By Elias Savada.
William J. “Dub” Lawrence should not be smiling. And yet his bright teeth light up the screen in the mesmerizing, exceedingly well-structured documentary Peace Officer from Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber, a startlingly impressive first feature. His exuberant confidence disarms you, despite some dour opening remarks (“I was a witness to a homicide”) regarding a very personal story. It’s a horror tale about the September 22, 2008 death of Brian Wood, a troubled family man in Farmington, Utah.
This killing, which would later be meticulously investigated by the jovial and immediately likable Lawrence, was a tragedy that echoes the all too abundant headlines about police misconduct in Baltimore, New York City, Ferguson, and more recently, Cleveland, where a judge recently acquitted an officer who fired 49 shots into an unarmed couple in 2012. The story in Peace Officer begins in 1975, when a 29-year-old Lawrence, a North Carolina native and former marine, became the youngest sheriff ever elected in Utah. He had the biggest smile back then, too. Later, he served as Davis County commissioner. He ran for U.S. Congress three times in the 1990s. And lost three times. (Smiley faces are not welcomed in Washington.) Now he repairs out septic tanks and other yucky sewage receptacles, proudly calling that a step up from being a politician. He seems to enjoy dirty work, one way or another. He’s also a damned good contract investigator. You’ll understand why he’s so gratified with his many jack-of-all-trades accomplishments by the end of the 2-hour film, yet still wonder if he’ll ever get closure.
For Lawrence, the death of Brian Wood hit way too close to home. The 36-year-old fireman was Lawrence’s son-in-law. Worse, he was killed by a SWAT team, Utah’s first, that was established and originally trained by Lawrence. Apparently over-zealous in their reaction to a slightly aggravated domestic dispute, the para-militarized unit’s strategy is put under Lawrence’s all-inclusive microscope. As the film progresses, and his expert crime reenactment work skills kick into high gear, the filmmakers toss in some other cases (out of hundreds), unrelated yet also surrounded by circumspect police antics. These are the ones that tweak Lawrence’s interest. One of them involves distinguished Army veteran and self-growing, self-medicating marijuana patient Matthew Stewart and a 12-member undercover (bearded, blue-jeaned, and definitely non-uniformed) police team invasion of his Ogden, Utah, home that left a officer dead and Stewart wounded in a January 2012 firefight. Lawrence provides point-by-point refutation of witness testimony, highlights overlooked bullet fragments missed by police investigators, discovers previously undocumented blood splatter, and, in one instance, uses a low-tech approach using nearly 100 yellow and red strings (see top photo) to reveal what really happened after all the shooting had stopped.
When dealing with the Brian Wood case, the filmmakers rely primarily on the constant, determined presence of Lawrence to be their heart, while other folks (wife Nancy, oldest daughter Liz Wood, Brian’s father Jerry) provide their resolute thoughts on the standoff between authorities and Brian. There’s also a Washington Post journalist and other talking heads providing SWAT historical context and references to the 1033 Program. Started in 1997, that’s the program which allows excess military weapons, vehicles, and equipment to be transferred free-of-charge to local law enforcement agencies. (If you think the use of this equipment has be misused, you’d be right.) This testimony is mixed very nicely by editor Renny McCauley, with news reports, anxious 911 phone conversations (effectively accentuated in small white text against a blank black screen), pixelated police video tapes, archival footage, home movies, crime scene photographs, etc.
Lawrence, who has investigated over 125 felony cases, could easily be the subject/host for a tv series. He’s the Amazing Randi of sloppy police work. His obsessive detective skills still leaves many questions unresolved, but one stands out: How much trust can be put in law enforcement today if there are episodes like these that showcase the tactless and aggressively misguided overkill against innocent people that authorities categorize as “necessary force.” Such deadly police militarism has no place in civilized society.
Apparently influenced by the 1988 Errol Morris documentary The Thin Blue Line, Christopherson and Barber manage to stay even-keeled as the audience is getting madder with each revelation. When the parents of slain officer Jared Francom (killed in the Wood shootout) uneasily revisited his place of death, their comments seem mechanical, almost manufactured, in counterpoint to the film’s obvious bias.
Remorse is in short supply here where fatal errors have been made. Depressing as Peace Officer may be, if we can turn Lawrence’s belief that a police officer should be a trusted friend and qualified, trained peacemaker, hope might be waiting around the corner for a country filled with trigger-happy authorities.
The film won two awards at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, and will be unreeling at AFI DOCS in June. North American distribution is being handled by Gravitas Ventures, with a theatrical release this fall. It will air on PBS’ Independent Lens series next year.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.
Read Jude Warne’s interview with Lawrence and the filmmakers here.