Hot Docs 2015: Peace Officer

Peace Officer 2
Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s new movie, Peace Officer, is nothing if not timely. The documentary takes a harrowing look at the increasing militarization of the police and the devastating effects of excessive police force. The story is predominantly related to the United States (and, indeed, seems painfully relevant in light of the recent examples of police brutality and the Ferguson and Baltimore riots) but even as someone who is not American, I found Peace Officer completely gripping and eye-opening.

The central figure of Peace Officer is William “Dub” Lawrence, an impossibly all-American former sheriff from Utah. Dub, as we learn, actually implemented Utah’s first SWAT team during his time as sheriff, and in an all-too-cinematic twist of fate, that same unit was responsible for killing Dub’s son-in-law some 30 years later. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Dub began a borderline-obsessive search for what happened on the day of his son-in-law’s death. (And as Dub and the directors gleefully point out, he’s far more thorough in his crime scene sleuthing than the police department was.) He also extends his services to other families in the area who have experienced similar violence. And there, we have our movie.

One thing Peace Officer is not is subtle. The bias of the directors is clear and they make no real effort to hide it. That said, they give the “other side” (read: the law enforcement officials) their chance to speak up. (However, the film’s “this-person-declined-to-comment” title cards may be more damning than any actual interview would have been.) And though filmmakers’ stance is clear, I appreciated the fact that for the most part they didn’t demonize the individual police officers; the film’s general perspective seems to be that it is more of a systemic problem, which is a far more interesting and complex issue to explore than the alternative, reductionist “cops are mean” style of argument.

And indeed, some of the information the movie presents is jaw-dropping. The type of equipment these SWAT teams are armed with is insane, as are the figures about the rising use of SWAT teams in general. And as we follow along with Dub’s journey and watch him piece together what likely happened in these deadly incidents of police force, it’s hard not to be moved.

Police brutality is a large, complex matter and even at nearly two hours long, the movie doesn’t feel like a definitive look at everything at play. Then again, it also doesn’t really need to be. It barely gets into the matter of race (though the “talking head” interview subjects do thankfully mention it). This is probably partly because the film only examined specific Utah-based incidents and partly because racial profiling is an issue in desperate need of its own thorough documentary.

Dub’s crime scene examinations often play out like a Hollywood thriller. Because of this and because of the harrowing nature of the stories it tells, Peace Office is actually one of the most intense movie-watching experiences I’ve had recently. It’s a straight-ahead style of documentary, yes, but Peace Officer proves that sometimes all you need is the meat-and-potato facts to tell an effective, affecting story.

9/10

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