We did want to put the audience members in his shoes to see what it was like in these shoot-outs and raids. These sheriffs opened up and were able to talk with us. To their credit, all of these officers, I think it was courageous of them to participate, and also the attorneys I met, the head attorney and lead prosecutor in the case, I met with them for three or four hours. The media had burned them in the past, frankly, and as filmmakers I think it’s kind of our job to give people a fair shake and let voices be heard. We tried really hard to do that, to give them a chance to speak and be heard.
DL: From my perspective as a former law enforcement officer, I think that there are a lot of police officers that would like very much to move away from the status quo. I don’t think they approve by and large of the way things are being done today, kicking down doors in the middle of the night and serving warrants. We didn’t used to do it that way. I think there’s a chord there that speaks universally, that there are so many officers out there that want to do it right, and they’re not really pleased with the image or idea of doing it the way that we are – it seems to be on the wrong track.
Given that the state of Utah passed a bill instigating a tracking of the state’s SWAT teams in place, how would you compare Utah with other states? How are other states fairing in terms of SWAT team legislation? How is Utah different?
BB: Utah, I’m basing this on the ACLU’s report that came out last summer around the same time as the Ferguson case as well, called War Comes Home. It’s a really great source, the most comprehensive study you can find anyway, a source of police records, and if I remember right, the first state to pass a law on SWAT team tracking was Maryland, last year around the time that Utah was doing it. There was a Maryland mayor, Cheye Calvo of Berwyn Heights, who was himself a victim of this type of SWAT team raid; he was at home, police came into the home and shot and killed his two dogs. It was a case of mistaken identity, they had been looking for someone else, and the mayor hadn’t done anything. That got the mayor’s attention and the legislation movement rallied around him. To my knowledge the Maryland case was a pretty big step there.
DL: Utah right now is probably one of states in the forefront of addressing this systematic problem. In the state of Wisconsin there was an incident with a gentleman who has really taken the lead and gotten some legislation passed with regard to unnecessary use of force by police. His name is Michael Bell, who I’ve met with – in his case his son was stopped for just a minor traffic violation and was somewhat resistant to the police, who arrested and cuffed him. Four or five officers held him against the hood of the car and one officer put his pistol to the son’s temple and shot him in the head. So that was a clear-cut example; Bell got a settlement of close to $2 million. In Utah we did kind of the same thing in the Daniel Willard case, which was ruled unjustified, in which a 22-year-old unarmed girl was shot and killed by two police officers. That was in our film. The case went to trial, where the officers were protected by governmental immunity, and motions to quash, strike and solve the technicalities of the case went forward until the case was dismissed. We followed that case and the victim’s mother Melissa stayed with it and made such a noise in Utah about it, and she got a settlement of $1.425 million dollars. So what we’re doing seems to be having an effect, and victims are getting compensated, even though the courts have ruled that the officers were justified and that they won their cases; some even went back to work after having paid vacations for months. So from the standpoint of the victims, I think we’re at the forefront of bringing these issues out to the public, and we’ve had some legislation passed. We’ve had a task force funded by the legislature to look at these issues in more depth and bring in more testimony from other victims. There is a lot of current movement designed to restore those principles that we’ve gotten away from, the supreme law of our land.
I find it interesting how all of us take for granted this police moniker, a moniker in this dehumanizing uniform that implies a team of perfect almost robotic individuals who always make the right call in situations – but the human factor is always there, which I thought the film touched on really well. Say, if an officer had a terrible fight with his wife before he left for a job, and he’s carrying with him this reasonable humanistic anger, but which then affects, however unintentionally, the violent encounter he is about to engage in as part of his job – how do we render this manageable? How can we allow for the human-ness in these situations?
SC: Brad and I talk a lot about this, how there are documentary filmmakers who use their work as a vehicle for empathy, to see what it would be like in others’ shoes. Both the citizens involved in these cases, and the officers, we all experienced what they did here, either through Dub or other officers who have seen horrific things. You brought up an interesting point Jude, fascinating, about carrying baggage; I know for a fact that some of these officers suffer from PTSD from other things that they’ve been involved in, which heavily affects them. As far as how they deal with that, I know that in the Salt Lake City police department, Sheriff Jim Winder has therapy support groups for officers and tries hard to help them out. But it’s impossible or difficult anyway, if say an officer had a fight with his wife, which is an interesting idea – I don’t think there’s enough being done to support officers mentally. That’s definitely something that needs to change.
DL: From my perspective there’s an overarching issue here. Over the last 35 years what I’ve seen and observed as an officer, and being as involved as I am in these issues, is a changing mentality from the way I remember law enforcement being in the seventies and eighties. Elton Simmons is an LA county deputy sheriff who I think has the right idea – if officers could be trained with this kind of mentality, where the public is not perceived as the enemy, it would be ideal. We have a court system that is an adversarial system. There’s a prosecution and a defense – but it’s kind of carried over into officer training, where they’re trained to shoot a certain number of times to make sure that a person’s dead. A lot of this is not necessary or justified, and deaths result. There are 384 cases that we’ve tracked since Brian’s been killed, and none of these people who have died will have the chance to protest their innocence in a court of law, because they were denied due process. State constitutions prohibit government agents from taking life or liberty without due process. So technically all of these people, under the supreme law of our land, are innocent until proven guilty. This has been tossed aside, with the training and desensitizing, and what we’ve evolved into as a society is apathetic. People just accept that the cops are here to protect us and that they’re taking criminals off the streets. The mentality of the entire country needs some work, and we need to restore those principles that made America the country it should be. Elton Simmons and these kinds of officers are officers that peace officers need to emulate, rather than those who practice the shoot-to-kill. There are so many families of victims across the country that cannot get recourse, that cannot get admittances of wrong from the government because of technicalities of the law. These are the issues that we need to address in the future – hopefully people like you can help us get a forum or stage from which we can speak to these issues.
You touched on this a bit before, but perhaps you can expand – what are all of your primary goals with the release of this documentary? In part to give a voice to these issues of course, but what is the ideal outcome for all concerned parties and issues discussed?
BB: First and foremost we would love for people to see the film, and the broader the audience the better. As Dub alluded to, it can serve as a sort of tool for law enforcement as well in some capacity, in terms of training and outreach. We want people to see it and talk about it in their communities, and to go to our website www.peaceofficerfilm.com. There’re ways to connect and keep the conversation going.
DL: Ultimately what we would like to see is for state legislatures, US Congress, to look at main issues that we’re trying to eventually arrive at, and to ensure more transparency so that we don’t have to fight for years to gain access to records that we’re entitled to by law. There’s a lack of accountability; congress is probably at an all-time low, laws are passed that the members don’t even read, which is very disappointing for the common citizen to see. Another important issue is equality under the law, which I’m given a chance to address in the film. We shouldn’t have different rules for different people, which is an issue that needs to be dealt with in the legislature. Then of course we have governmental immunity, by which officers can murder with impunity, which is so obviously a violation of the supreme law of our land. I’ve been working on this for 24 years and we’ve managed to get it back into the state constitution in 2013, and it’s an issue that seems to be the best place to start. Where I’m hoping to go, the simplest place to start, is to put in place legislation or a constitutional amendment or a bill. The law in Utah since 1895, implements Article 6 Section 23, which says that any bill passed by the house or Senate must contain only one subject and be clearly identified by its title. For 31 years that was taken out of our constitution and people didn’t know it, the legislature made that happen. By campaigning and fighting we were able to get that restored; in 2013 it was put back into our state constitution. If you analyze that, you see that it’s fair across the board; the only ones affected negatively by it are greedy lobbyists. The people who founded our country were very adamant about checks and balances; they knew that the nature of most people when given a great deal of authority is to begin to exercise unbridled impunity. This is a truism, proven over centuries of testing governments. This is what makes America great – checks and balances, equality, accountability and transparency – all of these things are things we want. Right now our system is broken and we don’t have all of these things; what little we can do to change this, in America, would be productive. This is not a civil war, we’re not looting and burning – we want to work within the scope of the law. The law needs to be where we draw the line, not where we instigate interpretations that bypass it.
SC: We really want people to engage in a dialogue and consider both sides of the issue. I also study cultural anthropology and I’ve noticed that sometimes the issue is dealt with in terms of police officer versus enemy instead of peace officer, and I think that we want to protect both police officers and citizens. We want the dialogue to encourage the law to protect both sides, as Dub was saying. Lawmaking is involved, as are empathy and compassion. The power of film in my opinion, and why I love it, is that it can help us all engage and be aware and learn from each other.
Speaking of film, I was reading up again on the ingenious documentarians the Maysles brothers, especially in light of Albert Maysles’ recent death – two of pieces of advice he had, that I came across, were: “Love your subject,” and “Get close.” Do you follow these ideas?
SC: Yes. Brad and I both love Albert and David Maysles, we’re longtime fans of their work, they’re so wonderful. Brad and I were talking about this the other day, with these police officers in our film, we spent time with them, and we saw tears in their eyes from what had happened to them. We grew to love them, to love the citizens involved, and to love Dub. I think that Albert Maysles was prescient in saying that and it’s what I love about filmmaking. Especially on small documentary crews where you build a relationship with somebody, you feel what it feels like to be in their shoes. You ask, what would I do if I were in this situation? I’m a dad, I have kids, what would I do if I lost my daughter like Melissa in the film, or if I lost my friend in a shootout? Loving your subjects to me is key, being kind and generous to them and letting them speak, these things are important to me as a director. Brad, what do you think?
BB: I totally endorse and agree with all of that. Like everyone I really admire the Maysles, I was really lucky and got to meet them a few years ago. I think it took courage for Albert Maysles to say that about loving your subject. A lot of times people won’t put it in those terms but I really admire it, and Scott and I tried to follow Albert in his lead on that, which I think is a good thing.
Can I ask what’s up next for each of you, project-wise?
BB: This is the first film that Scott and I have made together – we worked on one brief project before but this is our first feature. We enjoyed the experience and would like to do it again, it’s not anything we can really elaborate on here at this point, but probably some more features are in our future. I have a series that I’m doing, which Scott collaborated with me on as well called States of America, a short documentary series that is launching soon, in which we go around the country and do one short documentary for every state.
SC: I have a couple of projects that I’m really interested in doing. I have a grant to do a documentary on Thai bullfighting this summer – I speak Thai and have spent a lot of time in Thailand in the past. Also, I’m a big sports fan and am trying to get access to the basketball player Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest, and to cover the Malice at the Palace issue from back in the day when he played for the Pacers. We’ll see if it comes to fruition. We’ve been very excited about traveling around to festivals and different communities large and small with Peace Officer and engaging with people that way.
DL: From my perspective, I’ll be 71 in October and need to think about retiring from the pump service business. This will give me more time to focus on the things that I love most, one of which is helping people who have suffered from tragedies, which I’ve seen pretty much all of my adult life, for half a century. I think that I have some insight on the issues that I’m involved in and would like to write a book. I’d like to make more of a splash on legislation issues that will help our society move along. I have lots of big dreams but some of them are pipe dreams, and I realize that I won’t live long enough to realize all of them. I guess I’ll just keep on keeping on until it’s time to croak. Perhaps in the film I come across as minorly obsessed and my wife thinks so too – we’ve had these conversations and she perhaps thinks that I’m an idiot savant. But I think there’s a fine line between idiot and genius, and her perspective might be a bit twisted at times because she’s lived with me for 45 years. We have seven children who have taught me a lot. I think that old folks, retired folks, tend to look back on their lives and embellish on yesteryear, but we have accumulated a lot of wisdom and understanding. Maybe the young folks will identify as well, but at least Scott and Brad have given me a chance to go back and re-experience. They had me go back and dig through boxes of old newspaper articles from the seventies and eighties, and it was a bit of an ego-trip for me. The one thing that Scott and Brad insisted on was maintaining creative control over the film, and for an old marine, an old cop, and old sheriff like me, it was hard for me to be bossed and told what to do. Over the two-and-a-half years that we worked together, the only rule we had was that we would have no unresolvable problems. From this came a sense of trust and collaboration and a realization of the fact that we were united in the same goal. It’s been a blessing; Scott and Brad have been tremendous to work with. They’re geniuses at what they do, able to get footage that no one I’ve ever known could get. They could charm the Devil into confessing his own sins. I admire them and couldn’t do what they do. This film couldn’t have happened without the wonderful sound people as well, editing people and others – it takes a whole town to make a film like these guys have made, and I commend them all. I’m very touched and humbled by what they’ve done and presented, giving me a chance to speak when I’ve never had a chance to before.
Jude Warne is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.