Most of the recent publicly traded outrage over police brutality has come in the context of violence against black Americans. And that’s needed. Statistics bear out the idea that minorities face legal discrimination. But it does make it a little funny when a movie about the militarization of police forces show the perspective of exclusively white protagonists. Don’t hold that against Peace Officer, however; it takes place in Utah, where (according to stats quoted by the directors) African Americans make up less than 2% of the population, and all the stories it pursues are ones directly linked to former sheriff “Dub” Lawrence. Dub is in the unique and unfortunate position of having created the very SWAT division that, 30 years later, gunned down his son-in-law.
In one sense, Peace Officer isn’t bringing up anything new. News stories about the militarization of police and public movements about police wrongdoing have been commonplace in the last six months, if not the last few years. Still, in a movie that offers this person and detailed a look at these same issues, it’s hard to count that against Peace Officer.
Probably the most chilling story from Peace Officer wasn’t even one of the cases that the movie focused on (not that it should have – this was a pretty open and shut story, as opposed to the preponderance of ambiguities presented in several others). It was a case of mistaken identity. Police – without, it seems, adequately announcing themselves or their purpose, raided the home of a man named Erik, seeking to arrest him for military desertion. Trouble is, Erik had never been in the military, and the police kept insisting his name was Derek. Erik’s wife and kids were also home when he answered the door with a baseball bat (it was late at night when the police came to serve the search warrant) and – here’s the really chilling part – after the mixup had been resolved and the police were leaving, one officer casually remarked that it was lucky he answered with the bat and not with one of his guns, or he’d have been shot. Erik told the directors the only reason he didn’t have his shotgun was because he didn’t want to scare his daughter any more than she already was from the loud banging at the front door late at night. Erik was on his own property, hadn’t committed a crime, and wasn’t even the person the police were looking for, yet if he’d legally answered a potentially threatening inquiry at his front door with a gun in his hand, he’d have been killed by police.
This incident had nothing to do with drugs, but beyond the improper use of force among the police, the relationship between SWAT and drugs was a compelling subplot. One of the key stories the doc investigates involves a shootout with police that left an officer dead when a man growing pot in his basement thought his home was being invaded, not that he was being served a search warrant. The doc tracks the remarkable rise of SWAT usage over the last 30 to 40 years, and a lot of it has to do with raid-style service of warrants related to drug use.
Peace Officer won the Grand Jury Documentary award here at SXSW, and it’s easy to see why. This is a timely doc, but moreover a very well-made one that is fair to everyone involved, and has received nothing but rave reviews from everyone I’ve spoken to here at the fest. I believe it’s still looking for distribution, but I’m betting this one’s going to end up on a top VOD distributor very soon.