Documentary 'Peace Officer' looks at militarized police

IN THE documentary "Peace Officer," we see police storming a home where the surprised resident wields a golf club, moments before he's shot and killed.

The officer who fired said he thought the man might have been holding a sword.

The incident, like others that are typical of police work, exists on a deadly knife edge of uncertainty, where tragic events are bound to occur, as civilians understand.

With that in mind, many Americans have traditionally granted police significant leeway doing their jobs, especially those of us raised on "Blue Knight" images of veteran officers dispensing justice with Solomon-like wisdom and skill.

That has changed with the rise of cellphone/dashcam/bodycam video (like the horrifying images in "Peace Officer") and their unfiltered circulation on social media - the sudden ubiquity of footage showing police aggression/misconduct have changed public perception about the tactics of law enforcement, generally not for the better.

This has caused a wary estrangement between many citizens and police, creating the need for a savvy arbiter with a view to both camps. We may have found him in "Peace Officer."

He's Utah lawman Dub Lawrence, who helped create a Special Weapon and Tactics team (then a novelty) when elected sheriff back in the 1970s.

"Peace Officer" shows how the retired Lawrence went on to conduct a series of investigations into incidents of excessive force in his home state of Utah, investigations that filmmakers Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber complement with national statistics pointing to a 1,500 percent rise in SWAT team deployment since 1980.

Lawrence and other sources assert in "Peace Officer" that aggressive policing (departments often use army surplus vehicles and equipment) increased with the advancement of the war on drugs.

Dangerous tactics have evolved as the war has intensified - plainclothes officer executing "no-knock" warrants in the middle of the night, leading to chaotic often fatal encounters (deadly to both civilians and police).

Lawrence sees militarized police units using force in situations that often do not require it. One horrific shootout referenced here involves an arrest over a few pot plants in a basement greenhouse.

Lawrence is persuasive, and well-liked by the camera - folksy, shrewd, meticulous, decent. He comes from a law enforcement family, is descended from men wounded in the line of duty, and his insider's critique of policing carries great weight.

As do his conclusions: If we spent as much time and money training officers to de-escalate police/civilian encounters as we do on SWAT teams and armored vehicles, we'd all be safer.